‘I have a really cool research idea, but I need some money to do it.’
‘Great, let us know what it’s about and we’ll give you some cash.’
‘Cool! We’ll use a new technique to cross-fundulate the hypoxyoffoffoffeller, aiming to test the hypothesis that paraselectorial emergence is a key property of metachromatophoratory heptacommunities’.
‘Er….on second thoughts, we’re not interested…’
Last week I went on a course on ‘Bidding for Research Funding’, organized by the University of Stirling’s amazing Research and Enterprise Office. Over two days John Wakeford and Robert Crawshaw, with a little help from a couple of folk from Stirling, told us all we need to know about writing successful applications for funding. With 18 months to run on my current research Fellowship, time is short and I need to secure funding if I’m to continue on my unlikely adventure in science. So what did we learn?
WARNING: THIS IS A MONSTER POST. So, first off…
The course introduced us to some myths and facts about applying for funding. Some of these will be depressing, some positive. Some we all had a sneaking suspicion about anyway; some came as a complete surprise. So, some myths:
The best research will be funded. Plenty of Nobel prizes/Science papers were based on research rejected for funding at some stage. This made me want to ask ‘so my piece of crap has a chance then?’, but I thought better of it.
Funders just like big names. Hooray! The small/inexperienced researcher has a chance. If a proposal is great, no-one will care who wrote it.
It’s best to keep ideas to myself. The suspicion that we’re all trying to steal each other’s ideas is BALLS. If you discuss something with someone, and they then do something similar, EXCELLENT. Science works through accumulating evidence, so the more evidence to support/refute an idea, the better. By discussing it with colleagues, acquaintances, and folk met drunk at conferences, new ideas are formed and things can fall into place.
I’ll write the bid during my holiday. Don’t be a dick.
The Research Office will only delay it. These people are your guardian effing angels and you need their help (see below).
The funding panel will read my proposal. Well, they might, but only for three minutes, on a train while standing up and listening to a podcast.
HELP! I NEED SOMEBODY…
Aside from the obvious, you know, science bit, what else does applying for funding require? Researching all the possible schemes you can apply for? Boring. Working out which ones you’re eligible for? Yuck. Calculating the financial details? No way. Luckily, there’s a lot of help available at most institutions. As soon as the workshop ended I had a meeting with Stirling’s Research and Enterprise Office. They gave me a list of things I might apply for (way more extensive than my list) and encouraged me to sign up for alerts from researchresearch.com, which has information on all manner of funding schemes. It turns out there are lots of awesome people who will be able to help at every stage of the application process. And that’s before I’ve persuaded folk in my department to read my stuff, listen to my problems or give me mock interviews. I’m going to be making a lot of cake. This one’s super quick and easy. This one’s super fruity (though not strictly cake). This one’s an exact science.
MAKE IT SNAPPY
You’ve just flicked through thirty proposals and your eyes settle on the next one. OH GAHD. The title is really technical, the text is bunched up, and that figure is only understandable by someone with a PhD in Escherian geometry (yours was something to do with sea anemone ecology). Sigh. Probably best to give up on that one. But look at THIS one! This looks better. Why? Well, because…
It’s inviting to read. WHITE SPACE. There’s actual WHITE SPACE. And it’s not in Comic Sans. The reader isn’t confronted with a solid block of ink, every available nook and cranny (I don’t know what a cranny is either) filled with text. I feel better already.
I don’t know anything about metachromatophoratory heptacommunities, and yet the title is exciting! Who cares what the research is actually about? As long as the panel member wants to read it, the proposal has a chance…
Reading this is actually quite pleasant. The. Sentences are. Short. The paragraphs are short. It’s punchy! Every word is useful, there’s no padding anywhere.
The heading and first line of each paragraph are memorable. The content of each paragraph is basically summarized in the first sentence. If more detail is wanted (reviewer), move on. If not (panel member), the main point has been made.
Well, that looks manageable. There are three objectives, over five years. That looks possible…no matter how many elements each objective has.
It’s on-target. It doesn’t meander off-topic. There’s no unnecessary showing-off about just how hard the stats are and how incredibly novel it is. Oh, and it’s actually relevant to the funding call.
My nan could understand it. Or my mate who’s a history teacher. Or my sister, who’s at high school.
These are some of the rules that were suggested to us when it came to actually writing bids for funding. It really seems that it boils down to making the thing as accessible as possible. If it’s incomprehensible to someone with scientific training, it’s probably incomprehensible to the people who’ll benefit from the research: the public, policymakers, or industry. Even worse, if it can’t be framed in words of one syllable, it gives the impression that whoever’s writing it doesn’t know the hell they’re talking about and are trying to hide behind protracted rhetoric resplendent with abstruse prolixity. Yes OF COURSE I needed a Thesaurus for that.
LAY IT OUT STRAIGHT
Probably the most important thing I learned was how important the ‘Lay summary’ is. In previous applications, I’ve spent ages crafting every word of the ‘actual’ proposal: what I’ll do, and specifically why it’s important and cool. On the other hand, I’ve tossed off the Lay summary at the last minute and not shown it to anyone.
This is like creating an incredibly hi-tech gadget capable of doing wondrous things, and then covering it in beige plastic: if it look butt-ugly, no-one will give it a second glance. The proposal will be read by an expert reviewer who will chuck it out if there are fundamental flaws. Assuming the research is interesting and sound, the panel of people who make the final decision about who to fund will not be specialists. They’ll be given a hundred proposals to read, of which they might read the title and the Lay summary. Faced with conflicting reviewer comments on most proposals, the panel will choose something that sounds exciting. So the lay summary needs to be ACE.
Apparently, other things that folk on the panel possess are:
- A hatred of hyperbole
- A complete disregard for impact statements
- Three minutes to read your proposal
- A suspicion that bunched-up text means you’re crap at writing succinctly
- A lamentable but universal liking for ‘big names’ on grants written by newbies
- The scope of the call firmly in their sights. Don’t stray from it.
Let’s assume you’re not funded. Since I have extensive experience of this, and none of actually being funded, I’m not really an authority on what you do if you get funded. I imagine you get REALLY drunk and then the rest of your life is full of sunshine, ice cream and Christmas.
If you’re not funded, after getting REALLY drunk (of course), get feedback. I assumed that this simply meant reading the reviewers’ comments, screaming ‘THIS IS BULLSHIT!!!!!’ and then moving on, but apparently this isn’t the best tactic.
Instead, get feedback from EVERYONE. Take the reviewers’ comments into account, yes, but also talk to your Research Office. They know what gets funded and what doesn’t, and so will be very able to make general comments on how to improve your proposal. Also, you can apparently contact the funder and discuss the prospects of a revised application, a strategy which had never occurred to me.
Then it might be time for reflection. We all live with rejection, and if you’ve applied for a grant, you’ve almost certainly been rejected before in your career: by a journal, for a job, by another funder. This means you probably took it on the chin. At the workshop, it was also suggested we might want to ‘review our career plans’ and ‘why we were doing it’. This may or may not be helpful….
Finally, try again. Another call, another idea, another funder, another year. Before that though, maybe go on holiday, have some chocolate, go for a run or generally recover.