program proving over the past four de-
cades as a long series of variations on
Tony Hoare’s 1969 axiomatic seman-
tics paper. 4 Here is Hoare’s recollec-
tion, from his Turing Award lecture5:
“In October 1968, as I unpacked my
papers in my new home in Belfast, I
came across an obscure preprint of an
article by Bob Floyd entitled ‘Assign-
ing Meanings to Programs.’ What a
stroke of luck! At last I could see a way
to achieve my hopes for my research.
Thus I wrote my first paper on the
axiomatic approach to computer pro-
gramming, published in the Commu-
nications of the ACM in October 1969.”
Had the research been submitted
for funding, we can imagine the reac-
tion: “Dear Sir, as you yourself admit,
Floyd has had the basic idea6 and you
are just trying to present the result bet-
ter. This is incremental research; we
are in the paradigm-shift business.”
And yet if Floyd had the core con-
cepts right, it is Hoare’s paper that
reworked and extended them into a
form that makes practical semantic
specifications and proofs possible. In-
cremental research at its best.
The people in charge of research
programs at the NSF and ERC are scientists themselves and know all this.
How come they publish such absurd
pronouncements? There are two reasons. One is the typial academic’s fascination with industry and its models.
Having heard that venture capitalists
routinely fund 10 projects and expect
one to succeed, they want to transpose
that model to science funding; hence
the emphasis on “risk.” But the transposition is doubtful because venture
capitalists assess their wards all the
time and, as soon as they decide a
venture is not going to break out, they
cut the funding overnight, often causing the company to go under. This
does not happen in the world of science: Most projects, and certainly any
project that is supposed to break new
ground, gets funded for a minimum of
three to five years. If the project peters
out, the purse holder will only find out
after spending all the money.
The second reason is a sincere desire to avoid mediocrity. Here we can
sympathize with the funding executives; they have seen too many “Here is
my epsilon addition to the latest buzzword” proposals. The last time I was at
that every project
has to be epochal
will not achieve
ECOOP, in 2005, it seemed every paper
was about bringing some little twist to
aspect-oriented programming. This
kind of research benefits no one and it
is understandable the research funders
want people to innovate. But telling
submitters that every project has to be
epochal will not achieve this result.
It achieves something else, good
neither for research nor for research
funding: promise inflation. Being told
that they have to be Darwin or nothing, researchers learn the game and
promise the moon; they also get the
part about “risk” and emphasize how
uncertain the whole thing is and how
high the likelihood it will fail.
By itself this is mostly entertainment, as no one believes the hyped
promises. The real harm, however, is
to honest scientists who work in the
normal way, proposing to bring an important contribution to the solution
of an important problem. They risk
being dismissed as small-timers with
Some funding agencies have kept
their heads cool. How refreshing, af-
ter the above quotes, to read the gen-
eral description of funding by the
Swiss National Science Foundation7:
“The central criteria for evaluation
are the scientific quality, originality,
and project methodology as well as
qualifications and track record of the
applicants. Grants are awarded on a
In a few words, it says all there is to
say. Quality, originality, methodology,
and track record. Will the research be
“groundbreaking” or “incremental”?
We’ll find out when it’s done.
I am convinced the other agencies
will come to their senses and stop the
paradigm-shift nonsense. One rea-
son for hope is in the very excesses of
the currently fashionable style. The
preceeding short text from the ERC
includes, by my count, 19 ways of say-
ing proposals must be daring. Now
we do not need to be experts in struc-
tural text analysis to know that some-
one who finds it necessary to state the
same idea 19 times in a single para-
graph feels rather insecure about it. At
some point the people in charge will
realize that such hype does not breed
breakthroughs; it breeds more hype.
1. national science foundation, Division of Computer
and network systems, Computer systems research,
2. european research Council, advanced
Investigators grant, http://erc.europa.eu/index.
3. the Berne years; see any biography of albert
4. C.a.r. hoare, an axiomatic basis for computer
programming, Communications of the ACM 12, 10,
oct. 1969. a retrospective on this historic paper
appeared in the oct. 2009 issue of Communications.
5. C.a.r. hoare, the emperor’s old clothes,
Communications of the ACM 24, 2, feb. 1981.
6. robert W. floyd, assigning meanings to programs,
Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society
Symposia on Applied Mathematics, 19, 1967.
7. swiss national science foundation, http://www.
(Disclosure: the snsf has kindly funded several of
my research projects over the past years.)
8. e.M. forster, Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951.
Bertrand Meyer is a professor at eth Zurich and ItMo
(saint petersburg), as well as chief architect of eiffel
© 2012 aCM 0001-0782/12/09 $15.00