Monday, 17 December 2012

Essential Elements of a Good Application

Kent's Essential Elements. If only we could bottle it.
And put a Clown Fish on the label.
Everyone’s research is different, but successful funding proposals share a number of common elements. Mastering these is essential if your application is going to get the consideration it deserves, no matter how good your underlying research idea is.

The speakers for last week’s Grants Factory session came from very different disciplines, but it was their diverse backgrounds which was their strength: it showed that, whether you’re applying to the AHRC or the BBSRC, you need to understand these key elements. Paul Allain is Professor of Theatre and Performance in the School of Arts, and Mick Tuite is Professor of Molecular Biology in the School of Biosciences.

For Mick, there are three elements that make a project fundable:

·         Firstly, it must ask an important question;
·         Secondly, it must offer a realistic chance of a solution within the time;
·         Finally, it must be run by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Demonstrating these three elements should be the main aim of your proposal.  The application itself is a complex patchwork of sections, but all of these must tie together to achieve this aim.

·         Lay Summary: this is the key to the proposal. It gets the reviewer and panel interested enough to read on. It should make the case, in a few paragraphs, as to why your project is exciting, timely and crucial, what you’re going to do, and why you’re the person to do it.
·         Background: don’t spend too long on this, but make it clear that you understand the context, and show – once again – why you’re well placed to undertake the research. However, avoid too much self-citation, but do disclose preliminary data or analyses.
·         Aims & Objectives: ideally, there shouldn’t be more than five, and that there’s a logical flow between them. Give a sense of timelines, of what you’re going to do when.
·         Work Plan: the idea of ‘work packages’ is becoming more common. Each of these should have its own aim and outcome, and there should be sufficient detail in each for the reviewer to be able to judge the work. Don’t be shy about highlighting what is innovative or ground breaking. Be ambitious but realistic.

Paul took over to look at the essential language of the application. He made the analogy of seeing a bank manager. You don’t need to justify why you need a house, but you do need to show that you can handle it, that you’re the one, and you’ve got a good ‘investment’. ‘It’s the language of money’, but your proposal should also ‘tell a story’ with a clear and compelling narrative.
The nuts and bolts that hold this narrative together should include:

·         A clear layout, with bullet points, short sentences, paragraph breaks, spell check.
·         Questions, sub-questions, priorities. Use numbering. Show that you’ve thought it through.
·         Diagrams, visual representations for timelines. If they’ve looked at hundreds of applications, they will be drawn to it.
·         Frames and signposts – create flow and interlink phrases. Show that you have control over the process.
·         Repetition and emphasis.
·         Value for money. Applications can fall down on this, but it’s not necessarily a ‘dealbreaker’. If things cost, they cost. Think through everything you will need.
·         Milestones. Clear demarcations, progress markers.

A compelling narrative needs to be assertive.
·         Don’t hypothesise too much – research needs ‘steps towards the unimaginable’.
·         Use active verbs, not aspirational ones. Not ‘I would like to...’, or ‘perhaps I will...’ Be assertive.
·         Depict a momentum that can’t be stopped now (pilot/investigatory/preparatory project). It’s their chance to give this idea some legs.

It also needs to be certain.
·         The project team is the right balance of expertise. If you’ve got a shortcoming in any area, bring in external help.
·         The structures and timescales are sensible and achievable.
·         For your outputs, play to your strengths; make them achievable, and don’t overstretch yourself. However, there is a need for a ‘mixed economy’: academic, impact, public engagement.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Grants Factory: Developing Collaborations

The slides and handout from Wednesday’s Grants Factory event are now available on the SharePoint site, here. I’ll write up some notes and add them to the blog shortly.

The next session will be an ECR Network event on ‘Developing Collaborations’. Run by Prof Jon Williamson and Dr Peter Bennett this will look at some of the issues around working with others, particularly on interdisciplinary projects. Funders are increasingly keen on encouraging collaborative research, but what are the pros and cons of this way of working? The session will use Jon and Peter’s experience to explore issues such as identifying a collaborative idea, forming productive links, and managing a complex project.

The session will run at 12pm on 16 January. As ever, it’s free and refreshments will be provided. Do let me know if you would like to come along.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The 'T' Factor

Plimsole, Doomberger and O'Leary
The ESRC recently launched a radical new scheme for funding 'transformative research'. Not only will the projects they fund be groundbreaking; the way they assess the applications will be too. Applicants will put in a  bare bones outline to the ESRC by 24 Jan, and those who tickle their fancy will be shortlisted and invited to an - if you will  - 'pitch to peers' workshop.

What exactly is a 'pitch to peers' workshop? I'm glad you asked me that. Imagine the X Factor for social science academics, with the other competitors as the judges. 

What could possibly go wrong? 

Dermot O'Leary: 'So, Prof Plimsole, what did you think of Dr Doomberger's project?'
Yes, we're all very much looking forward to the televising of this innovation in peer review. We've invested in  a widescreen plasma TV to watch the spectacle, and will be ready to vote for our favourites, frittering away our block grant on premium rate phone calls. Put your feet up, crack open the popcorn and let the spectacle begin!

