Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Letter to a European Research Council referee

Dear motherfuc referee,

Thanks very much for your insightful comments. Below I discuss some of your deep observations.

Ground-breaking nature and potential impact of the research project: 
Multidisciplinary proposal. The physics part is rather weak in terms of possible achievements and originality.

I see that you managed to summarize your opinion about my five-page project synopsis in just one line. You must be exhausted. Other referees would have copied one or two sentences from the abstract just to give the impression that they actually read the proposal. But you’re right: why pretend? Actually, why did you bother writing anything at all? Next time, send a disgusted emoticon, “unfollow” my proposal, or just type: “GRAAAAAHHH!” in order to express your “pondered opinion” about my work.

The I-spit-on-your-ERC-proposal emoticon, soon in 90% of all ERC evaluation reports.
Yes, my friend, mine is a multidisciplinary proposal. The goal is to develop a computational framework to reason about infinity in quantum mechanics. I’m sure that every day you evaluate hundreds (or millions!) of proposals just like mine, and that’s why you didn’t regard it as original as, say, entanglement detection or quantum simulations with an ion trap. It is certainly not as original as texting an ERC referee report from your iPhone while driving over postdocs in the park, as you plainly do during working hours.

You write that"the physics part is rather weak in terms of possible achievements". I see. For you, demonstrating experimentally that the world is infinite-dimensional is a weak achievement. Let me ask you: what qualifies as a strong achievement? Building a time machine? Attaining immortality? Typing a ten-line report with your penis?

Principal Investigator
To what extent has the PI demonstrated the ability to propose and conduct groundbreaking research? Very good.
To what extent does the PI provide evidence of creative independent thinking? Very good.
To what extent have the achievements of the PI typically gone beyond the state of the art? Very good.

Comments (Optional for reviewers)
Average past performance and impact.

According to the applicant's guide, “very good” is just one grade above being declared “not competent”. Geez, pal, thanks a lot for not recommending the ERC to lock me in a mental institution!

I find your scores very surprising, though, because I would have thought that my work on the characterization of quantum correlations was groundbreaking at the t... but, oh, my God! I forgot that Toni Acín, my PhD advisor, also signed that paper!!! It is obvious that Toni proposed the project, conducted the research and wrote the paper single-handedly; then he put me as first author because I sodomized him brought him coffee. So you’re right, that paper doesn’t prove anything.

How about the rest of the achievements that I summarized in the Achievements section* of my CV? There you can find many instances of creative, independent work, and… ah, you didn’t read it.

My fault: I should have placed a picture of a crucified postdoc in order to get your attention. Besides, if my achievements were so advanced, surely one of them would have acquired self-consciousness, escaped from the CV and tried to contact you. Nothing like that happened, unless at that precise moment you were too busy sculpting jars with postdoc skulls, so that you can drink their blood and live forever.

*Judging from the referee reports, the Achievements Section is a goblin-like mythological creature that lives at the end of my CV and no ERC referee can see.

You might think that I’m being a bit harsh on you, my dear referee. But you must understand. Right after screwing someone’s scientific career with pearls like: “average past performance and impact”, you should at least have the decency to discuss the applicant’s past achievements and argue why they are “average”. Could it be, my dear referee, that you just went through my publications, saw that they didn't have many citations and concluded that my work was “average”?

Then answer this, you vile amoeba! How many citations did John Bell's 1964 paper have for the first ten years? How many citations did Werner’s paper on local entangled states gather between 1989 and 1995? How many citations did the BB84 paper have in 1993? Do you, in your stupid, simplified and self-complacent view of the world, believe that all these papers were lame until year 2000, when they –all of a sudden- became breakthroughs?

“Oh!”, you could say (though in your case I bet it’d sound more like: “HEEHAW!”), “but nowadays quantum information is a well established field! What is your excuse to get so few references?”.

It is ridiculous to put all QI scientists in the same lot: if you don’t know this, you shouldn’t be a referee for the ERC. QI has different subfields, and average citation numbers vary widely between them. Foundations-related research does not get many citations because the community is small and fragmented. It’s not like in quantum computer science, where every year the whole community works on essentially five different problems and any progress whatsoever gets highly cited.

“But even in nonlocality some people get a lot of citations. Why can’t you be like them?”

As you perfectly know, nowadays papers are rarely cited to acknowledge inspiration or to invoke mathematical results: they mainly get referenced at the introduction of other papers, whose authors want to convince journal editors that “our topic is very interesting, because all these other people have worked on vaguely related stuff”. So, in order to be cited at an intro, your result must fit perfectly in a well-established paradigm and be twitter-like, that is, summarizable in a few words which, if possible, should rhyme and make a catchy tune (e.g.: “nana nana nana nanaaa... discord!”). Everything else, like novel topics or deep results, is excluded.

For most of my career, I’ve been trying to conduct original research. Now I’m paying the price. Shall I get specific? I love this paper, but, for my life, I cannot imagine anyone citing it in a near future. My paper on the characterization of quantum nonlocality (which, I admit, is not extremely original) hardly had any citations three years after its publication. And my 2009 paper on macroscopic locality started getting citations last year. Why? Because people (finally!) started citing it at intros along with the information causality paper.

