Making science (part IV): Good science, good writing

Can a good scientist be a bad writer? The answer, in my opinion, is nope. Here is the story.

The registrator office at the Karolinska Institute has recently received a request to release the full texts of several of their successful grant applications to the European Research Council (ERC) as well as the texts of their respective evaluations and referee comments. ERC grants are both generous and prestigious awards that have come symbolize the success of the European scientific elite. Under Swedish freedom of information legislation, the Karolinska Institute -which is ultimately under state jurisdiction- is obliged to release these documents, as astonishing as this may sound. (A topic that surely deserves a post of its own.) Needless to say, such a request has come down as nothing short of controversial among the scientists involved, since grant applications contain unpublished data and detailed confidential information about their future research programs. Who could have made such a preposterous request?

As it turned out, the request came from an employee from the grants office of a provincial high school (recently upgraded to the rank of university) located south of Stockholm known as Mälardalenshögskola (MDH). As the story goes, school authorities reasoned that their scientists could learn how to write successful grant applications by looking at successful proposals written by scientists from a high-profile university such as KI. Apart from the fact that MDH has not been known to have a program in biomedicine, let alone any significant biomedical research, the idea that someone could succeed with a grant proposal by simply copying another one is at best controversial and at worst utterly naive.

A successful grant proposal is invariably centered around a good idea. And good ideas come from good scientists, who also happen to write well. So MDH authorities would do better by focusing on the quality of their scientists than on imitating already funded applications. Good science requires analytic capacity, the ability to formulate ideas clearly and logically. In a grant application, as in any scientific text, analytic power and logical reasoning help taking the reader from what is known to what is unknown in a systematic fashion, what to do in order to reveal the unknown and why should one do it. These are attributes inherent to science making, not special faculties restricted to good writers. A good scientist knows how to be analytic, systematic and how to formulate research, its part of the job description. If you are a good scientist, you also know how to write well, it comes in a package. Imitating the writings of others does not help.

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