The research game

World of Warcraft screencap by Natalie Ford (https://www.flickr.com/photos/natalief)

World of Warcraft screencap by Natalie Ford (https://www.flickr.com/photos/natalief)

People often say that research, and particularly research funding, is a bit of a game. It isn’t meant as a compliment.

When people say this, they are usually complaining about being excluded. They go on to talk about how you need to be ‘in the know’, about how people on funding bodies give money to their ‘mates’. Often they spend a fair amount of energy trying to work out how to game the system.

Not surprisingly, I don’t subscribe to those views.

I subscribe to the view that research funding agencies work hard to make sure that they are as fair as they can be. I believe that, while there are historical biases in most systems of funding, they do a very good job of channelling funds to the best researchers available. And that, in general, our funding models serve us well.

It is worth thinking about how the research cycle works, and it doesn’t help to disparage it too much.

Given my role, I think about research a lot. Mostly I’m thinking about the funding application that is sitting right in front of me at that moment. When I have a chance, though, I like to look at research through different lenses and from different perspectives. If you want to learn more about what you do, look at it from a paradigm outside your own.

In that spirit, I’d like to take a moment to look at three different types of computer games as metaphors for the research process. Despite my attempt to dress it up in fancy words, there isn’t anything very special going on here – I just think it will be fun.

READ MORE

In praise of national networks

Photo by Noel Lopez (http://digerata.net) from unsplash.com

Photo by Noel Lopez (http://digerata.net) from unsplash.com

I was listening to a wise old researcher the other day when she said:

International networks are lovely, but it is your national network that will get you funded.

I realised that she was right.

We talk a lot about the importance of building an international network, but we don’t often talk about the importance of building a local network.

We put a lot of time into going to international conferences, looking for opportunities to get out of our own countries, and there are very good reasons for that. International conferences, by their very nature, tend to provide a wider point of view, a better sense of what is going on in a field.

International links provide enormous opportunities for better research, whether it is comparative research across cultures or access to more specialised equipment and facilities. Also, getting outside your own country helps to widen your perspective.

However, my job is to get you funded, and so I’m going to tell you what she told me:

It is your national networks that will fund you.

Read more of this post

What makes a winning budget?

How do you build a winning budget? Rule number one: listen to Aiden Byrne. He runs the Australian Research Council (ARC). He knows what he is talking about. He says,

He knows (way better than I do) what makes a winning budget. After all, he is the one that gives out the money.

Tseen has already written a brilliant post on the benefits of early budget planning. I thought that I would talk about how I, as a research whisperer, can help you when you are building your application. Like Tseen, I want to help you when you are planning your project. The budget is a big part of that.

So, what do I look for?

Abacus (Photo by Jenny Downing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenny-pics)

Abacus (Photo by Jenny Downing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenny-pics)

Well, first and most obviously, do you have a budget yet? This may seem obvious, given the aim of the exercise is to ask for money, but it isn’t obvious to everybody.

I’ve had someone send me a draft application called something like “research-plan-v15.doc”. They had done 15 versions of their project plan, and zero versions of their budget. That doesn’t work.

Your budget is where the rubber hits the road in your application. Without a budget, you can waffle on forever about how brilliant your project will be. Within your budget, you need to decide how many interviews you are going to do, how many days you are going to spend in the field, how many participants you expect to attend your workshops. You need to put dollars against activities, which means you need to be specific.

Your budget is a proxy for project planning. Read more of this post

Allow me to introduce myself

My university, like many others, is racing to embrace an open future. We are putting stuff into our repository as fast as we can. Each item has a unique identifier, like an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) or a Digital Object Identifier (DOI), so that we know exactly which book or paper we are talking about.

We are also encouraging staff to share their research data, where they can. We are working with the Australian National Data Service (ANDS), through their Cite My Data service, to make sure that these data sets also have Digital Object Identifiers.

Excitingly, these identifiers will link the papers, chapters, artworks, and (insert your favourite research output here) with the data sets. How cool is that? When I write my groundbreaking libretto, drawing on my amazing new data set, everybody will know exactly which dataset was used in exactly which libretto.

And everybody will know exactly which ‘me’ did it, because I’ll have included my ORCID ID, Scopus Author ID, Google Scholar ID, or my (insert your favourite researcher ID scheme here).

Everyone will know, that is, except for my university. My university will just have to guess.

Read more of this post

Five reasons to ignore the big schemes

Jo + Kerryn, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Pop quiz, peeps. Name a funding agency.

Quick, what’s the first one you thought of?

If you are from the US, you probably said ‘National Science Foundation’. If you are from Europe, you probably said ‘FP7′. In the UK, Canada, or Australia, you probably named one of the national Research Councils.

In each country, there are a handful of funding agencies that tower over the research imagination. Applicants mythologise them. Recipients revere them. Universities lionise them. They dominate the academic funding conversation to such an extent that the names of all other funding sources are drowned out.

In Australia (where I come from), we only talk about two: the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). You might hear some highfalutin’ talk about the Australian Competitive Grants Register (ACGR), and ‘Category 1′ funding, but it’s just code for those two funding agencies.

Don’t believe me? There are almost seventy ‘Category 1′ funding bodies on the Australian Competitive Grants Register. I’ll bet most Australian researchers can’t name another three with any certainty.

The problem with this is that researchers, particularly new researchers, only ever hear about those funding agencies. They never hear about the smaller, more targeted government schemes, funding from state and local government agencies, local or international philanthropic funding agencies, or new possibilities like crowd funding. That’s just crazy! Read more of this post

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.

READ MORE

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.

Read more of this post

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.

READ MORE

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?

READ MORE

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?

Read more of this post

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 12,196 other followers