Five types of funding

An intricate page of Chinese printing, overlaid with many chops and seals

Providing funds for suppressing the Heavenly Kingdom, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Some people seem to think about research funding in the same way that I think about the doctor – only when it is an emergency.

That’s not the best way to approach it. You need  a plan and you need to know what funds are coming up when.

To plan for the long term and shape your searches, you need to have a picture of what is actually possible. Different types of grants fit different situations. Here is the way that I think about funding.

Scholarships and fellowships

Scholarships and fellowships are given to individuals. That means that more weight is given to the person than the project. Don’t get me wrong – you still need an exciting project, but the balance of assessment will be different.

In general, scholarships are for students and fellowships are for staff, but that isn’t a hard and fast rule.

Scholarships and fellowships can vary in duration. I’ve seen overseas fellowships that are only three months long and I’ve seen senior fellowships that are five years long.

If you are an early career researcher, you should give serious consideration to an international fellowship (such as a postdoctoral placement). It will give you a much wider view of your field, and help you to understand how things work internationally.

Examples of scholarships and fellowships include the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowships and the Humboldt Research Fellowship for Postdoctoral Researchers.

Make sure you know what these scholarships and fellowships offer. Some ‘visiting fellowships’ only offer some desk-space and use of the university library; they don’t provide a stipend/salary, or any travel funds.

Seed funding

Seed funding is intended to get you started on a project. It provides a small amount of money to allow you to prove the potential of an idea, so that you can then move on to a larger project.

Assessors will be looking at the idea. You will still need to demonstrate that you can do the job, but your idea will be the focus of your application. Often the best seed funding applications apply completely new methodologies to established problems, or move out into territory that nobody else has yet explored.

External agencies can often use seed funding to fund risky experimental work. Grants are generally short (often 6-12 months long) and can be quite small. Because the work is high risk, the funding agency wants to give you just enough money to prove that your idea has potential, as quickly as possible.

Universities often provide internal seed funding on the understanding that it will lead to an application for future funding. Ask your local research whisperer what is available.

Examples include the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Development Grants and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health Exploration grants.

Project funding

Project funding is probably the sort of funding that most people think about when you think about research funding. It is the standard term for grants that fund a team of people to work on a particular project for an extended period of time.

Assessors are generally looking for a skilled team that has a viable project. Three to five years of funding for 4-5 people can quickly add up, so the stakes are high. Only the best teams, with the most exciting ideas, can be funded.

Examples include the Australian Office of Learning and Teaching grants and National Science Foundation standard grants in the USA.

Centre funding

Centres are generally funded for 3-6 years, although I have seen them for 9 years. Funds are generally much larger than project funding, and are designed to fund a program of work that encompasses many projects.

Assessors are looking at the track record of the team leader and the team, the long-term benefits of the program of work, the facilities available, the management arrangements, and the support that already exists for the work. The leader of a centre is generally an acknowledged expert who has shown that they can do great research and inspire others to work together.

To my mind, a good centre proposal bundles together the excellent work that is already being done and adds unicorns and rainbows. Some centre proposals start from scratch, but it can mean that you spend a lot of time bedding things down.

Examples include the Australian Cooperative Research Centres and the European Research Council Advanced Grants. The Advanced Grants are really interesting to me.  They are described like project funding, but at €2.5 million over five years, they feel more like centres. They pick one person and let that person build their team. What a great idea!

Prizes and awards

Prizes and awards are given for work that has been done in the past, rather than work that is done in the future. They shine a light on excellence by rewarding and promoting it.

They are almost always given to individuals, and they look very shiny on your CV. As a result, they are very competitive most of the time. Sometimes their scope is quite broad. Others can be focused on a particular discipline or geographic area. Some reward you with money, others just provide you with recognition.

‘Awards’ is a bit of a confusing term, actually. When you get a grant, it is ‘awarded’ to you. The contract with the funding agency is often referred to as the award. Prizes and awards also sometimes have a contract, so I guess that you might need to sign the award when you are awarded an award.

Examples include the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes and the MacArthur Fellows. I love the MacArthur Fellows program because it’s not just a prize, it’s a surprise. You don’t apply. They just pick you out and give you US$625,000. Not too shabby!


So, there you have it – 5 different types of grants for 5 very different situations.

This isn’t a definitive list. There are lots of ways to build a typology of funding: size of award; local vs regional vs national vs international; by discipline; by career stage…

The important thing is to have an overall picture in your mind that is wider than just ‘project grants’.

How do you divide things up? What have I missed?

Hope is not a strategy

Yellow ribbons, showing prayers for reunification in Hangul.

Prayers for Korea, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I hate ‘hope’.

More specifically, I hate ‘hope’ in grant applications.

