Golden-brown grant applications
27 August 2013 8 Comments
A colleague once boasted to me that she had pulled together an ARC Discovery over a weekend.
I asked if she thought the application had a chance of being awarded. She shrugged and said she didn’t care; she was under pressure to submit an ARC application and that was what she was doing.
Even then, before my life as a research grant developer, I immediately thought, “Well, that’s a waste of everyone’s time.”
Yes, major grant systems are overloaded and under-resourced.
Yes, many excellent and worthy projects go unfunded.
And much that is not so excellent or worthy goes unfunded, too. I would venture to say that these should never have been submitted in the first place.
You can’t write a great major grant application from scratch in a weekend.
You just can’t.
As I’ve become more experienced on this other side of the fence in the area of research development, this fact has crystallised.
Even if you devote the whole weekend’s 48 hours to pulling it together, it won’t be great. It might be eligible and compliant, but chances are it’ll be flabby, inconsistent, and unpolished.
In other words, half-baked.
At the time, having seen your caffeine- or sugar-fuelled frenzy to the end, you’re probably looking it over and thinking it’s pretty darn good. “What are these people going on about?” you might say, “It can be done in a weekend!”
On review, after the caffeine/sugar high, the application will start to look a bit less appetising, possibly even inedible.
Unfortunately, with the increasing pressure from institutional upper echelons to land competitive research funding, the need to be seen to apply is more insidious than ever. Good researchers, research managers and academic leaders know that it’s stupid to force researchers to apply for grants when the project or researchers aren’t ready.
There is the general understanding that most first-go applications won’t get up, and it’s only on their second or third go in the scheme that the project might be awarded. That’s at least a two or three year ‘baking’ period for the application itself, not to mention the surrounding work of building the team’s track-record or piloting portions of the research.
Yes, some very seasoned researchers and teams blitz every application they submit. Chances are, they didn’t get into that league over a weekend. The best researchers I know are happy to put themselves and their work through every developmental opportunity that’s offered. They are often the ones who need it least, but they are the ones who recognise most the value to be had from reworking, clarifying, clarifying and clarifying some more, whittling wordiness and tightening the project’s narrative flow.
The emphasis on ‘quality’ in research, imbricated with monitoring of inputs/outputs, seems to have fostered a form of ‘fast quality’ – a culture of academic horse-trading, projects that offer more opportunities to publish findings (so as to be seen to be always ‘producing’), with not a lot of room for real innovation and its attendant risk.
In an attempt to push back against the reification of productivity metrics and disciplinary justifications, a group of German scientists released the Slow Science Manifesto, and founded the Slow Science Academy, in 2010. In the Manifesto, they declare:
We do need time to think. We do need time to digest. We do need time to misunderstand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences. We cannot continuously tell you what our science means; what it will be good for; because we simply don’t know yet. Science needs time.
True for science and for all other academic disciplines. Writer for the Scientific American blog, John Horgan, has stated that the majority of his job involves “heaping calumny on bad science” and, if Slow Science came to pass, he wouldn’t have anything left to write about (Why the ‘Slow Science’ movement must be crushed, July 2011).
The Thesis Whisperer wrote about Slow Academia, a post that discussed aspects of academic work that benefit from more Slow and less Fast. She focused on the doctoral thesis as the site of necessary deliberation, where it’s crucial to take time to enmesh one’s work properly in its disciplinary contexts.
I can already hear the snorts of derision out there – ‘Slow academia? Impossible in this day and age!’ I would beg to differ. Quality, well-developed writing and research stand the test of time; incremental quickies on the publication front most often do not.
Even if you don’t transform your entire research practice to embrace slowness and time to deliberate, try it out on the grant application front. If you’re going to throw your hat into a major grant round, make it worthwhile submitting the application. Don’t be remembered by assessors for all the wrong reasons!
If nothing else, think of your colleagues and support people internally who are reading and commenting on you and your work. They are giving their time to help you develop your application – don’t waste it. This can often be a rich process through which to find future (internal) research mentors and collaborators.
Aim to present only edible, tasty applications that leave them wanting more.
Other Research Whisper posts on this topic: