Legendary engineer George Heilmeier came up with a set of questions to help program managers evaluate proposals while he was director of DARPA (1975-1977):
- What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
- How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
- What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
- Who cares? If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
- What are the risks ?
- How much will it cost?
- How long will it take?
- What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?
This list is still used today. I most often see this list in presentations by National Science Foundation program officers who are interested in helping researchers write competitive proposals.
I love this list.
This list has stood the test of time because it’s a great list. I find questions #2 and #4 to be particularly helpful. I do so because my first inclination is to talk about why my research is interesting and exciting to me. I wouldn’t start research in a new area unless the topic were interesting and unless my skill set were brought something to the table. Being excited about my interesting research is not sufficient for giving a good answer to #2 and #4. Not all research that is “interesting” is also “important.”
When I write with my students, we talk about how we need to answer #1-#4 in the paper, although we answer slightly different versions of the questions since the research has already been successful if we are publishing the results.
I once summarized how to answer an abridged version of the Heilmeier questions in the first couple minutes of a thesis defense. When a student did so, it made for a memorable defense (in a good way!) and I tweeted about it.
- The 30 most important seconds of your dissertation defense
- If a mathematical model is solved in a forest and a decision-maker is not around to see it, does it have any impact?
- Do you have a 30 second elevator talk about your research?