Do me a favour. Go to your corpus of work and do a global find-and-replace. Replace ‘hope’ with ‘I don’t have a clue’. Because, when I read it in your application, that’s what I do in my mind.

Let me re-write three examples of hoping for you, as they would be read by a critical assessor:

1. You say: By [doing this work], the authors hope that existing [tools will be improved].

Assessor reads: We’ve done this work, but we don’t think it is going to have any effect.

2. You say: Our hope is that … organisations … and researchers [will] use the [tool] as a resource for information sharing, which in turn we hope will save time and money.

Assessor reads: We don’t have any idea what our stakeholders really need. Nor do we know if our tool will be effective.

3. You say: The evaluation project will hopefully not require further funding.

Assessor reads: The evaluation project will certainly require funding, but we couldn’t fit it into the budget. That’s because we don’t really want to do evaluation anyway and, if it can’t be funded, we won’t have to do it.

‘Hope’ is the academic equivalent of ‘build it, and they will come’. Except…they won’t.

If you don’t have a plan – a robust plan, based on data, experience, and ingenuity – you will fail. Hope is a signpost towards your failure. You can’t just hope that things will happen. Research doesn’t work that way.

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Beyond 2015 – beyond borders

A red tabard with the name and logo of the Nanjing Institute of Mechatronics Technology in Chinese and English.

Nanjing Institute of Mechatronics Technology, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In 2015, the Millennium Development Goals expire. What comes next? At the moment, the world is engaged in a giant conversation about how to do this again, only better. The Association of Commonwealth Universities are encouraging universities to engage in this conversation. I think that’s a great idea. Universities, through their teaching, research and civic engagement, help to make the world a better place. We need to be engaged in this conversation.

Like many universities, my university sees itself as a global institution. As a global university, I believe that my university should know how it aligns with the Millennium Development Goals. It provides one measure of how global we are, of how much we are helping the world at large.

The Millennium Development Goals are global goals. They recognise that global problems require global solutions. They understand that no one person, organisation or country can do it alone. We need to push beyond boundaries. We need to look outside our bubbles.

In my own research, I look at privacy on the Web. Lately, some of that work has examined how sharing works on social media services. By its very nature, the World Wide Web is a global phenomenon. Social networking services promise that you can share with anyone, anywhere. So you would think that research about them would be global in nature, too. It makes sense, right? I thought so too – until I went to China.

In 2013, I spent seven months in Nanjing. It was different and wonderful and amazing and unsettling and just brilliant! I had a great time. Thank you, Nanjing.

Before I left, I thought, “I wonder what work has been done in my area on the Chinese social networking services.” Not as much as I imagined, as it turned out. The table below shows the number of articles on Google Scholar that mention the names of some popular social networking services.

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What’s your plan beyond 2015?

Mathematical formula written on a folding paper fan

Numbers on a fan, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I’m keen on planning for the future. Whether it is a plan for the near future, like a to-do list, or a plan for the far future, like a bucket list, I’m in favour of it. In part, that is because research funding is all about planning for the future.

A long time ago, when I was just a young whisperer, I used to feel guilty when I had to prod researchers to write funding applications. They were all enormously busy. A common refrain was “I don’t have time for research.”

Then a wonderful physicist, Bill van Megen, changed my attitude. Exactly what he said to me is now lost in time, but it was something like this:

I enjoy writing grant applications. It’s the only time I ever get to plan for the future. The rest of the time I’m either working on experiments or writing up experiments. Grant applications let me think about what comes next.

He was right. More importantly, as an activity, research enquiry inhabits the tension between the past and the future. Most of the time we are looking at the past: What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? But at the same time we have our eye on the future. That is, will it happen again?

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Who are you writing for?

Screen showing a paper crane with sponsors logos, and a speakers podium in front.

Thanks to our sponsors, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Your grant application will probably only be read by half a dozen people who matter.

Sure, you might get your colleagues to read it in draft. It might be reviewed by your local research whisperer. But they aren’t the people who matter! They are not the people you are writing it for; they aren’t your real audience.

They aren’t the six that matter.

Who are the all-important six? Well, one or two people from the funding agency will read it. They might send it out to three to four assessors – not all of them might respond. Between them, those half-dozen people will decide if it gets funded. They will pass a recommendation to a board or a government minister who will approve the funding. Someone from the minister’s office might scan a list of titles and summaries before your application is finally approved. 

That’s it – that’s your audience. Those half-dozen people decide the fate of your application. They are your audience. Wouldn’t it be great if you knew who they were?

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Crowdfunding your research

Dear researcher

Thank you very much for sending through your funding proposal. You mentioned that you are trying to obtain corporate sponsorship for this project. That is excellent, and you should continue.

