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

Exhaustion

Jonathan Laskovsky Jonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets infrequently @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


I’ve been playing squash for about 12 years.

I play quite poorly (especially given 12 years of practice), but I enjoy it. Although I don’t really have any desire to get any better than I am, I’m naturally quite competitive. So, I’m there to win even though I’m only playing with friends for fun.

Over time, I’ve found that the one advantage I have is persistence. I run down every ball. Balls that I’ve only got a 3% chance of getting to – let alone making a shot off – I’ll run down. I’ll run down a ball if it means hitting a wall, hard. If I can’t run the ball down, I’ll throw my racquet at the ball on the 1 in 1,502,402 chance that it may just bounce off the racquet and hit a winning shot (which, not surprisingly, hasn’t happened in the 12 years).

Man playing squash - the image is blurred because he is moving fast.

Blurry, by Ed Houtrust on Flickr

Inevitably, this is an incredibly tiring way to play. After four games or so, I’m usually exhausted and my advantage has pretty much been nullified. At that point, something strange starts to happen. I start to play better shots. I’m now so tired that I can’t run everything down so I need to play better shots to avoid total defeat. Remember, I’m there to win.

All of this sports malarkey leads me to this: there’s something to be said for exhaustion. For being tired, miserable, irritable, and downright sick of your grant application. Because there’s a certain amount of clarity that comes with the exhaustion.

At that point of exhaustion, you are in a similar frame of mind to your reviewer. They have read 50-odd applications and are tired of it. They are incredulous that ‘an interdisciplinary approach’ is still being touted as innovative (it isn’t). They are probably wishing they hadn’t volunteered to be a reviewer. They’re trying to fathom the incredible project that is hidden in the convoluted language and structure of grant applications because they want to still believe that it is in there.

Your exhaustion is the key here. Like the poor squash player, you can harness your exhaustion to play a better shot.

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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?

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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Keeping referees sweet

Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)

Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)

Choosing the referees to list on a CV and job applications can be a complex business, particularly when you’re starting out.

You want a balance of voices who could credibly recommend you.

Perhaps someone who has been your academic supervisor, an examiner, a senior colleague who knows you and your work well enough, someone you’ve RA’d for?

For a non-academic job, maybe – just maybe – that first round of referees might include the boss of the fish and chip shop you worked at over the summer.

For academic jobs, there are other considerations in the mix, too: Should you have at least one international referee? One internal referee from your current position? Will it look odd if you don’t include any of your supervisors as referees? What if Professor Z on the hiring committee sees that you used Dr X and not Associate Professor Y…?

After navigating the rocky straits of choosing and securing your referees, you need to ensure that they’re on board with you for the duration of your job hunt(s).

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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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Planning ways to make your research happen

Carousel (Photo courtesy of Dominic Alves on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dominicspics)

Carousel (Photo courtesy of Dominic Alves on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dominicspics)

If I had a dollar for every time a researcher declared: “But why didn’t I know about this funding scheme? It’s perfect for my research!”…

In the depths of ARC Linkage and Future Fellowships (and other ‘major’ schemes), I often think of the myriad other schemes out there that require less of their applications, that prioritise different aspects of the research project or the research team.

There are some researchers who should be applying for these other schemes, because  ‘major’ grants are not a possibility. We should say this more often, but we don’t, probably because we have put the major research council grants on a pedestal.

These researchers may be academics from teaching-intensive backgrounds or teaching-intensive institutions. They might have had sustained career interruptions, or come to the research institution from industry/community. There are many reasons, and this may warrant a whole post by itself.

What I wanted to write about in this post is thinking broadly about funding your research, and creating a research plan for it.

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Telling research career stories – Part 2 – Common mistakes

Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)

Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)

Hopefully, after reading Part 1 of this ‘Telling research career stories’ series, you’ll know that I’m sympathetic to the difficulties of accounting for life’s curve-balls, and ambivalent about the process altogether. I know that it doesn’t feel fair or humane in many instances to reduce major upheavals to a few formalised lines.

Even through this sympathetic lens, however, and with my grant assessor and developer hat on, I can see that there are better, smoother ways to present your ‘track-record relative to opportunities’ narrative than others.

Grant applications are, at heart, very utilitarian documents to which you have to give a measure of life.

That said, giving reviewers the background to why your capacity to produce research was compromised doesn’t mean getting affirmation about your particular situation or life choices.

It’s a grant application, not a support group.

Here are the common mistakes researchers make when talking about career interruptions:

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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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