Heilmeier’s catechism: not all research that is “interesting” is also “important”

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):

  1. What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  2. How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  3. What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  4. Who cares? If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  5. What are the risks ?
  6. How much will it cost?
  7. How long will it take?
  8. 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.

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