“Wait a moment. Not all original works take time to find recognition. Special relativity was successful from the very beginning!”

Exactly: special relativity was not original, even Einstein admitted it. This may surprise you, after how much this word has been devaluated by funding agencies, but not all important discoveries need be original. Think of the finite quantum de Finetti theorem, or the non-additivity of the classical capacity! Do you want more examples? Antiretroviral therapy, global warming, the standard model of particle physics.

Conclusion (this is for you, rats; the referee must have stopped reading a while ago)

ERC is very much like any other grant: it is targeted to individuals with a strong citation record that hints extreme popularity, and to projects which, no matter the outcome, contribute to enhance the candidate’s publication statistics.

Contrarily to institutional propaganda, ERC is not targeted to independent, creative scientists with high risk/high gain, original projects. Even to the average EU bureau-cretin it must be evident that you cannot estimate independence and creativity if you refuse to read the abstract of a single paper of the applicant. As for proposal reviewing, having referees like the android above evaluating originality is like having Alanis Morissette evaluating irony. So let's throw them all to a volcano and start the selection process again: this time we'll ask them to write a poem before trusting their views on whatever the hell they believe creativity is.

Let me finish with this prophecy: ERC-funded theoretical projects will never be high-risk. Why? Because, like with any other grant, you’re expected to specify… -gasp- … every single step … aargh…  of your research program… aarrrghh … in the BLOODY 5-PAGE SYNOPSIIIIIIIIIIIS!! AAAARRRRGHHHH!!! HULK VERY ANGRY!! WICKED ROBO-REFEREE HURT HULK!!! HULK SMASH AND BASH!!! GRRROOOAAAARRRR!!!


When I was a teenage-mutant-ninja-rat, my literature teacher surprised us one morning by announcing an advertising contest. The students had to pretend that they lived in the 17th century and design a poster announcing the second part of Don Quixote. The most original and creative posters would be exhibited!!

My classmates and I were puzzled: the teacher was a control freak, and giving us artistic freedom was completely out of character. Nevertheless, I gave it my best shot: I wrote a humorous pamphlet about Cervantes’ second part of Quixote parodying a “Hello!” magazine front cover.

Not only I didn’t win the contest, but got severely reprimanded by my teacher. She wrote over my poster: “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?” and gave me a bad mark.

Later that day, a classmate asked why I looked so grumpy.

I said: “I spent a whole evening coming up with ingenious ideas for that homework, and the teacher doesn’t even think it’s original!”.

My friend smiled. “Miguel”, she said, “have a look at the winning posters”.

I did. The posters were exhibited in the class’ announcing board. There they were: the six of them in all their glory.

One showed a picture of Don Quixote, trotting away on his horse. The poster read: “Reject imitations! Buy yourself a copy of the actual second part of Don Quixote!”. The author of the poster was making reference to Fernández de Avellaneda’s apocryphal sequel of the adventures of Don Quixote.

Now, I don’t need to describe you the rest of the winning posters.

Because the other five said exactly the same.

Yours faithfully,

Schroedinger’s rat


  1. You are trying to make an honest living within a Mafia. Isn't that a contradiction? On top of that, this letter to the ERC violates their Omerta. So good luck, you are going to need it.

    For your own good, I think you should try something different (eg, work for Wall Street, or become a high school teacher or start a scientific company (maybe even a D-Wave competitor) or write software, or become an inventor)

    1. Are you aware of what you're suggesting - to leave academia? Another one brilliant young researcher to leave science? Hell, no. A few monthsa ago i was told by a young Ph.D in quantum phase transitions field that he'd left the academia. And a pile of ERC-eligible grant-holders cannot be stopped to grow...

    2. peragenious, you are just a typical Mafia member. When put in front of a jury to answer for your crimes, you deny that the Mafia even exists. You point out that you go to mass every Sunday.

    3. Dear Anonymous,

      maybe you're out of academia and so not aware of the fact that some brilliant young people leave academia. Just imagine the outcome if put to the extreme--that's what i'm addressing.

  2. A contradiction is what ERC is demanding: results which are original and creative and, at the same time, have an immediate impact in terms of citations. I'm sorry, ERC, but that doesn't exist. You have to choose: either one or the other. And it seems that your referees have already chosen for you.

    Thanks for the career suggestions, Anonymous, I'll honestly think about them. God knows I'm starting to get tired of academia...

    1. I just became full professor after 22 years of misery following my Ph.D. If you are young, I suggest you just forget about academia, it is no longer worth it. The people you admired when you were young are dead or marginalised. Today its all about networking (=mafia), so unless you are already somebodies darling, I suggest to go for better paid jobs. Wall street pays their criminals far better.

