First!

Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs and Man-made Satelite Achievement Medal

Death medal, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I’ve read a couple of grant applications recently that said that they were first:

“This is the first study to…”

I’m always a bit wary of this sort of statement. To work, it needs to be undeniably true. That is, it isn’t enough that it’s a true statement. It needs to be uncontestable, unchallengeable.

To be undeniably true, it should reinforce the worldview of the reader. Your assessor should read the statement, nod and agree. If they don’t – if it raises any doubt in their mind – you may be in for a world of pain.

If you get an assessor that says ‘No it isn’t – what about [vaguely related study that isn’t anything like yours]’, then a series of things happen. First, they aren’t focused on the strengths of your application anymore.  Then, they’re distracted and may start looking for other doubtful statements. Their confidence starts to fade.

If you get a chance to reply to their criticisms, you’ll need to spend a lot of time trying to rebut their claim that you aren’t first, and justify your claim that you are.

There are a couple of other issues I see with claims to be first.

Often they are badly worded, which makes them too broad. You might feel that your study is the first to do this particular thing in this particular way. However, you need to make sure that what you have written is as clear and as comprehensive as you want it to be. If you are unclear, or a bit vague, or trim the wrong word in a late edit, you can end up with a claim that seems fine in context, but is too broad when read quickly, by a tired assessor with a pile of applications to rank.

Sometimes, in an effort to be able to claim to be doing something first, people make their research too narrow. Often these claims look like this:

“This will be the first study to look at this particular problem, in this particular sample population, using this particular methodology.”

Researchers have looked at this problem before, maybe even in this population, but not using this methodology. Those who did use this method didn’t use it on this sample. It may even be that researchers have used the method on this population, but not to look at this problem.

The problem with a claim that rests on this sort of a tripod is that, if any one claim is weak, the whole structure collapses. Also, it often is a symptom of the next problem, which I think of as the ‘left-handed field mice’ problem.

“This is the first study to look at this issue in left-handed field mice…”

Who cares! Clearly, yours is the first study to do this, but maybe that is because nobody else could be bothered. Even though left-handed field mice are your passion, nobody else cares.

This might be because the problem isn’t seen as important, or the area has been extensively researched already. There is no ‘burning platform’ – no urgent need to undertake this work right now. You may be able to carry on this study unfunded for some time, but it is never going to be prioritized by a funding body. [Please note that ‘left-handed field mice’ is a hypothetical example. If you actually study sinistral laterality in Apodemus, please feel free to write in and tell us about your funding. And, yes, I am aware that kangaroos and other animals demonstrate handedness.]

Finally, the claim to ‘first-ness’ might be untrue. It may be true for your discipline, but your research question might have been investigated in a different discipline, using very different tools and techniques. It might be that someone else is doing it right now, and they haven’t written up their work yet. Or it might have been reported in some obscure journal that you’ve not come across.

But I am first!

If you are first, and want to make a strong statement, you might want to consider how you say it.

You could lead the assessor through the background, so that by the time you say that you are first, they can see how you know that to be true. My issue with a bald ‘first’ statement is that it begs the question “Is it really?”. If you make your case before you make the claim, you can forestall that question.

Alternatively, you could make a strong opening claim, then explicitly back it up. That is, you could say (effectively) “I’m first, and this is why…”. This has the advantage of making a clear claim, then immediately justifying it to preempt any doubts the assessor might have.

You could use different words: ‘pioneering’; ‘primary’; ‘foremost’; ‘principal’; or ‘inaugural’ might be words that more accurately reflect what you are trying to say. Just don’t say ‘cutting-edge’…

However you say it, it isn’t enough just to be first. You need to then say why your research matters and how your plan is going to work. These are the foundations of a strong project.

Being first is an indicator that you are breaking new ground, but it isn’t – in and of itself – enough to get you funded.

My job as a research grant developer is to make sure that your application is technically complete, and my advice tends to be defensive. I try to protect your application from attack, to eliminate the weaknesses. I’m not a domain expert, so I can’t judge if your proposal is fresh and exciting. If your colleagues are saying that ‘first’ is the most exciting thing about this proposal, then stick with it. In the end, you need to believe in the application that you submit.

The deeper problem

Beyond any issues around how assessors react to the term ‘first’, I have a deeper issue with this sort of a claim. It feeds into an image of research that just isn’t true.

We all know that research is a slow, collaborative process, where each project contributes one small brick to a much larger edifice. We should know that the foundations for that building have been laid by others (often long before you started), and that it will be finished by others, probably long after you are gone. Your work builds on work done by others, sometimes your rivals, and often by people you don’t even know. By publishing your work, you issue an explicit invitation for others to rework it, rebut it, and adopt it and run with it (sometimes in a completely different direction). This is the majesty of the international research effort in the Age of Reason.

You know that, I know that. The assessors know that. The funding bodies know that. Everybody understands that.

Everybody understands that no one project will solve a problem, that no one team (or lone researcher) has all the answers, that flashes of brilliance are built on years of dedication.

Everybody knows all that. However, research funding is competitive. There is not enough money to fund everybody. As we are fond of quoting, “It’s not a test, it’s a contest” (Mark Bisby, former VP Research, Canadian Institutes of Health Research). There is no ‘pass mark’ – you have to actually beat the other people to the money.

This encourages applicants to claim that their work is unique, that they are the best, that their problem is the most important / interesting / difficult problem in the world, and that it needs to be solved right now!

As far as the grant applications are concerned, all applicants are geniuses who will single-handedly cure cancer and bring about world peace if the funding agency would just deign to grant this insignificant amount of money, this one time.

The process encourages you to make hyperbolic claims, to say that you are the first. I don’t have a solution to that.

I’m just encouraging you to be careful and consider your reader. At best, your claim will excite the assessor and energise them as they read your application. Conversely, it may serve to annoy or distract them. At worst, it may turn out that your claim just isn’t true.

Just be careful out there, OK?

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

4 Responses to First!

  1. MJJ says:

    Reblogged this on Going Medieval and commented:
    Very apt considering my current progress with research plans and funding apps! Many thanks, Research Whisperer.

    Like

  2. L Smith says:

    Reblogged this on Funding your research and commented:
    Really important advice! think about the way you structure and present your research. Ask yourself the question, are you really the first? And even if you are, is that a good thing? I know it is a question I ask all the time when reading proposals that make such claims.

    Like

  3. Pingback: ‘Nobody’s ever asked this before’ and other research question misconceptions | The Research Companion

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