You might also like to think about using a crowdfunding service. Crowdfunding allows you to raise funds from the public. It isn’t for everybody and it is a lot of work but I think that it might suit your project.

To this end, I’ve done a quick analysis of your project’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) that might help you to decide if you want to try to raise funds this way. I hope that you find it useful. Let me know if you want to go ahead.

Before I begin, I should make it clear that everything that follows is just my opinion. It’s early days for crowdfunding, and I don’t have any working experience with it yet. Read more of this post

Don’t be submissive

The Oni needs you (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell)

The Oni needs you (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

Repeat after me:

Submitting a grant application is not a valid Key Performance Indicator (KPI).

If you manage research staff, write out the following line fifty times:

I will not measure ‘dollars won’ as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI).

After Tseen posted her plea for “no more half-baked applications“, one of our twitterati pointed out that sometimes applications are half-baked because submitting the application satisfies a key performance indicator in a work-plan.

I know that there might be a strong temptation to list either ‘grants submitted’ or ‘dollars won’ (or both) as key performance indicators. As a Research Whisperer, this drives me crazy! In the first case, it pushes people to write grant applications that they can’t win. In the second, it adds completely unpredictable factors like government funding policy into the performance review process. In both cases, it measures the wrong thing.

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Exploring an open future

This article first appeared in Connect volume 6 number 2 pages 14-15. Connect is designed for casual and sessional staff at Australian universities. If that sounds like you, check it out.


A bookshelf seen through a partially open doorway.

The new lightshade, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Two things happened recently that might, in the long run, make life easier for casual, sessional staff and early career academics. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) was released and the International Council for Open Research and Open Education (ICORE) held its first meeting.

DORA addresses research quality metrics and calls for revision of the use of the Journal Impact Factor. It has strong support from senior academics and research institutes across the world. In Australia (where I write from) The Garvan Institute, the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, the Bionics Institute, the Burnet Institute and the Victor Chang Institute are all signatories.

While many of the original signatories are medical researchers, DORA isn’t just for the medical research fraternity. The way that research quality metrics are used is an issue of concern to all researchers. DORA says that research assessment should look at the underlying research, not the metrics. The first Excellence of Research in Australia (ERA) exercise showed how journal rankings can be used to compare research across Australia. Once the government does that, universities usually extend the measure to departments, centres and individuals. That can have particularly serious consequences for part-time, sessional and new staff.

For a document written by very established researchers, the DORA (and accompanying press releases) mention “early-stage investigators” a lot. Even though the authors have built their careers around Journal Impact Factors, they understand that rigid use of metrics will make it very difficult for emerging researchers to get started.

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Aim for the centre

So they’re talking about amending the leg-before-wicket rule again. I don’t know why they bother for they’ll never get it right…”
– Opening lines of Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser.

A Korean palace guard in traditional costume, with bow and sword

Bow, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

My university has rewritten its policy on research centres, to…

…optimise and support RMIT’s key research objectives through the identification and establishment of structured Research ‘Groups’, ‘Centres’, and ‘Institutes’…

We’ve talked in the past about the importance of having a research plan and building a network. As an aspirational aim, it doesn’t get much bigger than developing your own research centre. In this article, I’d like to talk about a couple of issues that you should think about when setting up your centre.

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Deakin’s crowdfunding success

Sophie counting out Chinese money in to piles of 100 Yuan bills

After the heist, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Over the last two months, I’ve been watching Deakin University’s venture into crowdfunding research. It has been an exciting and very successful initiative.

Deakin University is based in Australia, so they worked with an Australian crowdfunding platform, Pozible, to make this happen. In May-June 2013, Deakin ran eight funding campaigns through Pozible.

Six of the eight exceeded their targets!

Pozible is an ‘all or nothing’ crowdfunding platform, so the projects that didn’t succeed won’t get anything at all. The others will get about 93% of the contributions after transaction fees are deducted.

Here is a breakdown of the numbers. The two projects marked ‘N/A’ did not reach their target, and so raised no funds at all.

Table 1: Deakin University fundraising on Pozible, June 2013.
Project title Raised Supporters $ / person
‘Caching’ in on game play N/A 42 N/A
Healthy gigglers $12,832 45 $285.16
Mighty maggots v flesh nom bugs $9,970 129 $77.29
Discovering Papua New Guinea’s mountain mammals $21,913 298 $73.53
Retake Melbourne $6,417 68 $94.37
How salty is your seafood? N/A 11 N/A
Would you like seaweed with that? $5,435 88 $61.76
Voyages of discovery $5,005 41 $122.07
Total raised $61,572

I love what Deakin has done! When I saw what they were trying to do, my initial reaction was “Why didn’t I think of that?”. I have been trying to convince individuals at my university to try crowdfunding, without any success. By taking an institutional approach, Deakin were able to get more traction.

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