  3. The report is unprofessional and hopefully not indicative of the average quality of ERC reports so I feel sorry to be in your shoes, this must be disappointing. This said, arrogance will not bring you far. Learn from your mistakes instead of bashing against everybody. If you don't get in a high impact journal or if you don't win a high competitive grant you should not do as the fox with the grapes. What happens if tomorrow you get a paper in Nature or Nature Communications, would you withdraw your "ScienceAdvisor" review of the PNAS hotel? Less hypocrisy, more humility, or you will become victim of your own caricature. That's just a simple advice from a colleague. All this said, you should have written the ERC on almost quantum. To me, it sounded like the perfect idea for this kind of scheme, with a higher change of fundability than the infinity one you mention (assuming I get what it means).

    1. I don't see what the Fox and the Grapes fable has to do with my situation: I'm not claiming that I don't want to win an ERC grant (I still do!), or that I won't apply again. All I say is that the criteria they use to assess excellence is absurd. My mistake was to believe that the ERC grant was somehow "different" or "special", as so many people had promised.

      In other grant applications, I have received very positive feedback from the referees, also for the wrong reasons: "the candidate is very good; he has many publications in PRL". Although true, I don't take that as a compliment: any idiot can have a lot of PRLs (and, incidentally, any idiot can count the number of PRLs). I'd rather have a referee who really looked at my work and made a subjective (yes, subjective!) judgement, even if not that positive. That has only happened to me once -and not in this grant.

      Other things:

      1) I'll never withdraw the PNAS hotel post, because it states the TRUTH: papers are regularly rejected by journal editors for no scientific reason. This is not going to change because I publish in Nature Communications; that would only evidence my good luck.

      2) I did think of writing an application about the almost quantum set (whose original paper, by the way, didn't pass the editors of Nat. Phys.). Unfortunately, the paper is still not published and I can't sketch a five-year project methodology when I haven't the slightest idea of how to obtain a reasonable almost quantum theory. Writing: "I'll sit on my desk and, from time to time, go out for long walks until I arrive at the right theory" is not good enough (even though that's exactly what I'm currently doing).

    2. Whatever personal career advice Miguel should follow (and you may be right), the fact of the matter is that grants take a huge amount of time (of submitters, reviewers, and panels) and the decisions are prone to a lot of randomness. It isn't good for science that younger scientists have to spend so much time on a process that is always going to be noisy, being forced to become marketing specialists as they try to make it to a permanent position. Maybe you are right that Miguel could be less abrasive, but I don't think that he is being as arrogant as the journals and funding bodies who constantly project the idea that they publish and fund "only" the best. In the interests of science and the taxpayer the community should be a little more honest about what these institutions actually achieve. The problem is that we are too enslaved to seeking their approval to be able to criticise what that approval actually means.

  4. The comment from "Anonymous 6 August 2014 21:21"
    sounds like the earnest advice of an American Southern plantation owner from the 1830's to his blakie

  5. Hi Miguel,

    only a couple of comments:

    1) I feel your pain: unfortunately the refereeing process can be quite random. I think we all have been lucky at times and unlucky at other times. You and your research deserve better than this

    2) the ERC grant corresponds to a big investment of tax-payer money (as they say). The assessment of the high risk / high return feature of the research proposal is very delicate and highly subjective, and done in comparison with other proposals. You can only do so much after you have decided the topic, but you must make clear also to a _non-specialist_ that if your project was successful the payoff would be significant, in one way or another. It is obvious that applications (however direct or indirect) are a huge plus. If there are no obvious killer applications, then it should be that the proposed research will, let us say, change our understanding of the world (and maybe open a path to future unforeseen applications...) Remember that you are competing with people who offer new ways to cure cancer, or understand the brain, or find the ultimate laws of physics, or share more pictures on Facebook :-)

    3) you have called "shit" a lot of research, providing some, but limited, justification for that judgement. I understand that you were conveying your honest personal assessment. I'd say that a "very good" is better :-)

    4) my personal feeling is that you are doing very well: you are an excellent researcher. I still remember when Tony, during a presentation, reported that you had killed an idea they had had, and said, more or less literally: "you think that you are smart, but there is always someone smarter than you". The latter was you.

    5) science has a social aspect to it, and institutions (like universities) have a tendency to play safe, especially for things like permanent jobs, and, perhaps, big grants. The comment by Anonymous 6 August 2014 21:21, as well as this very comment, tell you that people like your research, and would like to see you successful, but they may feel uneasy about the tone you sometimes use. While I am happy that you speak the TRUTH :-) , and that you are your true self, remember that there are several ways to convey that very same truth. Is the way you convey the TRUTH the best? If you publish it online, I guess it means that you want it to spread, spur discussion, and lead to some changes. Could your posts be more effective if written differently? Of course, you might just want to let some steam off, and/or have fun :-)

    Anyway, good luck, and hope to see you soon. Ciao!

    1. Hi Marco,

      Thanks for the condolences (and the compliments!).

      >3) you have called "shit" a lot of research, providing some, but limited,
      >justification for that judgement.

      Excuse me? Some of my posts are longer than the papers I criticize in them!

      >I'd say that a "very good" is better :-)

      In ERC language, "very good" is a euphemism for "shit".

