The price of poor grant feedback
29 September 2015 3 Comments
There is that moment when you find out the results of a long-awaited grant round.
It can be euphoric and somewhat surreal, or it could lead to much shoulder-slumping.
Given today’s research funding environment and the success rates in major funding rounds, there’s probably more shoulder-slumping than anyone would like.
This wrenching, life-affecting result is a tough phase to get through. That’s why I wrote “Picking up the pieces“, for researchers to look ahead and get back into the grant application cycle, after the requisite, understandable period of ranting and tearing of hair.
Recently, I’ve heard several anecdotes about unsuccessful grant applications and their aftermath, and it made me want to revisit this topic. Not quite in a white-hot rage (as can be Research Whisperer’s wont), but certainly with a sustained seething.
My issue is the poor to non-existent feedback that often accompanies unsuccessful grant applications.
I know major research councils are always overwhelmed and understaffed, so the absolutely minimal feedback that most provide is unfortunate but understandable. The rounds I’m talking about in this post, though, are those for smaller funding bodies, and especially – ESPECIALLY – internal university funding rounds.
After the amount of work that most grant applications entail, it’s always anticlimactic to get a ‘yes/no’ result.
Clicking on an email is not at all like the physical tension of opening an envelope and scrabbling for the letter within – I’ve done both for successful and unsuccessful applications. At least with a hardcopy letter, you can screw it up in a rage and pitch it across the room. With email…not so much. That’s when you need a session at the gym, or a long walk, or to knead some dough, or to find something you can pulverise.
After the rage subsides, you have to sit with the disappointment. This is an unpleasant thing to do. No-one likes it and, despite what some might say, no-one is completely unaffected by it.
What I find helps a lot at this stage is revisiting any feedback that was provided, without the red cloud of rage obscuring my vision. The feedback helps practically because it provides an anchor for the next developmental stages of the project application. It helps emotionally because it flags why the application didn’t get up, and gives you a form of closure. You may not agree with the reasons, but it’s better than a resounding silence. Much better.
When I’m talking about feedback here, I don’t mean providing reams of text and advice. I just mean telling people why their application wasn’t successful (or competitive in that round). Even if it’s really bad news, getting bad news straight up and with a smidge of compassion is better than getting nothing and floundering around, endlessly wondering ‘why? why?’.
Conversely, it’s a bracing education for those who operate under the delusion that they ‘just missed out’ when, really, they weren’t anywhere near the cut-off line.
For those of you who manage funding schemes, or are in a position to give feedback on grant applications:
Treat others as you would like to be treated. This should be a universal academic rule. If you’re about to be told that you didn’t get funding (which is, oftentimes, less about the money and more about what it means for your career/ position/ employment/ life), how would you like to find out about it? I would say a clear and considerate tone would cover it. This doesn’t mean the feedback needs to skimp on flagging fatal flaws, stating that the project is misaligned, or just not developed enough.
If you work for an organisation or research centre that would like more relevant applications, it’s worthwhile investing in giving clear feedback to unsuccessful applicants about where they fell short or didn’t fit. This should serve the dual purpose of sending people off to work on their next project applications in the right way, and pre-empting half-baked re-submitted applications that waste everyone’s time.
DO NOT give unsuccessful applicants feedback that contradicts your funding rules/guidelines, or comes out of the blue. For example, don’t tell someone they missed out because they didn’t have a local partner organisation when your scheme never stated that a local partner organisation was part of the criteria. Similarly, you can’t say that they were unsuccessful because their application required too much fieldwork overseas when the scheme specifically states that fieldwork is covered in the guidelines and there’s no indicated limit or restriction.
Particularly for internal funding schemes that aim to develop the capacity of an institution’s researchers: don’t encourage your ECRs to apply, then slap them down with no feedback. How is that going to ‘build capacity’?
Some of the major research councils restrict researchers’ ability to submit future applications if they’re deemed to be ‘low quality’ applicants. For example, the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has a “Repeatedly Unsuccessful Applicants Restricted Period“. This makes it even more important for institutions to educate their researchers about grant writing, its protocols, and contexts (e.g. Do reviewers really only take 5 mins to make a decision about applications? Answer: Yes). One of the best ways to do this is to provide good feedback that allows researchers to better their applications.
I would argue that the harm done by no feedback, or contradictory/ wrong feedback, is greater than most negative feedback. It’s the difference between telling someone ‘they’re not good enough’, and telling someone ‘their application is not good enough until they address the following aspects…’.
I know which one I’d rather get.