Speedy grants

Ben Kraal

Dr Ben Kraal is a Research Fellow at QUT in Brisbane, Australia. He works with the People and Systems Lab on various projects.

In the broadest sense, what he does can be described as Design Research. Ben’s background is in what people call “IT”, though he has spent most of his time thinking about how people use technology in their work and life.

His PhD was about the lived experience of people who use large vocabulary speech recognition systems in the workplace.

Ben tweets from @bjkraal and blogs at Not Easily Obvious


The conditions for getting grants these days are dire.

"I wanna go fast!" (Photo by Tseen Khoo; title from Talledega Nights)

“I wanna go fast!” (Photo by Tseen Khoo; title from Talledega Nights)

Discovery grant success rates are below 20% for many institutions. As a new(ish) academic, it seems like the only way to get a grant is to be an old academic who has already received quite a few grants. The closest I’ve come to a good review from the Australian Research Council (ARC) has been one that was mildly complimentary about the concept of the project and was not at all enthusiastic about my lack of experience in managing a sizeable project.

It’s kind of dispiriting.

The steep climb to get enough experience to be eligible for a grant would be easier if the review process seemed more reliable. I’ve known more than a few people who just missed out on a grant, only to resubmit the same project and be excoriated by the reviewers the next year.

I’m far from the first to recognise the problem that not having enough experience to get into the grant system means that you can’t get the experience you need to be in the grant system.

I’ve accepted that I can’t change the fact of my limited experience. Instead, I decided to find a grant where limited experience isn’t a deal-breaker.

One I came across is a Stimulus Grant, which is offered by the Australian Centre for Health Service Innovation (AUSHSI). The academic director is Dr Nicholas Graves.

In a recent paper in the British Medical Journal, Graves et al studied the reliability of funding of all submitted Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grants from 2009. That is, they estimated variability in reviewers’ scores and used that variability to model the reliability of funding outcomes. Using their model, they found only the top 9% of projects were always funded and a majority of grants were only sometimes funded.

More than 59% of 620 funded grants were sometimes not funded when random variability was taken into account. Only 9% (n=255) of grant proposals were always funded, 61% (n=1662) never funded, and 29% (n=788) sometimes funded. The extra cost per grant effectively funded from the most effective system was $18,541.

Graves et al concluded that the only way to increase reliability in funding, given the same application process, would be to increase the number of reviewers and cost of the peer review process. Or, they suggested, a much shorter process that was far less onerous on the review panel could be equally reliable.

As it happens, someone has entrusted Graves with such a process.

AUSHSI calls for applications every 6 months or so and has a staggeringly short application process for $75,000 grants (which have a 1-year time-frame). To encourage projects with real-world outcomes, an AUSHSI application requires that researchers partner with clinicians.

The entire AUSHSI application is 1200 words, and there are no suggested headings. The smaller budget means that AUSHSI can be less concerned (actually, not at all concerned) about your track-record. The project description is read by a review committee that selects a shortlist of applicants, and this shortlist of applicants must present in person for 10 minutes to the committee. The committee asks questions for 10 minutes, deliberates for a few days, then notifies the successful applicants soon after.

In late September 2012, I applied for an AUSHSI grant with my collaborator Dr Kate Van Dooren (Queensland Centre for Intellectual and Developmental Disability), and our respective superiors. I met Kate through a Cooperative Research Centre and we found out that, despite our very different fields and research backgrounds, we shared an interest in how people understand and use systems and services. We agreed to keep in touch and apply for a grant should the opportunity arise. Somehow, I became aware of AUSHSI (probably through my RO Peeps at QUT), which seemed like a good fit. Kate’s boss, Dr Nicholas Lennox, is a clinician, which helped us meet that requirement. Kate and I worked on the 1200 word application together, shuttling a Word document back and forth. Our superiors approved our proposal and we submitted. It was a remarkably quick and painless process.

About a month passed before we were invited to present to the panel. Kate and Nick attended the panel review and, a few days later, we were notified of our success! We’ll begin the project in 2013.

I’m not sure I have any insight into what made our project successful, but this post isn’t about how to write a successful grant. Instead, the point here is to encourage you, dear Research Whisperer reader, to look to other, smaller grant schemes to get yourself started.

Smaller schemes tend to be a lot more specific about what they want, which might make it easier to target your application.

With this modest (but certainly not small) external competitive grant under our belts, our next application will be all the stronger. Even if we choose not to climb Mt ARC just yet, there are other ways to build our grant and project management experience.

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One Response to Speedy grants

  1. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    HI Ben

    Thanks for a great post! One of my favourite ‘speedy’ grants is the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health – Explorations.

    It provides US$100,000 on the back of a 2 page application form, with
    a four-month turn-around time from submission to announcement. Applicants can be from anywhere in the world, which is a nice touch.

    That’s not quite as quick as the Australian Centre for Health Service Innovation grants, but it is close. Another similarity is the lack of emphasis on track record. The Grand Challenge – Explorations application is anonymous. You aren’t allowed to identify yourself. Your idea stands alone.

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