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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How NOT to pad your budget

U.S. Marine Corps, bedding down a big barrage balloon, Parris Island, S.C. - May 1942 (Library of Congress)

U.S. Marine Corps, bedding down a big barrage balloon, Parris Island, S.C. – May 1942 (Library of Congress)

Just before I had completed my previous budget post – “Conquer the budget, conquer the project” – Twitter threw an associated topic my way: padding your budget.

It grew (again) out of the livetweeted session of Aidan Byrne’s talk at ANU that @thesiswhisperer attended. @bronwynhinz responded to Inger’s tweet on Byrne’s admonishment for padding budgets with:

“How is ‘padding’ defined? Waffling instead of being succinct? Unnecessary/tangential material in significance sections?”

At the time, I said I’d write about it and – months later – here it is! Without realising it, the forerunner to this post is actually Emily Kothe’s (@emilyandthelime’s) tongue-in-cheek piece about “Research on a shoe-string“.

In it, Emily talked about some of the ways budgets can be inflated with unnecessary costs to justify the amount you’d ask for from the funding body.

Basically, ‘padding the budget’ means putting unnecessary expenses into your project costings. A good budget is logical, lean and costed with integrity.

Often, a chat with your organisation’s research office people (RO Peeps) can save you a world of pain. I’ve heard that, sometimes, there are RO Peeps who actually do your budget for you. Of course, when I say “do your budget for you”, I mean that you have already thought it through (or talked it through) with stunning clarity and have listed the precise items you want to make your project happen.

No-one can (or should) actually do your budget for your project. Your budget is inextricable from the methods, aims, and personnel of your project – it cannot be done in isolation, and I’ve banged on about this before.

Back to the topic of the post!

Here are my top five ways NOT to pad your grant application budget:

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How I assess a funding application: Part 2 – Feasibility

Sea of Wisdom temple (Beijing) by Jonathan O’Donnell (on Flickr)

The previous post in this series addressed the issue of how I assess track-records on grant applications. It talked about a range of X-factors that I look for when assessing applications with (typically) excellent research CVs.

This post focuses on project feasibility and whether the project sounds like it’s going to work.

On one level, it’s a dead obvious question: Can the project be done?

It is, however, an aspect that depends entirely on the evidence presented in the application that:

  1. The team (or individual) is good and experienced;
  2. The budget’s credible and appropriately linked to a methodology that has integrity; and
  3. The project itself has significant intellectual rigour and vigour.

One of the trickiest balancing acts that I find with grant applications is demonstrating innovation and creativity in your research without sacrificing feasibility.

This can sometimes boil down to a question of ‘do you have a Plan A and Plan B?’. If we’re talking about the honest face of research, we’d have to admit that things don’t always work. The project direction that’s so assiduously planned may go awry in the first six months when the research team implodes or the data doesn’t do what you’d like it to. Research is often exploratory, which introduces doubt about what its real final outcomes might be.

If you were being completely honest, you’d have to say that the project may not work.

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How I assess a funding application: Part 1 – Track-records

Now that our Discovery applications have been fed into the gaping maw of the Australian Research Council (ARC) competition, I thought I’d take my 2-part series of posts about assessing funding applications out for a spin. Part 1 focuses on track-records and the research team. Part 2 will address an application’s overall feasibility.


“It’s all a lottery!”

“You need to game the system or you haven’t got a hope.”

“Only those who’ve had them before will get one.”

Sea of Wisdom temple (Beijing) by Jonathan O’Donnell (on Flickr)

The urban myths circulating about grant rounds are as tenacious as those about waking up in ice-filled bathtubs and realising you’ve had your kidney harvested.

No doubt, spending so much time and investing intellectual resources in a major application makes the lack of success bite that much deeper.

