Friday, 2 November 2012

Notes from Grants Factory: 'Identifying an Idea'

Prof Sally Sheldon and Prof Gordon Lynch led the third Grants Factory session on Wednesday, which focused on how to identify an idea for your funding proposal.

People often think that identifying an idea is a ‘lightbulb moment,’ suggested Prof Sheldon, but it was more like a slow process of development, which slowly brought an idea to fruition. Getting feedback was the key, and applicants needed to share their proposals with as many people as possible, crafting and developing them, and thereby making their idea fundable.

She went on to outline some of the elements that made a project fundable:
·         It raised a question which is important, topical or ’sexy’.  Applicants should think about why they are passionate about their subject, and try to distil this enthusiasm in their proposals. Many hardened reviewers and panellists will need persuading that your project is exciting and necessary.
·         It responded to the strategic priorities, focus and interests of the individual funder, as well as the aims of a particular scheme.  The Research Councils need to justify their spending to government, so applicants should make it easy for them by trying to fit their projects with the funder’s story.
·         It was likely to excite both a non-specialist audience and expert referees. People tend to be better at addressing the expert referees, so take some time to practice on non-experts.
·         It was feasible/concrete/credible/deliverable:
o   Plans to deliver the project will need to be realistic: think about timeframe/access to key data and individuals/resources.
o   You must look capable of delivering it (build on your strengths and address any gaps in your experience or expertise with credible plans for training/mentoring/appropriate management structures – or even collaboration).
·         It represented good value for money – which isn’t the same as being cheap.
·         It had the potential to have significant impact, and the plans for achieving this were well integrated within the project.

Prof Lynch then took over, and reiterated the need to balance an exciting idea with a practical plan. He had learnt, he said, from failure: his first grant came after a string of unsuccessful applications. A fundamental misconception had been that the reviewers would give him the benefit of the doubt, once they were fired up with excitement over his idea. No: the timetable, the milestones, the methodology, and the management all had to be watertight.

He continued by listing some issues that weren’t explicitly mentioned in the funders’ guidelines, but were nonetheless essential for success:
·         The model of the ‘lone scholar’ project was rarely funded now, particularly by the Research Councils. It was crucial to build relationships with people internally and externally.
·         It was helpful to have a research profile of which funder is already aware.  Imagine yourself as the reviewer: if there’s an element of the application that is uncertain, reviewers are more likely to be persuaded if you are already a known quantity. This is not to suggest that funders are giving ‘jobs for the boys’, but that background knowledge plays a part in the decision making process.
·         In addition, make sure your online profile is up to date and presents you positively. The panellists and reviewers may well Google you.
·         Steer your application towards/away from certain reviewers. Don’t offend people, for example by not mentioning the foremost scholar in the field.
·         Cite the right people, as they might be sent the application to review.
·         Make sure that your application is classified correctly. It is easy to dismiss the tick box list of subject areas at the end of the application. However, this is crucial, as it is used to decide whom to send your application to.
·         Make grant applications that are appropriate to your career trajectory and funding history. The best research grant isn’t always the largest. A network grant could be crucially helpful to help establish your subfield, to develop international contacts, or to collaborate in the writing of paper.
·         You must have thick skin. If you are rejected, it’s okay to feel sorry for yourself for a day or so, but then pick yourself up and think about how to reuse or recycle your proposal.
·         Applying is a long term process. Be realistic.

With these thoughts in mind, those attending then broke into smaller groups and discussed their ideas for proposals. Prof Lynch had prepared a checklist of issues that applicants should consider, and this was used as the basis for the discussions.

Slides, notes and the checklist from the session are now available on the Grants Factory SharePoint site.

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