Monday, 30 October 2017

The Joy of Six

Life on Quality St: the three speakers in action
The ‘Essential Elements of a Successful Application’ workshop is like the purple one in Quality Street: it’s a perennial favourite. We’ve been running variations on it since we began the Grants Factory in 2009, and there is always a good turnout and a stimulating discussion. I’ve written up some notes from previous sessions here, here, here and here (I could go on). Friday’s iteration was no different.

I’d invited Prof Simon Thompson and Prof Gordon Lynch to talk about their experiences with the EPSRC and AHRC respectively. Adding to the mix was Aurelija Povilaike, the Research Development Officer for the Social Sciences, who has gained considerable experience and insights into the ESRC during her time in supporting academics at Kent.

We started off the session by comparing notes on the way the three funders worked. When I used to work at the AHRC the panels were there to judge the quality of the proposals. They would spend a whole day ploughing through 100+ applications, often making somewhat arbitrary decisions based on how great was the need of the panellists for coffee.

These days the work of assessing application quality has generally been shifted to the reviewers, and the role of the panel is to moderate and prioritise them. They definitely aren’t there to ‘re-review’ them, and the chair adheres strictly to this, stopping any panellist if they start to do so.

This is crucial for understand what makes a successful application, and what the key six elements are.

  1. It’s written for a general audience

This point is nothing new: we’ve been saying something similar since I first arrived at Kent over a decade ago. However, it’s as important now as it ever was. The people reviewing and moderating your applications are unlikely to have a comprehensive knowledge of your sub-discipline. Rather, they probably work broadly in your field. So don’t assume a depth of understanding about the background to your research. Explain it. Justify it. Use plain English. And spell out unfamiliar acronyms.

  1. It’s exciting

Reviewers will have seen dozens of applications in their time, and panellists hundreds. You have to explain why your proposal is worth backing. Sure, it has to have a sound foundation and be methodologically tight (see below), but it has to offer something more. It has the potential to lead to a step change within the discipline - and beyond.

Interestingly, I suggested that funders, and in particular the research councils, were somewhat risk averse these days, and that made conveying excitement somewhat difficult. The speakers demurred: they felt that it was more the reviewers who were cautious, and  that the funders themselves certainly didn’t want to limit risky research. Which brings us onto the next element.

  1. It’s achievable and realistic

So excitement is important, and risk is allowable, but there has to be a real sense that there is a solid and robust framework containing it. Everything has to be tight: the timeframe has to be realistic, the investigators need to have the right  track record, complementary skills, thorough knowledge and supportive networks, the methodology needs to be appropriate, the impact needs to be integrated, the dissemination needs to well thought through. It needs to be a complete package. Risk and excitement, yes: but potential problems need to have been identified, explained and allowed for.

It’s worth pausing here to empahsise the point about track record. With the AHRC, people are more likely to get funding if the project builds on recognized expertise or potential that senior scholars in that field would endorse. Developing projects that stray too far from one’s established expertise (unless there’s the right project team in place to make that work – both Co-Is and advisory panel) is unlikely to work.

Further, you need to nail down the detail, particularly when you’re involving external partners. It’s not good enough to vaguely say, ‘yeah, the V&A are on board,’ or ‘the BBC will produce a documentary.’ Talk to them first. Get some definite commitment, and mention the names of those who have made that commitment.

Similarly, if you are involving commercial partners they need to do more than metaphorically wave their hand in the broad direction of a letterhead and say, ‘I’m sure we can work together’. They have to explain what they are bringing to the party, and equally what they will get from it.

  1. It’s good value for money

So it offers excitement with a frisson of risk, within a cast iron and trustworthy framework. But if the costs are outrageous - or, conversely, too modest - it won’t succeed. The costs need to be considered, appropriate and justified.

Gordon made the point that there should not be a sense of entitlement. In austere times we shouldn’t assume that funding is a god given right. The government is having to decide whether to invest in research or, say, in the NHS. A nurse’s starting salary is £21k, and yet many blithely assume that they ‘should’ be given £250k to do their project. Don’t take it for granted, and make every centieme count.

  1. It’s been reviewed, and reviewed, and reviewed, and reviewed

In the past there was a widespread culture of clutching a proposal to your breast before firing it off to the funder, and being surprised and horrified when it was rejected. ‘But it’s genius!’ you’d think. ‘They are clearly imbeciles to think otherwise.’

This is much less common today, but the point is still worth making. Although you may recognise the worth of getting feedback, don’t leave it so late that it’s too difficult to incorporate into your proposal. Talk to people at the very earliest stage, before you’ve even written anything, when it’s just a kernel of an idea. Talk to them again when you’ve sketched out a one page proposal. And talk to them again, and again, and again, and again, as you continue to develop it.

  1. It’s answered the criticisms of the reviewers

As I mentioned at the beginning, reviewers have become increasingly important in deciding on the fate of your proposal. The panels are moderating these reviews, but are reliant on their views. Don’t assume the opportunity to respond to reviewers’ comments is pointless and unnecessary. It’s actually crucial.

It gives you an opportunity to correct factual inaccuracies, or explain why a particular reviewer might have misunderstood a point. It can make the difference between success and failure. More on answering reviewers’ comments here (for NERC)  here (for EPSRC) and here (for AHRC, ESRC and BBSRC). There is much commonality between these, and all demonstrate the importance of sticking to the facts and being firmly courteous.  

The final point, which wasn’t so much an essential element of the application as a crucial quality of the applicant, was about resilience. Whilst many academics are willing to suffer the slings and arrows of rejection when it comes to publication, there is less robustness for funding proposals. Success rates are, at best, 25%. You will, at some point, be rejected.

Simon made the point that, although it’s much more work than applying to the BA or the Royal Society, research council applications are more useful in that you get full reviewers’ comments, and can understand better why your proposal was rejected. Learn from this, develop your resilience, and craft a better application - with all the essential elements - next time.  

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