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.

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.

When it is your third attempt, and you don’t understand why you are even doing this any more…

When the money finally comes through, but it isn’t quite enough…

When you have to reshape your project to fit the funding, and it doesn’t really work anymore…

When you have spent six months in contract negotiation, and your contract whisperer sends through a new request for changes…

When your bullet-proof, rock-solid, no-possible-issues-at-all ethics application gets bounced…

When you just need to hire a research assistant…

And Human Resources won’t let you employ the person that you wrote into the application…

And it takes forever…

And it shouldn’t be this hard…

And there are so many applicants that it is going to take forever to even shortlist them…

And there are no decent applicants…

Or no applicants…

When the person that you do employ turns out to be a bit of a dud…

When your data turns out to be a bit of a dud…

When your analysis turns up nothing but dud…

When your hypothesis turns out to be a dud…

When you feel like a dud…

When you feel like your team isn’t really a team anymore…

When, technically, it isn’t, since Payroll isn’t paying anyone because there was a tiny little hitch with the timesheets…

And they are really very sorry, but there really isn’t anything that anyone can do, really…

And people can’t pay their rent; their mortgages; their debts…

And, for some reason, they blame you…

When they are screaming at you…

Or when they just make you want to scream…

When every stupid thing in this stupid university makes you want to scream…

When Finance transfer your funds to another department (and they use it to buy a bus)…

When you have to track your own finances, because the university system is completely opaque…

When the university has helped your project to death…

What do you mean; nothing under $5,000 is insured?!?

When there isn’t as much money as there should be…

When the exchange rate drops…

When the penny drops…

When the equipment doesn’t arrive…

When the equipment doesn’t work…

When the technique doesn’t work…

When the website doesn’t work…

When the survey doesn’t work…

When the intern doesn’t work…

When coffee doesn’t work…

When hope doesn’t work…

When you can’t even remember why you wanted to do the stupid work…

When your memory doesn’t work…

When nobody listens…

When nobody cares…

When you don’t care anymore…

When you just need to get away…

When the tickets cost three times as much because you have to go through the university’s preferred travel agent…

When you are working overseas and you don’t know what your pay will be from week to week because of currency fluctuations and bank transfer fees and weird finance department rules…

When you’re a long way from home…

And you’re sick…

And tired…

And lonely…

And you don’t know anybody at the conference…

And nobody knows you…

When you miss your flight…

When you miss your chance…

When you miss your wife, your husband, your lover, your kids…

When you find yourself in the middle of another stupid, pointless argument about why you are still at work…

When you find yourself in the middle of another stupid, pointless argument about who should be listed in what order on that paper…

When you don’t even know if you have enough good stuff to write that paper…

When you don’t even really want to be on that paper anymore…

When you don’t have time to write that paper…

When you don’t time to do the work…

When you don’t have time to go home…

When the money runs out…

When your patience runs out…

When your partner runs out…

When your promotion doesn’t go though…

When you don’t even get an interview…

Remember that feeling.

Just now, before you start, take a moment to admire the loveliness of your idea. It will never get any better than this.

Right at this very moment, it is perfect.

Work backwards

Path through a paddock leading to a house in the far distance. Beautiful blue sky above.

Long road home, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

If you want to submit your grant application on time, it pays to create a reverse timeline.

That is, start from the end result – submission of the application – and work backwards.

Let’s say that you want to submit your fabulous application to JustGiveMeAGrant [not a real funding body], and their deadline is 29 February 2016 [not a real submission date].

Working backwards from that, how much time do you actually have to write the application? Let’s work it out.

At the moment, your timeline looks like this.

  • 29 Feb 2016 – Submit application to funding body.

Who will sign off?

For most government funding bodies, you are not the applicant. Your university is actually the applicant. This means somebody in your university will need to check and sign the application. In my university, the research office asks for 10 working days to check the application, get back to you with any last-minute questions, then get it signed by a very senior person.

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Dividing up the money

Australian 10, 20, 50 and 100 dollar notes

Poster money, by Michael Coghlan on Flickr

Dear applicant

Congratulations! We have decided to give you a grant.

Unfortunately, funding is tight, so we have cut your budget to the bone. Sorry about that.

Yours truly,
The funding agency

Sometimes, you can win only to lose.

One of the trickiest times for any research team is when you have to work out what you can do with a reduced amount of money.

The decisions that you make at this point will shape your whole project. They may also have repercussions for the team dynamic. If Professor Needs-Grant feels that they didn’t get their fair share of the loot, they can get grumpy. Their enthusiasm for the project may disappear, or at least diminish.

There are ways to improve this situation.

Before you submit the application 

First of all, when you are designing your project, assume that you won’t be fully funded. After all, it is the norm for funding agencies to cut budgets so they can fund as many grants as possible. Assume that will be the case. Ask each of your research partners to provide the costing for their part of the project. This should include the correct figures for their time on the project, as well as the funds that they want to spend. Then talk to everybody about where things overlap and how different elements might be combined. Work out, with your co-researchers, what will happen if things get cut. Talk about what the project will look like if the postdoc isn’t funded, or if you don’t get all the fieldwork money.

Imagine the possibilities and talk about them with your team. Work out what is the minimum amount that would make a viable project.
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I wanna be leader

Lincoln, carved in state at the Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Sometimes, different people write to me with similar questions.

I always like it when this happens, as I only have to write one e-mail in reply. It saves a bit of time.

Here are two complementary queries I’ve received:

Just a quick question about the makeup of the team. I am hoping to put in a grant where I am project leader but I’ll be the only person from our university. The team members are in other unis in Australia and south-east Asia. They are all Associate Profs and higher. Does this pose a complication with me being the most junior and my university being the administering organisation?

At this stage I really do need some more information about how cross-institutional collaborations work. Given that there are 6 academics on this team, it is important for me to ensure that our university is clearly recognised as a partner. Any guidance you can offer would be greatly appreciated, as I’ll need to start negotiating all of this with the research team.

Both the requests are seeking information about how to structure their team. This mostly revolves around who will be the project leader.

Read more of this post

Don’t be late

Table showing 23 teams completing applications. Four start 30 weeks out, the rest come in afterwards. One team starts three weeks from deadline!

Applications in a 30-week development program, from expression of interest (EoI) to withdrawal (NFA) or submission.

This diagram shows the flow of applications during a recent development round for a major government funding scheme. If you are in the US, think ‘National Science Foundation’. In the Commonwealth, think of a major Research Council funding scheme.

Have a look at Team 23, right down in the bottom right-hand corner of the chart. They started their bid at the very last minute. They didn’t make it to submission. They were late. Really late! “Why are you putting in this application” late.

I hate applications like that. Here’s why. Read more of this post

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