The Slow Seduction

If I told you that I could put a five-page description of your research program in front of your favourite funding body, even before they made their next call for applications, would you write it?

If I told you that your final project report was due, would you be so enthusiastic about writing that?

I sometimes think of applying for funding as a long conversation with the funding body. You might like to imagine it as a slow seduction, similar to the formalised literature of a twelfth century French romance.

You are the knight paramour, wooing your damsel with clever ideas and visions of a glorious future. She questions your worthiness, comparing you unfavourably to her many other suitors. When she calls upon her friends for advice, they advise her against you, speaking softly with but faint praise.

She is reluctant, flighty, unpredictable. She may spurn you again and again before granting you the first of her favours. Even then, she doesn’t take you seriously, granting only a fraction of what you ask. In return, she demands that you be true to your promise, and send her regular reports of your quest.

Finally, she tires of you. The passion is over; she has no more to give. She asks you for one final epistle, one little note to show that it has all been worthwhile. But even as you write, you know that this is not the final letter. It is the opening charge in a new battle of wills; you know that your destinies are truly entwined, forever.

Perhaps my knowledge of twelfth century French romantic literature is slightly lacking. You might prefer to think of the grant application process as one of the great 19th century correspondences or a travelling salesman who returns again and again in the hopes of winning that one big contract.

Final project reports suffer from a bad rap. Funding bodies need them, grant administrators chase them, and (some) researchers seem allergic to writing them. Even the name is a misnomer; final reports are never final.

The two main reasons why the thought of writing a final report is met with an impressive lack of enthusiasm include:

1. The future’s so bright…

Sometimes, researchers are too busy working on their next project to want to write about an old project. They feel as if they have already discharged their responsibilities through writing the journal article, book chapter, or book, and they’re now very, very busy with the next shiny project.

For them, it is much more interesting to think about possible futures than it is to dissect the recent past. The work for that project is done, and the demands of the next project seem overwhelming. So, why go back?

Surely, there’s nothing celebratory or fun about writing final reports? Often, they are overly concerned with reporting and measuring outputs (especially government funding schemes). They are generally not open to a nuanced description of the findings or the process of the application.

And there is a feeling that, even if they were, they won’t be read by anyone anyway. Aren’t they a lot of work that will disappear into a black hole?

What researchers don’t seem to realise is that these reports act as perfect introductions to your next application. It is the only time that you’ll be able to talk to the granting body without directly asking for money. You can tell the the story of your project, what worked (and what didn’t), and the results gained. You can talk about how the project changed your outlook and advanced the field worldwide. You can even talk about what you plan to do next.

2. The past is too dark…

In a small number of cases, it is just too painful to go back and look at a past project. The research team might have fallen apart in spectacular fashion. The industry partner may have gone out of business, or just changed strategic direction, leaving the project as a lonely lame duck. The theory might have been wrong, or the results may have been muddy and unclear. A key member of the team may have left or died (it happens).

For whatever reason, the project didn’t really work. Even if the work was done, there was nothing to show for it, except perhaps confusion, anger, bitterness, or resentment.

In this case, the final report really is no fun to write. It involves raking over an ugly past, often to find unsatisfactory answers about wasted opportunities.

But ‘the project fell apart’ is different from ‘the project didn’t work out the way you planned’. Research rarely does go exactly as planned, just as it is rare that it doesn’t produce some useful contribution to the field. Writing the final report is a chance to reflect on exactly what the project did achieve.

If I asked you to write a five-page teaser, what I’ve just described in the points above are the kinds of things I’d be asking you to write.

Whatever simile you use, the grant application, the progress report, and the final report do not sit in isolation. It is part of a process that is, like the lover’s quest, eternal.

Now, when can I expect your final report?

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt.

4 Responses to The Slow Seduction

  1. L says:

    Much as I like the idea that gaining grant funding is similar to wooing a lover, surely this only applies when the people making the funding decisions are the same as those that read the report? If I write a grant application, it is reviewed and scored by peer reviewers, and if it meets specified criteria, it goes through to the next round, where it is reviewed, scored and decided upon by a panel of my peers, who judge the quality of the science. When I write a final report, it is checked off by someone in administration, and doesn’t go near the panel who may or may not be considering my next grant application.

  2. Adrian Masters says:

    In industry, each project should have the equivalent of a final report (project review, post-implementation review, or something similarly named).

    This is where you get to critically assess what happened, and learn from it. When the pressure is off, and you are having 20-20 hindsight, it is the perfect time to reflect and share learnings.

    I actually shocked a client by asking two simple questions (in a 10 minute project review of a formal program funding proposal I wrote over 4 weeks). I listened to their responses & noted them. Then I answered the questions myself, and was candid. The questions were:
    * What went well?
    * What would you change next time?

    I learnt something from it, and that’s important to me.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Adrian

      I wish our final reports were that useful. Some of them are enormously detailed lists of who did what, which takes the fun out of it, somewhat.

      I take your point, though – the best reason for writing a final report is to learn from the project you have just finished, as you go forward. Sounds about right to me.

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