Having been around the traps as a supplicant, awardee, assessor, and now advisor, I’d have to say that most funding assessment processes do end up giving money to the strongest teams and most compelling projects. This isn’t to say that the processes or choices are always perfect, or that rogue results (in good and bad ways) don’t pop up. There’s always that story of the ARC Discovery that was written over a weekend and got up.

This post is about how I assess funding applications and, in particular, the track-record components. Over my academic career, I’ve:

  • Been part of judging panels for niche academic association committees that gave out travel and small grants,
  • Been invited onto a university’s fellowship selection panel, and
  • Assessed for a bunch of international funding bodies (in Australia, Canada, and Hong Kong).

I’m not claiming that my process is necessarily best practice, but I thought it might be useful for you to gain insight into one assessor’s valuations (and, it has to be said, biases).

Each funding scheme’s selection criteria may differ in detail but the two basic elements of track-record and project idea are always there.

The role of the assessor, for me, is in gauging the quality and feasibility of the overall proposition. The fact that the ARC now gives ‘feasibility’ an overt weighting in the Discovery scheme gives rise to interesting conversation (but that’s for another post!).

What do I look for when assessing the track-records of researchers on grant applicants?

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Rational responses to referees

Preliminary evidence appears to show that this approach to responding to referees is – on balance – probably sub-optimal. (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

This post is co-authored by Adam Golberg of Cash for Questions (UK), and Jonathan O’Donnell and Tseen Khoo of The Research Whisperer (Australia).

It arises out of a comment that Jonathan made about understanding and responding to referees on one of Adam’s posts about what to do if your grant application is unsuccessful. This seemed like a good topic for an article of its own, so here it is, cross-posted to our respective blogs.

A quick opening note on terminology: We use ‘referee’ or ‘assessor’ to refer to academics who read and review research grant applications, then feed their comments into the final decision-making process. Terminology varies a bit between funders, and between the UK and Australia. We’re not talking about journal referees, although some of the advice that follows may also apply there.

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There are funding schemes that offer applicants the opportunity to respond to referees’ comments. These responses are then considered alongside the assessors’ scores/comments by the funding panel. Some funders (including the Economic and Social Research Council [ESRC] in the UK) have a filtering process before this point, so if you are being asked to respond to referees’ comments, you should consider it a positive sign as not all applications get this far. Others, such as the Australian Research Council (ARC), offer you the chance to write a rejoinder regardless of the level of referees’ reports.

If the funding body offers you the option of a response, you should consider your response as one of the most important parts of the application process.  A good response can draw the sting from criticisms, emphasise the positive comments, and enhance your chances of getting funding.  A bad one can doom your application.

And if you submit no response at all? That can signal negative things about your project and research team that might live on beyond this grant round.

The first thing you might need to do when you get the referees’ comments about your grant application is kick the (imaginary) cat.* This is an important process. Embrace it.

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The nitty and the gritty

Untitled (stool for guard) by Taiyo Kimura at MONA, Tasmania

'in a dark place' by Jonathan O'Donnell on Flickr

How did you feel when you finished your last grant application? Let me guess: you were exhausted, running late, and sick of the sight of the thing.

Hold onto that feeling. Embrace it. Understand it.  Because that might have been how your assessors felt when they were reading your application.

They probably had a stack of applications too high to jump over, and reading them in the gaps between the rest of their life (i.e. late at night, when they were traveling, when they were tired). Unless you were very lucky, they might have been reading them piece-meal, a bit at a time. And they would have been rushing, because they needed to get their reports back in time and there were other things calling on their time.

As a result, they might not have been in top form when they reviewed your application.

But that’s enough about them; let’s get back to you!

“This application needed a good proof-read before being submitted.”

When you get a comment like that, it isn’t much comfort to remember that you only just submitted the application in time, an hour or so before the deadline. However, that is exactly the sort of thing that assessors say in their reports. Given that you’re asking for several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of funding, they have a point.

When an assessor is tired, or disappointed, or feels that you are wasting their time, they can often become quite critical.

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