|Making a virtue of criticism|
Last week we had an impromptu Grants Factory workshop, prompted by the visit of the EPSRC's Jane Nicholson the week before. Focussing on applying to EPSRC, Profs Simon Thompson (Computing) and Sarah Spurgeon (EDA) spoke about their experience of sitting on EPSRC panels, before running a 'mock panel' exercise in the second half of the event.
It was a really useful event, and I thought it would be good to jot down some notes from it, particularly around the vexed question of responding to reviewers' comments, which is crucial in applying to any of the Research Councils. So, if you have recently received your comments and are mulling over your response, some top tips:
- The panel aren’t re-reviewing the application. They are instead moderating the reviews and ranking the applications accordingly. Thus, the PI response is critical, as it’s your only chance to answer any concerns or criticisms. Whilst it’s not mandatory, you should always provide a response. As Prof Sarah Spurgeon said at the event, ‘writing a good response does make a competitive difference’.
- Some of the reviewers’ comments can be hurtful. You’ve invested time in the application, and they can be dismissive or even wrong-headed. Don’t respond in haste. Take time to provide a measured, considered response. Don’t dismiss any comment that is ‘obviously’ wrong: you can make it clear that you disagree without using emotive language. For instance, suggest that you want to ‘clarify’ a point.
- Go through the reviewers and pick out every comment that needs a response. List them, and answer them in order.
- Give evidence to rebut the criticisms. Once again, don’t be hasty and impassioned. This is the time to be clear and analytical. Give the panellists just the information they need, the information necessary to ‘empower’ them; it’s not the time to be quoting complicated mathematical formulae – unless absolutely necessary.
- Some responses may not be given to the panel before the meeting, but tabled on the day. The panellists have to read them quickly, so make it easy for them: plain language, clear formatting, bullet points. Don’t be ‘clever’ with unusual fonts, minimal margins or complicated figures.
- Don’t clutter the response by thanking the reviewers, or take too long highlighting the positive points. The panel will have already seen both the application and the reviews, and will already have a view.
- Don’t feel you have to write to the limit. To quote Prof Spurgeon again: ‘a short response is more powerful.’
- Finally, if the reviewers have suggested a good idea, there’s no harm in welcoming it and agreeing with them – as long as it doesn’t contradict the main thrust of your proposal.