      >Of course, you might just want to let some steam off, and/or have fun :-)

      I confess that the reasons why I wrote this post (which, to my knowledge, is the only open criticism to the ERC in the blogosphere) were mainly therapeutic: there are no arcades in Barcelona where I can play "dance dance revolution" to vent my anger!


  6. Marco sounds like he cares a lot for you. He is trying to explain to you the laws of Omerta. But be careful, because he also sounds like he is a good Mafia lieutenant and if the orders come from above to wack you off, he'll do it without a moments hesitation.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. What I mean is, I think it is awful that you hide behind anonymity to insult Marco and call it mafioso. I hope you are ashamed!

  7. Hi Anonymous 7 August 2014 14:28,

    you are right: I do care about Miguel because he is brilliant, funny, and an excellent researcher.

    I am afraid I chose a different career path than mafioso, and I can only make offers and suggestions that people can refuse :-)

    I would actually offer you a granita when I see you, but unfortunately I do not know who you are and I cannot afford to pay granitas for all the anonymous commenters on the internet. So, a "ciao" will have to suffice, after which I will go to eat my warm pizza, just taken out of the oven.



  8. Buon appetito Marco!

  9. Dear Miguel,

    the meaning of 'science' so dear to you (and to me!) is the past. For a couple of years i used to receive invitations (from a EU granted project leaders) to take a part [can you believe?] in breeding new sorts of potatoes and the leading institution was in Germany. In Germany! After ... Planck, Schrodinger, Born, Heisenberg, Einstein... they realized that science lies - in potato.
    Just embrace patience and go ahead.

    Good luck!

    1. In addition

      Doing original research, especially in foundations, has it's price. Here is a quote from H.D. Zeh's "Roots and Fruits of Decoherence" :

      In contrast to a macroscopic body, a nucleus in an energy eigenstate represents a closed quantum “universe”. However, it was
      absolutely impossible at that time to discuss these ideas with colleagues, or even to publish them. An influential Heidelberg Nobel prize winner frankly informed me that any further activities on this subject would end my academic career!

  10. Thanks for sharing this great article! That is very interesting I love reading and I am always searching for informative information like this.
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  11. Impressive! Really. It would be even more tasteful with the right soundtrack!

  12. Rat...7 months have passed. What Happened? Too busy? No more ideas? Somebody gave you a permanent position at the condition you don't post any longer? :) Just teasing you. You are my favorite rodent. We all love the blog (well, maybe not exactly all, but I do). We want more!!!

    1. the Rat got checked in at the PNAS hotel with a work on quantum foundations. I guess the blog's big bluff is finally exposed.

    2. No, man. Are you saying that the Rat made all this fuss just to get a Nature paper? The other way to PNAS hotel is way easier. Rat, there are people out here still believing in you. I have seen them. Don't disappoint them.

    3. Looks like he's got a new job in Turkey:

      Oh, and he managed to get a paper into Nature Communications, which has a higher impact factor than PNAS ...

    4. I am Anonymous4 March 2015 at 02:16, Anonymous6 March 2015 at 14:55 and Anonymous6 March 2015 at 14:57 (below).

      Ok, I didn't know that. So, you are saying that the rat got retired in his hole and he's not coming out anymore? What do you think of that, Rat? Did you really used us all, hypnotised us all with "the truth about quantum information" just to get checked in in PNAS hotel? Is that what you did? That would be so disappointing.

      But, again, I'm just teasing you. I don't think that's the truth. I think you were genuine when you started, and that's why we all loved you (again, not exactly all, but nevermind). But now you have got soft, you are not the rat you used to be before. I understand, don't worry. I guess it takes already enough courage to start a blog like this (courage I'm not sure I would have). But to continue now, it takes even more.

      And just a word for all the "rat's enemies" (I know there are many out there, I've seen them too :) ). I might understand your wrath, but I think you should at very least acknowledge the rat's courage.

      See ya, rat. It was fun till it last :) I really mean that.

    5. Hi rats,

      You are all wrong.

      I will start by disappointing Anonymous March 5th, 7:33: no, I didn't start the blog to get a paper in Nature Communications. The experience with Nat. Comm. was very interesting though, so I’ll give a brief account:

      The result was a contributed talk in QIP’14; that was long before we put the paper in arxiv. By the time we did, the majority of the community of quantum nonlocality already knew about the “almost quantum set”. But we still had to decide where to publish it.

      One of my co-authors proposed to submit it to Nature. I said “no” in a tone that admitted no discussion. Long ago I vowed never to submit a paper to Nature again, and so far I have kept my promise.

      I did agree nonetheless to submit it to Nat. Phys. They had just published a piece by Sandu Popescu on quantum nonlocality. Moreover, an editor had already expressed his interest in the result.

      For the submission, we had to subject the arxiv version of the paper to an extraordinary number of cosmetic changes. This took a lot of work and time, and I was not particularly happy with the outcome: the new version looked like an advertising pamphlet.

