Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Essential Elements of a Good Application, 2014

Last week we revisited the 'essential elements of a good application' in the first Grants Factory workshop of the 2014/15 season. 

I wrote an extensive post on last year's event, and I don't want to rewrite all of the points I noted there. These still stand. If anything, they are more relevant as ever as the success rates for the Research Councils take a dip. Instead I wanted to pick out some of the points that I might have skimmed over, or note those that were raised additionally. 

As with last year, the format of this year's session take the same format. Prof Mick Tuite started by giving an overview of his experience of sitting on peer review panels, including those of the BBSRC. We then broke for lunch, before reconvening to hear from academics who had sat on panels for a range of different funders. 

Five Essential Elements
  • Last year Mick noted that your application needed 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. 
  • Further to this, the essential elements could be reduced still further: your proposal needs Excite, with a clear Need, and be Solvable. Keep these three core elements in mind throughout the writing of your application.

Four Key Terms

  • With these elements in mind, you need to demonstrate a clear framework for your project. This is what you will do, this is what will result. Last year, Mick outlined the four key terms, but I think it's worth explaining these further by giving an example of what each means. I know that I'm as guilty as anyone of using the terms interchangably. 
    • Aim: this is what you hope your project will achieve. So, for example your aim could be 'to cure Alzheimer's'
    • Objectives: these are what need to be achieved in order to achieve the aim. In the Alzheimer's example, this could be 'to identify the rogue protein within the brain that cause Alzheimer's'
    • Outputs: these are the 'deliverables' of the project. For our example, this would the 'identification of the rogue protein'. 
    • Outcomes: these are the final achievements from the project, and the difference that your research has made. In this case it will be 'a new target for an Alzheimer's drug to target'. 
  • Allied to this, you need to continue to make the case for the importance of your research, in case it's not clear to the reviewers or panellists. Curing Alzheimer's is important because demographic change has led to an ageing population, and increasing numbers of people are affected by the disease. No cure has yet been found, and it is imperative to identify the cause so that a cure can be expedited. 

The Importance of the Methodology
  • As Mick said last year, the 'methodology' should be the most substantial part of any application. What are you actually going to do? Sure, you need to demonstrate that you understand the 'state of the art', that you're familiar with recent advances, but what the panellists really want to know is 'what are you going to do with our money?' 
  • Not only do they need to be convinced that you're doing the right work to have a realistic possibility of solving the problem, but that you are planning and preempting problems. Thus, your methodology should not be linear, with the danger of a 'single point of failure' that could effect all subsequent progress. Instead, there should be a series of parallel streams, which inform and complement each other, but none of which would sink the project if it were to fail. 

Why Does the Panel Say No?
  • When preparing your proposal, it's useful to keep in mind the potential reasons for rejection that the panel will use. Some provide no feedback, but some funders ask panellists to state why a proposal is being rejected. These can include: 
    • Less strategically important compared to other proposal;
    • Insufficient preliminary data;
    • Overambitious and unlikely to achieve all of its objectives;
    • Work programme poorly integrated;
    • Under resourced;
    • Will not significantly advance the field;
    • Will not significantly increase the knowledge in the field;
    • Poorly written;
    • Lacks focus;
    • Lacks detail;
    • Lack of relevant expertise;
    • Poor track record;
    • Poor value for money;
    • Costs not adequately justified.

Balancing Risk
  • During the panel discussion after lunch, Mick was joined by Profs Peter Boenisch, Dominic Abrams and Simon Thompson to share experiences of working with a range of funders, including the AHRC, ESRC and EPSRC. One of the key discussion points was the way in which risk is handled. All the funders want to support research that will lead to a 'step change' in the field, and all shy away from anything to 'incremental'. And yet, they want to avoid anything that is too risky and likely to fail. 
  • The applicants track record plays a key part in reassuring the panel. You need to show that you are a 'safe pair of hands', that you've handled a grant or a fellowship before. This should be of a suitable size and scale for the point in your career that you are at, and of a roughly appropriate scale to the one you are now seeking. 
  • That is not to say that lack of experience will sink you. Indeed, it can be turned to your advantage, if you demonstrate that you are well networked, that you have an appropriate advisory board, and the necessary mentoring and support in place. 
  • Risk is also clearly a factor with interdisciplinary bids. The panellists disagreed about whether interdisciplinary bids were inherently more likely to fail at the Research Councils, but all agreed that they need to 'balance' the disciplines. Reviewers and panellists did not want to see projects that claimed to be interdisciplinary, but where a secondary or tertiary discipline had clearly been bolted on to a dominant one, to inform or clarify a small element of the project, and being used in a fairly mundane way. 

Responding to Reviewers' Comments
  • All the Research Councils now give applicants an opportunity to respond to reviewers' comments. Handling this opportunity correctly is increasingly important, particularly with the EPSRC, for whom the Panel only moderates reviews and responses. 
  • Don't respond in haste;
  • Don't respond angrily;
  • Don't repeat any positive comments;
  • Don't play one review off against another;
  • Do respond to all questions and criticisms in a level, clear, objective way: what one panellist described as 'forensic' way.
A final point, which came up during lunch. One of those attending asked a panellists if it was okay to apply to multiple funders at once. In the past I've always suggested that, given the success rates, funders were accepting of this. 'No', said the panellist, categorically. 'The funder I work with would reject you outright if you did that.' 

The lesson here is to check with either Research Services or with the funder themselves to get a sense of their viewpoint. Some might find this acceptable, particularly for their fellowships. Most ask if you are applying elsewhere, and it would be shame to shoot your proposal below the waterline unnecessarily. 

Thanks to all those who attended the session, and do watch out for further workshops in the programme. But thanks especially to the panellists, who willingly gave up their time to share their experience, knowledge and opinions freely and honestly. 

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