Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Essential Elements of a Good Application

Prof Mick Tuite began last week's Grants Factory session by outlining the essential elements of a good application. From his experience with the BBSRC, it was clear that getting a 'good' grade was not enough. Whilst in theory your proposal might be 'fundable', in reality you need to be graded either 'excellent' or 'exceptional' to be in with a chance. The same is true of all the Research Councils, and most other funders: only those in the top 10% have a realistic chance of success.

For Mick, in order to put yourself in this bracket your proposal needs to demonstrate five essential elements:

  • it needs to ask an important question; 
  • it needs to offer a potential solution; 
  • it needs to be cost effective;
  • it needs to bring together the right team;
  • it needs to have a clear impact. 
Importance, success, value, competence, impact. These five essential elements are key, and Mick highlighted The Research Funding Toolkit, in which Prof Andrew Derrington and Jacqueline Aldridge had developed these concepts further. However, it is also important to structure your application so it brings these to the fore. The panellists and reviewers need to be excited by the proposal, and convinced that there is both the need for the research and a viable solution to it.

In order to do this, applicants need to understand the difference between four key terms, and use them appropriately, structuring the 'narrative' of the proposal around them.

  • Aim: this is what you hope your project will achieve; 
  • Objectives: these are what need to be achieved in order to achieve the aim; 
  • Outputs: these are the 'deliverables' of the project; 
  • Outcomes: these are the final achievements from the project. 
At the heart of the application is the Case for Support. (CfS). It is here that the applicant is given the space to set out the five essential elements.

  • The opening lines (5%) - like the lay summary - are crucial to this. Within the first two sentences the reader should understand the question, why it's important and how it will deliver a 'step change' in the discipline. This is not the moment to be a shrinking violet; this should not be a 'slow build'. It's the time to offer an accessible, simple message that conveys both the excitement and the timeliness of the project. 
  • The background (30%): this summarises what is known and what is not known about the subject. Just as important, it's the opportunity to set out what we must now, why we must know it now, and why you, as the principal investigator, are the person to discover it. However, whilst you should demonstrate an understanding of the literature, you should avoid self-citation. There is more and more expectation that preliminary data or pilot work has already been done, and this is your chance to make clear what has already been achieved. 
  • Aims & objectives (5%): Realistically, you shouldn't have any more than one aim and five objectives. Any more and things become a little confused. There should be a logical flow between them, and you should avoid interdependency, which could act as a potential weakness. 
  • Work plan or methodology (50%): this is the most crucial part of the CfS: what are you actually going to do? How are you going to achieve the objectives? The methodology should be 'appropriate' to the goals, and you should offer sufficient (but not overwhelming) technical detail. Your work plan should be clearly set out, and achieve that difficult balancing act of being both ambitious and realistic. 
  • Management, dissemination etc (10%): important, but not crucial. These need to make sense, and be appropriate, matching the scale and ambition of the project. 
As well as this, you can help your case in two ways:

  • firstly, presentation. Use a simple font, of at least 12pt, and don't overcrowd the margins or paragraph breaks. Break up the text, if possible, with images and diagrams. Proof read the application, and show it to others to do likewise. 
  • secondly, make sure you're known. Get out there. Go to conferences. Give papers, lead seminars. Get involved. Whilst applications from unknowns are funded, there is an inherent nervousness amongst panel members if you're an unknown quantity. Reassure with familiarity. 
After a short break for lunch, Mick was joined by three other academics with extensive experience of reviewing and ranking proposals: Prof Simon Thompson has had experience with the EPSRC; Prof Gordon Lynch with the AHRC; and Prof Sarah Vickerstaff with the ESRC.

Simon began by stressing the importance of the opening sentence. The panel 'want to be convinced'. One way that he had found of doing this was beginning the process of drafting an application by putting together a one page summary. This offered the bare bones of the project, but gave peer reviewers an opportunity to give advice when there was still the chance to make substantive changes. When a full application has been drafted, this chance is lost.

He noted a significant difference between the BBSRC and the EPSRC: whereas the BBSRC panel reads the full applications and can have a view on what is proposed, EPSRC panellists should only be 'moderating the reviews'. In other words, they should be basing their decisions on the referees comments, and shouldn't be re-reviewing the application.

The rest of the session became more of a discussion between the panel and the audience, with the former responding to questions from the former, and chipping in with additional thoughts on the idiosyncrasies of different funders. Issues raised included:

  • striking the right balance between being overambitious and incremental; 
  • that a knowledgable reviewer who can convincingly show that the work has been done before is 'the kiss of death' at ESRC panels; 
  • that, whilst Research Councils don't negotiate over elements of the project, they can set conditions which need to be met (such better ethical oversight); 
  • the need for collaborators, if you don't have sufficient experience in certain areas that are crucial to the successful completion of the project; 
  • the 'increasing importance' of management committees or advisory groups; 
  • large projects: there is an inherent conservancy amongst reviewers, and you need to make a strong case if you are asking for more than one RA for three years; 
  • the importance of methodology, and the right terminology, in the Case for Support.
This session was the first of the 'Writing Group' programme. This will offer applicants an opportunity to take time out from teaching and administrative duties to work on their applications with support from experienced mentors and Funding Officers, as well as feedback from other applicants. If you want to take part in these, drop me a line. Mick's slides from the session will be available on the Research Services website shortly; thanks to all four panellists for their time, their openness and their humour in sharing their thoughts.

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