      We decided that Toni Acín should handle all communications with the editor. That turned out to be a very good idea, because, when the editor finally replied: “come to think of it, I’m not passing your submission to referees”, I would have told him what he could do exactly with our submission.

      And so we ended up in Nat. Comm. Once more, we had to rewrite the paper to accommodate it to the new format. This time, the paper passed the editor and was sent to referees. We had to add new paragraphs to cite vaguely related work by one of the referees. We had to convince another one that “refuting quantum mechanics” is perhaps too demanding a requirement to be considered for publication in Nat. Comm. We then had to “apologize” to the latter referee because we hurt his/her feelings (we’re still confused about this).

      Has my opinion about Nature (Phys.) (Comm.) changed after this experience? No. Actually, I’d rather had the paper published in PRL: it would have appeared earlier, in scientific format (where the identity operator does not look like a Doric column) and referees wouldn’t have been so intrusive.

    6. Now, let’s talk about this blog.

      Although I never thought I was doing something wicked or immoral, I will admit that I was very, very scared to publish the first blog posts. I was afraid because I was entering an unexplored territory. I was tearing down fancy journals. I was ridiculing whole research lines. I was pointing fingers, naming names and -at last, at last- I was speaking my mind.

      God, it felt so good.

      That compensated everything else.

      Contrary to what people generally think, I doubt that my activities in the blogosphere have harmed my scientific career at all. If anything, they have given more visibility to some of my publications. Yes, I earned some enemies. But a lot of friends, too.

      Could I have problems with my current employer if I kept writing posts? I doubt it. Nobody in my department cares about quantum information theory, or, for the matter, internet blogs. Actually, I believe that just a few grad students know about the existence of “Schroedinger’s rat”. As long as I don’t insult Atatürk -and luckily he never wrote a paper on QI-, I think I’m safe.

      What I’m trying to say is that I'm not scared to write more blog posts.

      I'm just bored.

      I have already written about the effect of high impact journals in science (twice!), about the stupid criteria used by funding agencies (twice!), about quantum discord, about pointless experiments, about the main problems of quantum foundations.

      I have nothing else to add to these matters. If any of you has a suggestion for a new topic, please write to me and I will study it. Otherwise, I’m not going to repeat what I already said months or years ago.

      Does that mean that I won’t write again? Hell, no.

      When I started this blog, it was with the idea that I should be merciless with bad science, but not with bad scientists. I never intended to get personal and insult or criticize the people involved. Sometimes I failed (see this post).

      But there are big problems that I can’t explore within that format. E.g.: how can I speak about academic endogamy without criticizing the whole career of a successful candidate (who is otherwise innocent, since he/she had no part in the selection process)? How can I question certain funding decisions/scientific prizes without undermining all the academic merits of the grant holders? These are not hypothetical questions: these are blog posts that I never published because I didn’t find a way to “depersonalize” them.

      Moreover, in these situations, what good could my posts possibly do? The way to tackle bad funding policies or endogamy is not to try to “convince” grant committees to do their damned job and consider the scientific contributions of each applicant (and not the h-index), or to “kindly ask” Spanish universities not to give all the bloody tenures to their publication-less teaching assistants.

      No. To really change things one must target the source of the money: the science ministry, the European Union and, ultimately, the society.

      With a colleague of mine, I recently started a new project. We call it “the wonderful world of scientific research”. It will have the format of a novel, it is oriented to a general public and in it we hope to expose the main problems which threaten both science and scientists. It will be a work of fiction, but based on real experiences. We don't indent to sweeten the stories or downplay the big issues. This won't be the Big Bang Theory. We will be implacable.

      And the world will hear about the Rat again!

      Yours faithfully,

      Schroedinger’s Rat

    7. Rat, you should give to this comment the dignity of a post...

    8. all this blabla to say you are really jealous you didn't win the ERC but you don't have the guts to criticise someone who got it but in your narrow mind did not deserve it. get down from the pedestal.

    9. Actually, one of my biggest frustrations is my inability to write a post about scientific prizes: in the last years I have interviewed a lot of people about this topic, and I have discovered really serious stuff. All my material is unpublishable, though, because in all the cases that I investigated the beneficiaries were unaware (to my best knowledge) of all the intrigues behind the award.

      About the ERC: I think that this post and my subsequent comments express my views accurately (and fully). Honestly, I have nothing else to add to this matter.

      However, Anonymous 19 March, 19:14, you seem to have something in mind. So please tell me who you think I believe should not have gotten the ERC starting grant, and also reason why, according to my narrow mind. Ah! And this time don't forget to sign your comment.

    10. your narrow-mindedness refers to the fact that you believe you can assert which research lines lead nowhere. some of those research lines can lead to an ERC, who knows...