Prof Plimsole (sniffily): 'To be honest, Dermot, it lacked cohesion. I admire her bravery in exploring the sociology of Lego, but her research questions were all over the place, her objectives were unrealistic, and her outputs were frankly negligible.' 
(boos from the audience)
Dermot O'Leary: 'Hmm, I'm not sure the audience agrees with you, Prof Plimsole...' (squeals from the audience. O'Leary turns to Doomberger) And Dr Doomberger: what do you think of Prof Plimsole's project?'
Dr Doomberger (angrily): 'I've never seen such routine, dull... incremental research (gasps of horror from the audience) masquerading as transformative in my life! His project couldn't transform its way out of a paper bag!' 
(the audience explodes)

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Difficulty of Impact

Definitely not David Sweeney

The LSE'Future of Impact' conference yesterday had a valedictory feel. It was the last huzzah for ‘The Impact of Social Sciences’, a HEFCE-funded project which had sought to 'develop precise methods for measuring and evaluating the impact of research in the public sphere.' 

Whilst they have achieved a lot – their blog is a fantastic forum for discussing issues relating to impact, for example – I think even their fiercest admirers would be hard pressed to say they had succeeded in this.

That’s not necessary their fault. Rather, it's the inevitable consquence of grapling with the amorphous, shape-shifting beast that is impact. This was particularly apparent in the third session yesterday, ‘Next Steps in Assessing Impact,’ which saw the three speakers almost come to blows over what impact is, who wants it, why, and how fast. This was partly down to the ever-entertaining David Sweeney, the architect of the REF. Like an embarrassing uncle at a wedding, he can always be relied upon to speak his mind. Loudly.

He took issue with the previous speaker, Julia Lane, who had been talking about StarMetrics. I’ve spoken about this before on this blog. To me, it sounds like an eminently sensible system (although I don’t think she did it justice here); Sweeney, however, begged to differ. Not only did he think that academia should not snap to attention when governments ask for data, but he implied that the system was only partially successful at collecting the right information. 

Similarly, he turned on the third speaker, Cameron Neylon. Neylon had suggested that Twitter could be used to monitor and engage with users of academic research. He gave an example of South African research which had been retweeted by someone working in community health promotion. ‘That’s not impact’, said Sweeney, dismissively.

And therein lies the problem. Here were three eminent speakers working at the coal face of impact. And yet, between them, they couldn’t reach agreement on what constituted impact, or why we should be doing it. If they have problems defining impact, what hope is there for the rest of us?  

Monday, 3 December 2012

Grants Factory: The Essential Elements of a Good Application

Prof Mick Tuite
Everyone’s research is different, but successful funding proposals share a number of common elements. Mastering these is essential if your application is going to get the consideration it deserves, no matter how good your underlying research idea is. The next Grants Factory session will look at these, and will provide insights into how to get them right.

Prof Paul Allain
The speakers come from very different disciplines, but it is their diverse backgrounds which is their strength: it shows that, whether you’re applying to the AHRC or the BBSRC, you need to understand these key elements. 
Paul Allain is Professor of Theatre and Performance in the School of Arts, and Mick Tuite is Professor of Molecular Biology in the School of Biosciences. Using real life examples, they will share their experience and knowledge, and you should come away from the session with the basic tools for constructing a successful proposal.

The event will take place at 2pm on  12 December  2012 in Woolf Seminar Room 6. It is free, and refreshments will be provided, but do let me know if you intend to come along.

The full Grants Factory programme is available on the SharePoint website, together with slides and notes from all recent events. Notes from the ECR Network meeting last week have now been posted on the blog.

Constructing a Realistic Project

Projects need great ideas and to be well thought through, realistic and fully costed to maximise the chance of funding.  At the fourth Grants Factory event last week Prof Elizabeth Mansfield (SMSAS) outlined a process that could help applicants in developing such a project. She started off by tracing a continuum: at one end there was routine, incremental research; at the other there was world peace, cancer cures and ‘theories of everything’. Most people aspire to the latter, but it is unlikely that funders will provide funding for it. Similarly, if it’s too incremental, the proposal will be rejected as boring, “business as usual”.

Instead, applicants need to direct their creativity and enthusiasm to find a worthwhile long term aim, a driving force, in the believably achievable part of the continuum. But what is your driving force?  If it's promotion or fame, it's likely your lack of real interest in the research will make the proposal feel hollow.  No, the driving force has to be a commitment and an intense interest in something important to you.

The next step is to think how you would ultimately want to be ‘assessed’, that is, what your criteria for success are. What do you want the lasting achievement of the project to be? What would satisfy you?  This process tells you what your short term aims need to be, and the activities you will need to achieve them. What methodology? What outputs? What do you want in your papers, web pages, performances? Theory, philosophy, data collection, analysis, computations, textual analysis,  experiments...

The next step is working out the resources you need to fulfil these. These might include staff time, equipment, travel and subsistence. For staff, you should think what kind of person (and at what level) you want. You should also think what would make it attractive to them; what professional development opportunities are there for them?

In addition, you should think about the time frame and milestones for your project. How will it fit together? How will you manage your team to ensure the milestones are met? What are you going to do if you do not meet these milestones? You absolutely need a Plan B!

Prof Peter Taylor-Gooby (SSPSSR) spoke from experience and added some detail to this outline. For instance, when the project has formed in your mind and you’re beginning on the application itself, make sure that you’re ‘tuned in’ to the language of the call or the scheme. Look at the guidance and pick out key words. Make sure that those key words appear in your proposal. Once you’ve prepared the draft, remove the title and show it to a wide range of people. Ask them what they think it’s about. If they’re not able to say, or give wildly varying answers, you need to redraft, to keep the language simple, and to concentrate on the essence of your project.

The second half of the session was an opportunity for those in the audience to discuss the issues raised in the first. Ultimately proposals need to reach a certain quality threshold to be considered. However, above that it can be a lottery, and applicants need to do everything in their own control to shorten their odds.

Hand outs and images of the diagrams that Elizabeth used are available, with these notes, on the SharePoint site.