Tuesday, 26 February 2013

AHRC - View from the Committee Room

I took part in the AHRC’s inaugural ‘Developing Better Applications’ event yesterday. It was a great event, and a good opportunity to chat to others doing a similar job to me in a wide range of different institutions.
Prof Roberta Mock gave a really useful talk based on her experience as a peer review panellist for the AHRC. Amongst the points she raised were:
·         The AHRC is not a cabal. It is not us and them. They rely on academics reviewing other academics. We are all part of it, and necessary for its successful running.
·         Applicants should not run before they walk. Having a commensurate track record was crucial for getting an appropriate grant.
·         You should write with potential reviewers in mind, and imagine the ‘nightmare critic’. Preempt their criticism, but don’t be defensive. Reviewers smell fear.
·         Choose keywords wisely. These are used for choosing your reviewers, so do think about what specialism you want your reviewer to have.
·         Talk to colleagues, and share your application. Get some tough love. Better still, take it through internal peer review. It was always clear at panel which applications hadn’t.
·         Take time over preparing it. A good application takes at least two months (and at least 40 hours of intense writing) to draft. 
·         The standard has changed over recent years. What worked five years ago will not work now. Have to keep getting better to stay still.
·         Grammar, spelling and clear formatting do all make a difference.
·         Use the sections, and write what they ask for in the appropriate sections. Doing otherwise makes you appear arrogant.
·         Don’t over inflate claims for impact. The panel is not necessarily looking for the most impactful project , but just for reassurance that you’ve got an effective strategy in place.
·         Don’t hide or disregard ethical elements of your research. If you blank this, or claim not to have any, the panellists will look all the harder for them.
·         It’s all in the detail. Be specific about such issues as which journals you intend to publish in or which conferences you plan to attend. Give them a sense of how you arrived at your costs.
·         Have a realistic work plan that takes account of having a life beyond your research – i.e. factor in holidays, recruitment, potential illness, etc. You are not a robot, and neither is your RA.
·         Value for money is important. That’s not just a case of offering the lowest price. Rather, it’s asking for the money necessary to achieve the objectives and answer the research question. Moreover, it offers research that has both reach and significance.
·         Include information about monitoring of the project. This is often left out, but is really important. It needs to be built into the workplan. It demonstrates institutional buy in and shows that the stewardship of the award is taken seriously.  
·         A ‘super critical ’review is not the end of world, but a convincing right to reply is crucial. You need to be very gracious, but be aware that the panel sees everything. You don’t need to repeat praise from the reviewers, and don’t use one reviewer’s comments against another. The panel sees all the paperwork, and can see if any of the reviewers are out of line.
·         Yes, there is an element of luck. However, there is usually agreement about the first and second ranked applications. The grey area – and the luck – comes further down the list. So give yourself as much of a helping hand as possible. If there’s an early career researcher card, play it. If there’s a highlight notice you can latch on to, do it.

The questions that followed flushed out a final, interesting point: not all reviewers read applications in the same order. Roberta, for instance, flicks to the CV first. All the more reason to do as the Grants Factory suggests, and make sure that key messages are written through the application like words through Brighton rock. Wherever you bite into it, you can see what the research question is, why it’s important, why it offers value for money, and why you’re competent to handle the project.

The training event runs again in London on the 8 March. I'm not sure if it's booked up, but get in touch with the AHRC if you want to go along.


  1. Thanks Phil - I think you've probably expressed my thoughts far better than I did! Your talk was pretty inspirational too.

  2. Thanks very much for this, Roberta! No, your talk was fabulous in not over-relying (like the rest of us) on powerpoints, but giving us exactly the kind of inside info that's invaluable. I've just relayed it here...