The language of research proposals.

Suppose you want to do some research in the UK.  To do that, you get an idea and check that no one has ever done the experiment before.  Then to actually do the research, you need some money.  To get that, you need to explain how it fits in with theoretical ideas and how it might answer some unresolved question.  How it might advance science, even how it might benefit civilization in a broader sense.  OK.   That all is reasonable  (though it can be quite a bit of work).  But, then you run into this question on the application form for a research grant (2009 applications for all UK Research Councils):

What research and professional skills will staff working on the project develop which they could apply in all employment sectors?

This question is really quite vague and ambiguous, but vague or not,  it is going to have a role in deciding whether your grant application gets funded.  More broadly, it will help decide which research gets done and who gets employed, so it’s an important question.  So, let’s look at the question more carefully.

You can parse the question this way:

What research and professional skills will staff working on the project develop…

What skills will staff develop…

“Research and professional” is just a modifier for “skills”.  It just means that they don’t care about all skills, only those skills that are “research and professional.”   This combination seems is a bit odd if you try to break it down further: “research skills” are the skills that researchers use.  I know about them: they range from logical analysis, to writing essays, to parsing obscure sentences, to programming computers, to the ability to read scientific papers, to designing experiments, to advertising techniques for attracting subjects to your experiment, et cetera.

Probably, by “professional skills”, they mean: the kind of skills that use use to make your living through white collar employment.  Jobs that are indoor, don’t involve heavy lifting, well-paid, and generally are the kind of jobs you want your kids to have.  This fits in with the whole tenor of the question.   Nearby, it asks “Explain how the research has the potential to impact on the nation’s health, wealth or culture,” so whoever wrote the questions probably was thinking about training people for good jobs.

The word “and” is also a little bit odd.   The best way to parse this clause is

research skills and professional skills

and treat it as either/or.    So we can brag about any skills we will acquire, so long as they are either related to research or the kind of skills that nice professional jobs need.   That’s an somewhat strange usage of the word “and” — it really means “or”, but it’s common enough to be standard.

Treating it as “and” doesn’t work because researchers are professionals.   So, all research skills are professional skills, and the “professional” part wouldn’t be necessary.

… specialized sophisticated skills, not the kind of stuff that everyone knows …

So far, so good.    But the real problem comes when we try to parse the end of the sentence:

What skills will staff develop which they could apply to all employment sectors?

OK.   Now, the the word “which” means the right side is yet another modifier.  It makes the question ask about a smaller set of skills.  We aren’t going to care about just any skills, but rather only those skills that “could apply to all employment sectors.”

The problem is, that there are very few (if any!) skills that apply to all jobs.  Consider a lorry driver, a neurosurgeon, and a waiter.  Each job needs certain skills, but other than basic motor skills and literacy, there isn’t a lot of overlap.   So, if I take the question literally, I should answer thus:

“Project staff will develop their reading skills.   Additionally, fine motor control will be developed by extensive typing practice.”

Somehow, I don’t think that would be quite right.   So, presumably they didn’t really mean “all jobs”.

Of course, I’m assuming that the sentence actually meant something to someone when it was written.  Realistically, it was probably written by a committee, and each member of the committee probably had their own idea of what they wanted to say.  The resulting words don’t necessarily capture anyone’s intent.   There’s some interesting philosophy here, probably.  I suppose I am trying to construct the meaning it would have had, if a single person had written it.

The question actually says “…all employment sectors.”  Sectors are vague  groupings of jobs.   There is probably a “health-care sector” into which doctors, nurses, computer programmers writing medical software, and medical lab technicians fall.  There is probably a “public services sector” which collects people as diverse as prime ministers, social service workers and government accountants.  And doubtless several more sectors.

So, perhaps we can interpret the question as asking about skills that you could find in at least one job in each sector?   That’d depend on exactly how you divvy up jobs into sectors.  If there are health-care accountants, public-sector accountants, transportation-sector accountants, et cetera, then accounting skills would certainly count: they’d be found in all sectors.

Unless all accountants are thought of as part of the financial sector, in which case accounting skills would not be found in “all employment sectors” — only in one.    So,  if all accountants are in the financial sector, we cannot count accounting skills.

Really, the closest thing to a meaning that last clause has is “skills that are broadly applicable.”   So, following these words, we probably cannot brag about specialized research skills.   That’s a shame.  You could be best in the world at something difficult and important, but instead, you have to brag about how well you can teach someone to type.  If you take this part seriously, you should probably talk about your staff learning generic administrative skills, writing skills, or maybe accounting.

…that are applicable to many jobs.

It seems that the left half of the sentence is largely inconsistent with the right half.  The left half asks for specialized skills (“research” and “professional”), and the right half asks for skills that are broadly applicable (“all employment sectors”).

What skills will your staff develop that are (a)  specialized and sophisticated, not the kind of stuff that everyone knows, and (b) applicable to many jobs.

The trouble is, that broadly applicable skills tend to be the stuff that everyone knows.  This tends to happen because if a skill is useful in many jobs, lots of people will learn it.

As a result, answers will be vague and fuzzy.   People will do the best to hide and ignore the contradictions.    And, the poor reviewers who have to read our answers will get confused and make arbitrary judgements.   Or, hopefully, they will let their eyes glaze over, vaguely nod, ignore our answers and go on to the rest of the proposal.