Golden-brown grant applications

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

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:

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

8 Responses to Golden-brown grant applications

  1. Great points. Institutions are giving mixed messages because some do make having applied a criteria for things like promotion. Being seen to be playing the game… (ARGGH). In addition, I know of Canadian universities who have internal competitions for seed funding that have as one criterion that you failed (But not too badly) at a national competition.

    When institutions hire me to work with their researchers on grant proposals I make it clear that if I think they aren’t ready I will recommend they delay applying. I just had a meeting with one early career researcher and instead of moving on to developing the proposal for the next deadline (albeit in February) I suggested he delay for a full year. I then laid out a strategy for getting ready over the next 18 months.

    I agree that the best researchers eagerly seek out support. My biggest fans are people who were successful before they started working with me. And they send less experienced colleagues to me, too.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Suggesting a delay to grant submission is sometimes the best way to proceed. Having researchers consolidate and develop their publication record is much more useful than flogging them to submit an application for the sake of it. We have ‘workplanning’ processes at our universities that are meant to cover the kind of planning for publications/grant preparation, but I don’t know if they fulfil this role very well. Many academic managers (i.e. Heads of Schools) also don’t have the knowledge/time/aptitude (various combinations of these) to guide their staff through this process in a realistic and supportive way.

      Word-of-mouth rules when it comes to being an advisor on these things. I count ‘repeat business’ as a sign of successful engagement and valuable advice imparted. Unfortunately, when you say (the same valuable, worthy) things too many times and people aren’t hearing it anymore, it can be frustrating.

  2. Linda Brennan says:

    Hi Tseen, it is possible to put together an ARC grant in a weekend. However, I need to point out that the weekend in question probably comes after about 20 years of developing ‘facility’ with the genre of grant writing, a deep engagement with the scholarship in the field (recent and relevant) and an aha moment the Friday evening before when the grant writer found the motivation to have a go at getting the Australian government to fund their long standing passion. Even slow academia has its fast paced flurries of activity from time to time.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      OK, I’ll give you that one, Linda. Mostly. In the circumstances you describe, I think a weekend ARC app can be solid to good, but it still won’t be polished. AND it may still get the dosh. ;)

  3. Pingback: The Research Whisperer: “Golden-brown grant applications” – making sure your research bid isn’t half baked! | MMU Research and Knowledge Exchange Blog

  4. Pingback: Getting the most out of the grant gauntlet | Kylie Soanes's Research

  5. Reza Mohammed says:

    I suspect that a Nobel Prize winner might be awarded funding for a proposal written on the back of a wet napkin the night before. For us mere mortals, especially those with less experience, we often underestimate the time it takes to pull together a good grant proposal.

    I do wonder if the all-weekender writing binge is as a consequence of time for grant writing not being factored into academics’ work plans?

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I think a Nobel Prize winner would still have to have a feasible budget…at least. ;)

      The crammed grant-writing bing is definitely a consequence of workload issues and, often, no planning. I find that experienced scholars can differ vastly in their approaches, with some embracing every assistance made available, and others considering themselves above mundane processes (such as signing forms…). Some, who write well and fast, can handle a crammed session of application writing very well; others, not so much. It also often depends on how well conceived their project idea is in the first place, and whether it has been rolling around in their heads for a while. So many conditional elements!

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