    11. The rat will probably comment that ERC leads nowhere, together with all the research it supports, and similar blabla

  13. The other way being the road to QIP, of course.

  14. Well, I (not relared to the other Anonymi) obviously cannot say anything about your proposal since I haven't seen it. It might be, however, that you misunderstood what the ERC means by "high risk/high gain". Viewed from the outside, everything in quantum information is high risk/high gain. Nobody knows whether any of the stuff we're doing will eventually contribute something meaningful to society one day. So, in this sense, quantum simulation with trapped ions is indeed high risk/high gain. And yes, you should be able to describe the methods you'll be using in the five-page summary. Do you seriously expect any funding agency to hand over up to €1.5M for students and postdocs on a vague belief that you know what to do with that amount of money?

    But as I said, I don't know enough about your proposal to come up with a detailed explanation why it failed. However, I can somewhat understand the statement about your track record as "average past performance". If all you can come up with is one single ground-breaking paper from almost a decade ago, then you have indeed a problem. Everybody applying for the ERC has at least that. Have you looked at the track record of quantum information people who actually got a grant (e.g., Norbert Schuch)? And by track record, I do not simply mean citations, but the way their works have shaped their fields and had a lasting impact.

    I agree with some of your criticism, i.e., the ERC overrating high-impact journals and dismissing too easily joint work with the PhD advisor. But I strongly doubt that your proposal failed just because of these factors.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      Let me address your comments one by one.

      “You misunderstood what the ERC means by "high risk/high gain". Viewed from the outside, everything in quantum information is high risk/high gain.”

      Aha. For me (and I guess for many others, too) a “high risk” research line is a project that, due to its extreme difficulty and novelty, will very likely fail to produce results, good or lame. I don’t know of a single awarded ERC grant that falls into this category. Do you?

      “Nobody knows whether any of the stuff we're doing will eventually contribute something meaningful to society one day.”

      I don’t call that “high risk”, I call it “basic research” (and I guess that many others, too). Incidentally, this is the only type of research that should be funded by the government. The private sector is not stupid: if something is actually applied, it will eventually be funded by a company.

      “So, in this sense, quantum simulation with trapped ions is indeed high risk/high gain.”

      I mentioned trapped ions speaking of originality (or lack thereof). Trapped ions were not original in 2003, when I started my PhD, and they are not original nowadays. As I explain in the post, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fund this kind of research: just don’t dare call it “original”. It offends me.

      “And yes, you should be able to describe the methods you'll be using in the five-page summary.”

      If you can explain in detail what you are going to do for the next five years in just five pages, congratulations. Me, I cannot summarize the principles of non-commutative polynomial optimization theory in five pages. Period.

      “Do you seriously expect any funding agency to hand over up to €1.5M for students and postdocs on a vague belief that you know what to do with that amount of money?”

      No. I expected them to trust the opinion of the expert reviewers, who (had I passed the first stage) would have read the full 15-page proposal, where I detailed several tentative research schemes to achieve my goals.

      Of course, those 15 pages were just guesses: because I haven’t actually carried out the research yet, I can’t possibly know if they will work out. But that’s where the part on “high risk” should have helped me out...

      “I don't know enough about your proposal to come up with a detailed explanation why it failed.”

      The main goal of my proposal was to devise an experiment whose outcomes cannot be understood within the framework of finite dimensional quantum mechanics. In other words: I wanted to prove the physical existence of infinity.

      Now, you may not think it possible, or you may not think me capable of accomplishing this enterprise. If, however, you have the balls to write in a referee report that this would be a "weak achievement", then you are either an idiot (who thinks that, e.g., only proposals related somehow to high temperature superconductivity should be funded) or corrupt (i.e., who only passes applications from his/her field).

      Do I think that the referee is idiotic or corrupt? No. I just think he/she’s an asshole who didn’t bothered reading my proposal.

    2. “If all you can come up with is one single ground-breaking paper from almost a decade ago, then you have indeed a problem.”

      I’ll assume that you don’t work in quantum nonlocality, and that’s why you’re not aware of my 2014 papers on self-testing and the almost quantum set, both of which I reported about in my ERC proposal. Regarding the former paper, I believe that devising a general tool to produce self-testing bounds four orders of magnitude better than any other bound in the literature is -objectively speaking- “beyond average”. And I did it without the help of my PhD advisor.

      In any case, what really pisses me off is the fact that my Achievements section contained paragraphs like:

      [...]my colleagues and I observed that, from multivariate macroscopic Gaussian distributions, one can make strong claims about the spectrum of the microscopic variables whose convolution generated the Gaussian variables in the first place. In spite of the extensive scrutiny that the central limit theorem has been subject to since its discovery (18th century), this basic aspect of it had been completely overlooked by the mathematical community. We not only point out this fact, but also derive a complete mathematical theory for the analysis of macroscopic Gaussian distributions.[...]

      I am referring to a paper published in 2013. In the above lines I am claiming that my co-authors and I noticed something that was on plain sight, but no one had actually realized in 300 years. If, in spite of this, the referee insists in calling my achievements “average”, I would have expected a short comment questioning this statement (at least one sentence!). But, of course, you can’t comment what you don’t read.

      “Have you looked at the track record of quantum information people who actually got a grant (e.g., Norbert Schuch)? And by track record, I do not simply mean citations, but the way their works have shaped their fields and had a lasting impact.”

      I don’t see the words “track record” anywhere in the report. The criteria that this referee was supposed to evaluate were: “groundbreaking research”, “creative and independent thinking” and “going beyond the state of the art”.

      Note that none of these actually refers to the impact of my research. I agree that so far my last works haven’t had the impact that the NPA hierarchy had. However, that doesn’t mean necessarily that none of them is groundbreaking, creative, etc. It may just mean that not that many people read my papers.

      Consider the article [B.S. Cirel'son, "Quantum generalizations of Bell's inequality." Lett. Math. Phys. 4:2, 93-100 (1980).]: this work contains the FIRST quantum Bell inequality. Nowadays, Tsirelson is acclaimed as the pioneer of quantum nonlocality, and his work is cited regularly. However...

      Eight years after its publication, this paper had only five citations. Actually, after 13 years of research, the Physics community hadn’t shown any interest on Tsirelson’s work: his work had had no impact whatsoever. And so Tsirelson left Physics for good…

      I understand him too well.

      Did Tsirelson’s first paper become original and groundbreaking with time? No. Tsirelson’s paper was original and groundbreaking the moment it left his desk. Precisely because it was so original and so groundbreaking, it took so much time for the Physics community to appreciate it –to produce impact-. Such is the usual course of events, that’s what the ERC doesn’t get.

      If you disagree, ask yourself: could Tsirelson have gotten an ERC grant back in 1993 (if the ERC had existed)? I sincerely doubt it.

      OK, I have written enough. Gosh, I didn’t know I still had so much anger inside! Thanks for your comment, Anonymous, because it has given me the chance to release some pressure.

      Yours faithfully,

      Schroedinger’s rat

  15. try again with the almost quantum line of research and learn to present yourself better and you might have a chance, but arrogance never pays. in your quoted paragraph i see lots of words and fail to see how they convey originality or creativity. use simpler sentences as you would write here, without the "shit" and stupidities and just state the facts. on top of all that i agree with the latest anonymous that objectively you have not had a field-shaping impact on the community, and i doubt you will reach Tsirelson's status in 10 years from now. Adieu.

    1. "try again with the almost quantum line of research and learn to present yourself better and you might have a chance, but arrogance never pays."

      So far, humility hasn't brought me anywhere, so I'll try being arrogant for a while. Besides, I'm very good at it!

      "in your quoted paragraph i see lots of words and fail to see how they convey originality or creativity. "

      The tragedy of my (scientific) life is that none of my favourite results can be summarized in one sentence (i.e., they don't have a "bumper sticker", as V. Scarani calls it). E.g.: how can you explain in ONE PARAGRAPH what self-testing is, and what my particular contribution to self-testing has been? -You just can't. Well,it's the same with my work on Gaussian statistics: in one paragraph I can just hint what the work was about. For a better explanation, read the introduction of my paper.

      Regarding originality, perceiving an immediate and relevant aspect of the central limit theorem that no one has ever noticed in 300 years of intense study is, by definition, original. If you don't agree, I encourage you to discuss with Merriam-Webster to change the definition of originality.

      "i doubt you will reach Tsirelson's status in 10 years from now. Adieu."

      Thank you, have a nice day. Er... ¿adiós?

    2. you cannot expect referees to go and read even more technical introductions of your papers if you cannot convey the importance of your own results. these projects are evaluated on the basis of what written in the 5 or 15 pages, and that's it. your failure cannot be someone else's fault always. one learns from failures, it is the best part of it.

    3. Dear Anonymous (seriously, no one is ever going to sign his/her comments in this blog?),

      Please, explain -in one paragraph, and without formulas- the spectral theorem for unbounded self-adjoint operators, keeping in mind that your readers may not know the concept of "matrix".

      Ah, you can't? Then it's your failure.

    4. I thought you just pretended to be funny but it seems you are indeed not that bright. ERC referees are researchers in physics, not necessarily experts in your own sub-sub-field, but certainly acquainted with the basics of maths. No ERC referee will be unfamiliar with the concept of matrix. If your strategy is to say that the referee is an idiot just because he does not think you are God, this is really sad. And sorry, sir, I don't have to explain anything to you. You don't set my challenges. I am not the one complaining about a flagship institution and its affiliates just because they don't give me a highly competitive grant. As it turns out, you are publicly sharing the news of your failure, and seeking sympathy. Welcome to the internet, and to real science, where opinions are debatable and all of them are respectable. My research highlights do not include the spectral theorem, so I am not called to explain it on this occasion (although I do to hundreds of second year undergrads who, in fact, are mostly unfamiliar with the concept of matrix quite disappointingly) with quite some success. This said, I find discussing with you very pathetic. Such a young promising guy already complaining like an old hag about this and that. What a waste. On top of that, you are not credible anymore as amply remarked above. What about a new post to get another chance of gratification by your adoring supporters?

    5. Dear Anonymous,

      It is a pity that this blog doesn’t have a door: you could have slammed it at the end of your monologue to build more dramatic effect!

