Wednesday 25 September 2019

What Wellcome Wants

Aiming for the bullseye (Photo by Marc A on Unsplash)
On Monday the Wellcome Trust held an information day on the changes to its Humanities and Social Sciences funding portfolio.

Briefly, it is shelving its Investigator and Collaborator schemes in these areas for a year while it introduces two new schemes:
Both sound interesting, and encouraging collaboration within and beyond universities. As ever with Wellcome, they’re clearly keen to try new ideas and think creatively.

As part of the event, they asked Rob Kirk, a medical historian at the University of Manchester, to say a little about his experience as both an applicant and Expert Review Group (ERG) member.

What does Wellcome want? 

Put simply, it is ‘to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive.’ That’s fine, up to a point. It provides the broad context.

For Rob, he compared applying to Wellcome to throwing darts at a board: you hit the bull’s eye if you focussed on a specific disease or health issue; if you are exploring issues that are relevant but not central, you hit the outer board, and need to perhaps do more to justify your project.

What makes a good application? 

For him, grant writing is like a constellation. There are lots of points of light. Not all need to shine equally brightly, but there needs to be enough to be able to discern the overall shape.

Each application has three components, and a successful grant needs to have all three:

  • An explanation of the project: what’s it doing, can it be done, and will it lead to significant outcomes?
  • A summary of the person: has their track record demonstrated that they have the right commitment, skills and support to succeed? 
  • An overview of the environment: does the environment have the right level of support and knowledge? Here, the institutional letters are key. 

How are applications assessed? 

There are four stages:
  • Preliminary sift: this is managed internally in the Wellcome office, and has become much more competitive. Applications are assessed as to whether they are within scope and eligible. 
  • Expert Review Group. Within humanities and social sciences there are four of these, two within each area: an early career one and an established one. The ERG discuss the applications and draw up a rough prioritisation of shortlisted applications. They have a large number to assess, and there can be 40+
  • Peer Review. The shortlist then goes out to review. These are more specific experts in the field. There are usually 2-4 per application, and they provide detailed feedback on these. 
  • Interview. Applicants are then invited to interview. The interview panel has both ERG and peer review comments. Rob suggested that this shouldn’t be seen as terrifying, but rather a positive discussion, and a real opportunity for you to make the case for your project and speak with enthusiasm about the subject and its potential. 

Top tips
  • Don’t use jargon. The ERG is made up of a broad range of assessors, many of whom will not understand your area. Make it easy for them. 
  • Base your application around a question. It’s surprising how many people don’t, and there’s not a single question mark in the whole proposal. But your project needs to be addressing - and offering an answer to - a specific question. 
  • Keep it simple. As Rob suggested, it was a turn off for reviewers if they had to go on a ‘fishing expedition’ to find out what the application is about. ‘A grant application is the best writing I ever do. Every word counts. Every sentence has to be doing something useful.’
  • Be respectful. Don’t belittle or dismiss other researchers or fields. No one is completely right or completely wrong. Be generous ‘because then the reviewer will be more generous to you.’ 
  • Assert/justify. Most academics are trained to explain and then conclude, but you need to flip this around: assert, and then justify your assertion. ‘Don’t frontload with preamble.’
  • Do your homework. Look at who is on the ERGs. These won’t be entirely up to date, but will give you an indication of who (and in what disciplines they work) will judge your application. 
  • Prepare for the interview. An obvious one, but many don’t. Do dry runs with colleagues, who will tend to be harsher than the actual interviewers - which is no bad thing. 
  • Be yourself. Be confident, enthusiastic and positive. Embrace the opportunity to talk passionately about your subject; it’s a rare chance. 

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