Breaking funding boundaries

This is the second half of a talk (first half here) that I gave recently at the University of Melbourne Researcher@Library event.

Thanks to all involved for inviting me and making me feel so welcome.  It was great fun!

A large tree limb growing through a large fence.

The fence and the tree, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

The academy is a tough place at the moment. It needs some hacking.

In Australia, we are at the lowest level of government funding for research since we started keeping records. It doesn’t look like that situation is going to get better any time soon.

At my university, 60% of academic staff are paid by the hour. People with PhDs are working at multiple universities just to pay the rent, being paid the same way that they would be if they were behind the counter at a 7-Eleven. This isn’t uncommon across Australia, and the trend is towards more casualisation of the workforce, not less. This is a worldwide pattern, not just an Australian one.

Things are even worse if you are a woman. Universities are gendered places, and there are historical biases against women in most research funding schemes.

There is a real human cost to all this, as Sophie C. Lewis reminded us recently when she talked candidly about her year of tears. New researchers, young researchers, female researchers, researchers in non-traditional areas, researchers whose first language isn’t English… We are all at risk within this system.

I can’t fix this system. I don’t know who can.

What I want to talk about today is some of the ways that we can go around the system, some of the ways that we can break through these boundaries – institutional, structural, and invisible. Some of the ways that you, as an individual, can make a difference to your own situation. Read more of this post

Breaking boundaries

This is the first half of a talk that I gave recently at the University of Melbourne Researcher@Library event. Thanks to all involved for inviting me, and making me feel so welcome.  It was great!

A long high fence that has been built around a big tree branch.

Tree in the fence, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

When we work within organisations, the boundaries of our organisation can become limiting horizons.

More and more, I am finding that it is easier to do things with the whole world than it is to do them within my organisation.

Sometimes, it is easier to get my colleagues’ attention on Twitter than it is face-to-face (even though they work on the same campus  or even in the same building). The conversation can be richer online, too, because they often have more time to talk on the train going home than they do between meetings. And multiple voices can join in with different points of view.

Organisations want to engage with the outside world, but are bound up in their own identities. I’ve talked before about how I’ve failed to get my Twitter handle on my business card. RMIT recognises the Research Whisperer as part of my job, but only lets me put ‘official’ channels on my card.

At a larger level, national funding systems can fall into this trap, too. Even though they recognise that international research teams produce stronger research, they can sometimes find it hard to fund international collaboration. There is much encouragement to publish with international colleagues. Funding agencies love it, but they often find it difficult to fund the work that leads to those publications. I suspect that they don’t want to give ‘tax-payer dollars’ (nation-based funds) to people from other nations, even though that will probably create better research outcomes.

Read more of this post

Welcome to Grant Camp

Slide that says: How it works 5 minutes - what you need to do. 20 minutes - write like hell! 5 minutes - take a breather: coffee & chat. Repeat this six times! Half hour break around 3:30 pm.

How it works, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr.

Researchers often don’t have time to write a decent application.

That is, with the best will in the world, they can’t devote the time that they want to drafting their application.

As a result, research whisperers often get drafts way too late to be able to provide any useful feedback. People send me their drafts less than a week before the deadline. At that point, all we can do is make sure that it adheres to the rules and point out spelling and grammar errors. There is no time to rework fatal flaws, investigate lacunae in the literature review, restructure the budget, or add collaborators.

It is ‘Submit or Die’ time.

To try to avoid this, I’ve been running Grant Camps for my researchers. Inspired by the award-winning Thesis Boot Camp model, Grant Camps are half-day events that give applicants the time to address the major aspects of an application.

I’ve found that, while people can’t get a half a day to work on their application themselves, they can do it if I send them a meeting appointment and they plan it as part of their schedule.

So far, they have been quite popular. They don’t work for everybody, but the people that do like it keep coming back. Read more of this post

How the Whisper Workshop works

Image courtesy of @kimtairi

Recently, we ran the first Whisper Workshop. It came about like this: one of our colleagues couldn’t find a conference that was quite right for her needs. I said, “No problem – we’ll create a workshop specifically for you.”

And we did.

It was great! We brought together 25 of the best people we knew to talk about creating links between universities and galleries, libraries, archives, museums (the GLAM sector). We got to meet a whole lot of people that we only know from Twitter, geek out, and chat.

I really enjoyed it because I met new people and heard about new ideas. People talked about doing eye-tracking studies in airports, and how this could be used in museums. They discussed crazy projects to automagically detect job advertisements that could be asking for PhD graduates. Most importantly, there was a lot of discussion during the breaks, which meant that people were making connections and catching up with one another. Not only that, the day became self-documenting. Joyce Seitzinger led the charge by setting up a Google Doc that lots of people contributed to. Tseen has created a Storify record of the tweets during the day, then @michaelcollins created another one that also captured the discussion that happened afterwards.

As Linda Kelly said:

I’m a big fan of workshops like this. They are a great way to lift your eyes from your day-to-day work and consider the bigger picture for a moment. We don’t do that enough.

Read more of this post


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.

Read more of this post

My research is better than your research

Fairies attacking and colonising a hedgehog.

The Fairy Horde and the Hedgehog Host, by Tessa Farmer.

In 1986, when I was working for the Australian Research Grants Committee (the precursor to the Australian Research Committee), one of my committee members, the wonderfully idiosyncratic Bede Morris said,

“They sent me a research plan to fill out. I wrote across the front, ‘If I knew what I was going to be doing in five years, you should sack me!’, and sent it back to them.”

At the time, I didn’t understand exactly what he was talking about. He was talking to other members of the committee, senior researchers like himself. I was a junior bureaucrat with little or no experience in how universities or research really worked.

In the early 1990s, when I started working for universities, I learnt what he had been talking about.

Since the 1980s, the Australian government has been asking Australian universities to focus their research efforts.

By the mid-1990’s, all universities were required to develop Research Management Plans. These plans were intended to be university-level documents that outlined key areas of strength and areas for future growth.

The government used these plans as part of the process of deciding which university should get research infrastructure funding. They were a way to try to focus funding towards areas of strength and growth.

At the same time, Australian universities and institutes were being encouraged to amalgamate. I remember sitting in meetings where the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Victoria University of Technology were trying to work out how research funding would be divided if they were to amalgamate. From my point of view, it came down to ‘My research is better than your research’ – neither organisation had any substantial data or way of measuring the quality of their research.

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The perfect project

A box, with a key in the lock, and a sign that says

Key locker, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Wait! Just before you start, before you start your project grant application, take a moment.

Take a moment to consider your idea, your brilliant idea! The beauty of it. The wonder, the possibilities!

In the months and years to come, I want you to hold onto that feeling – make sure you remember it. Make notes about it. Go back to it. It will sustain you.

When you are in the depths of grant-writing hell, it will sustain you.

At 2am, when you need to be asleep, but the budget won’t quite work, remember that moment. Take a deep breath, and dive in again.

When your rock-solid, of-course-we-are-committed partner pulls out, remember that moment. Use it to push past the hurt and channel it into more productive work.

When you get the assessors’ reports, and it is clear that they have got the wrong end of the stick…

When those reports are contrary, contradictory, confused (and confusing), go back to your central idea, that moment. Let it restore you. Then use that clarity to reply to your critics.

When the grants are announced, and your hopes are dashed, remember that moment. In your disappointment and anger, remember what those first exciting moments of the idea felt like.

Read more of this post


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