      You seem to have some complaints about the quality of this discussion, so let me raise the level and start a parallel meta-discussion about how this debate is proceeding.

      In 1831 German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote “The art of being right”, where he collected all the dishonest tricks so frequently occurring in the course of an argument. I will use it as a reference to analyze your last comment and indicate me how to proceed in my reply.

      Your argument:

      “ERC referees are researchers in physics, not necessarily experts in your own sub-sub-field, but certainly acquainted with the basics of maths. No ERC referee will be unfamiliar with the concept of matrix[...]My research highlights do not include the spectral theorem, so I am not called to explain it on this occasion (although I do to hundreds of second year undergrads who, in fact, are mostly unfamiliar with the concept of matrix quite disappointingly) with quite some success[...].”

      This is a nice example of Schopenahuer’s Stratagem 3:

      [...] take a proposition which is laid down relatively, and in reference to some particular matter, as though it were uttered with a general or absolute application; or, at least, take it in some quite different sense, and then refute it.[...]

      This can be very effective in the heat of an oral debate. During a blog discussion it is a bit clumsy to adopt this strategy, because there is a written record of my previous comments. I guess that pretty much everybody who read it knew what my point was, and won’t be misled so easily.

      What does Schopenhauer suggest in this case?

      [...]The defense consists in an accurate statement of the point or essential question at issue.[...]

      My reply:

      I was making the point that not all research achievements can be summarized accurately in a few key sentences. Depending on your readership, you may have to introduce a lot of material just so that they can grasp the significance of your results. Explaining the spectral theorem in words to an audience who is not familiar with matrix products was just an example. It is not only you who can’t summarize it in a few lines: no one can.

      And yes, ERC referees know what matrices are. But they don’t know anything about convex optimization, semidefinite programming, non-commutative polynomial optimization theory, positivstellensatzs, nullstellensatzs or non-residually finite groups. Do you seriously believe that I can explain all these concepts AND the physical motivation AND my particular contributions or plans IN DETAIL and in just FIVE PAGES? Do you think I can explain the NPA hierarchy AND summarize my contributions to self-testing IN DETAIL and in just ONE PARAGRAPH? Get real, man.

      And if you think that I could do better by submitting my proposal to a Mathematics committee, think twice. Then I’d have to explain quantum mechanics... in five pages!!

    6. Your second argument:

      “I thought you just pretended to be funny but it seems you are indeed not that bright. [...] This said, I find discussing with you very pathetic. Such a young promising guy already complaining like an old hag about this and that. What a waste. On top of that, you are not credible anymore as amply remarked above. What about a new post to get another chance of gratification by your adoring supporters?”

      Schopenhauer’s Stratagem 38:

      [...] A last trick is to become personal, insulting, rude, as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand, and that you are going to come off worst.[...]

      Let me give you an advice here. During a debate, you must space out your self-contradictory claims. Either I am “not that bright” or I am a “promising guy”: clearly, I can’t be both at the same time.

      Also, note that I haven’t used Stratagem 38 with you, unless you happen to be the referee I’ve been complaining about.

      Now, what does Schopenhauer suggest for a reply?

      [...] What counter-trick avails for the other party? [...] It would be a great mistake to suppose that it is sufficient not to become personal yourself [...].


      [...] The only safe rule, therefore, is that which Aristotle mentions in the last chapter of his Topica: not to dispute with the first person you meet.[...]

      It is a good advice, and it’s time for me to follow it. My reply is, hence, to abandon this discussion. Have a nice day.

      Yours faithfully,

      Schroedinger's rat

      Note for the students: if I had had any interest in continuing this discussion (and less scruples), now I would have applied Schopenhauer’s Stratagem 27:

      [...] Should your opponent surprise you by becoming particularly angry at an argument, you must urge it with all the more zeal; not only because it is a good thing to make him angry, but because it may be presumed that you have here put your finger on the weak side of his case, and that just here he is more open to attack than even for the moment you perceive. [...]

      Why is my opponent so angry? Did he/she or one of his/her close friends win an ERC grant? Is he/she an ERC referee? Could he/she be –oh, my God!- THE referee? These are the points I would have tried to figure out by insisting provocation.

    7. Just one more thing. I'm tired of replying to an undetermined number of voices in the dark: from now on, you'll need to give a gmail account to comment in this blog.


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  16. Yo Rat,

    Saw your name 'Group Leader' at Vienna. So absolutely no ERC funded? What's your research gonna be about now?


  17. Now day, everything is going to find a new but well settled and successful stream for their career. When I came to this blog, I really impressed by all the knowledge points mentioned here. Thank you for this assistance.

  18. fantastic post Miguel! I feel your frustration, I got the same results for a project that should have done much better.... while at the same time I see people around me getting fucking ERCs who have no creativity, who dont know to do shit, like the simplest things in the lab or in informatics! Its ALL about networking, it has absolutely nothing to do with the science. Fuck this shit, I m so tired of it

  19. I found your this post while searching for information about blog-related research ... It's a good post .. keep posting and updating information. best-rat-traps