Will the government fund my research?

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 10 August 2017 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


A government cheque issued by the Chinese Emperor to fund his war against the Taiping Rebellion.

Providing funds for suppressing the Heavenly Kingdom, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Sometimes, researchers are worried that their grant application will not be successful because it does not align with a particular ideology or a policy direction of the government of the day.

My researchers, perhaps more than most, have a right to be worried about government interference in research granting processes. Before the last election, the Opposition promised not to fund any more ‘frivolous’ research. One of my researchers was in the cross-hairs, with her project listed as something that they believed should ‘never have been funded’. Then they won the election – it’s enough to make a body nervous, dontcha know.

So, it comes as no surprise when artists, environmentalists, indigenous researchers, people working with refugees, with minority groups, with renewable energy or anyone examining government policy asks ‘Will the government fund my work?’

tl;dr – they will.

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Patronage as a research crowdfunding model

Martin Pfeiffer with a box of National Nuclear Security Administration FOIA documents.

Martin Pfeiffer with a box of National Nuclear Security Administration FOIA documents. Used with permission.

Meet Martin Pfeiffer. Martin uses anthropology to investigate nuclear weapons. That’s amazing, in and of itself. Even more interestingly, Martin is crowdfunding his research and I’m all in favour of research crowdfunding.

What really got me excited, though, was how Martin is crowdfunding his research. Martin is crowdfunding on Patreon.

Patreon works differently to most other crowdfunding services. On Patreon, you donate a small amount regularly. For example (and in the spirit of full disclosure), I support Martin for US$2 per month.

As I write this, people like me are donating $551 per month to Martin’s research, and that funding base is growing. On 27 June 2017, when I subscribed, Martin was receiving $442 in donations. Now it is $551. By the time you read this, it may have crept a bit higher.

$550 per month doesn’t seem like much, but $6,000 a year (you lose a bit on fees) can be handy when you need to pay for copying, or freedom of information requests, or local travel, or any of the myriad of costs that may or may not be covered by your research grant.

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One with the lot

A lovely hamburger.

Yum, by Jonathan O’Donnell

There are a lot of clever ways to design your research. There are a few that are not so clever, too.

I came across two grant applications recently that used the ‘one with the lot’ design. They promised the world, if only the funding agency would give them some money. That isn’t clever. At best, it is a recipe for failure. If, by some chance, you do get funded, you’ll find it a recipe for disaster and heartache.

One application was a full-time fellowship for three years – a serious amount of money. The applicant talked about doing a longitudinal study of a population at risk, analysing it across half a dozen different categories, and doing a multi-country comparison. There was no way that they were going to be able to do all that work in three years.

The second promised a lifetime worth of work for a $20,000 grant. They were going to travel, do some impressive digital humanities work, build and maintain a website and convene a workshop. There were a lot of publications in there, too.

Both of these applicants were relatively inexperienced and seeking advice about how to improve their applications. Both drafts will be substantially revised before submission. I encourage applicants to give me very rough drafts so that we can do exactly that sort of substantial revision.

What I want to talk about here is the mindset behind ‘one with the lot’ projects.

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Learning from others

Thanks to the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) and the US National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA) for their fellowship, which made my trip possible. Thanks also to Kirsten Yehl for making my trip a fantastic success.


Jonathan looking nervous, as he holds a NURAP sign in front of a poster that says 'Chicago'

Jonathan at the Northwestern University Research Administration Professionals meeting

In September – October last year, I travelled from my base at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia to Northwestern University, Chicago, as an ARMS / NCURA Fellow. I spent time with the research administrators in the School of Engineering and the Institute of Public Health.

During that time, I learnt that there were a lot of similarities in working with academics in both our countries. I also learnt the value of reflecting on my own professional practice by discussing it with people who do very different things.

Here are a few of the things that contrasted with my everyday Australian experiences:

Scope: I was constantly reminded that the scope of research between our two institutions was so different. At one of my meetings, a Northwestern research administrator was thrilled that one of her researchers had just been awarded the Nobel Prize. That’s not going to happen to me anytime soon!

Northwestern attracts US$620 million (A$850 million) annually in sponsored research. That’s almost A$3 million more than the Australian Research Council. In addition, they have US$10.5 billion in endowments and other trust funds. This difference in scale leads to a difference in understanding of what research can be undertaken, a difference in how grant applications are developed, and a difference in how the resulting research funding is scrutinised.

Attitude: The Research Administrators at Northwestern are there to make it as easy as possible for their researchers to apply for funding and to do their research. That is (or should be) the same the world over. However, it is an important thing to keep in mind, especially when we are in the thick of things. Read more of this post

What makes a strong rejoinder

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


Fierce! Photo by Vincent van der Pas, taken at the Tokyo National Museum | www.flickr.com/photos/archetypefotografie

Fierce! Photo by Vincent van der Pas, taken at the Tokyo National Museum | http://www.flickr.com/photos/archetypefotografie

In 2012, with Adam Golberg of Cash for Questions (UK), we wrote ‘Rational responses to referees, our advice on preparing your rejoinder or response to comments on your grant application. It was good advice then, and it’s good advice now.

As my applicants are busy writing their responses, this seemed like a good time to build on ‘Rational responses to referees’.

This post provides some advice on the specifics that I want to see in a strong response, and how you might deal with some tricky situations. When your response goes back to funding body, it will be considered along with hundreds or even thousands of other applications.

In such a situation, you want to make it as easy as possible for the reader (the funders) to understand your response.

White space

I’ve seen a draft that was a wall of text, 5,000 characters long. There were no paragraphs breaks and no white space. It was exhausting to look at.

Be kind to your reader – cherish the white space. Put white space between paragraphs. Indent first lines. Use formatting (if the system allows it – the ARC doesn’t).

All the normal rules of civilised writing still apply, even if you have a lot to say and a severe limit on how many characters you can include. Invite your reader to engage with your text. Read more of this post

The magic formula

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 2 March 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


A paper fan that was used by mathematician Hua Luogeng while calculating mathematical formulas.

Numbers on a fan, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr.

I’ll let you in on a little secret – there is no magic formula for getting a research grant.

It always comes as a surprise to me when I come across people who think that there is some magic to it. They don’t express it that way, of course. They say things like:

  • You need a Professor on your team to get a grant.
  • They are only funding [random topic] this year.
  • It is all about the title – you need to grab them with the title.

I know a senior researcher who believes that getting your application started early will give you a greater chance of success. That sounded fine to me, until he explained that a lower serial number on his application is the ‘secret sauce’. That is, if he gets in early and grabs a ‘low number’ he has more chance than people with a high serial number. Srsly!

They have no evidence for these beliefs. They have a hunch, or folklore, or superstition. That is, they are in the realm of magical thinking.

Why would a researcher believe in magic? We work in an evidence-based world. This is a university! We respect data. At least, that’s the theory. Read more of this post

Second time around

more-detail-2Yesterday, I was providing advice to a researcher for a grant application resubmission.

You know how it goes: they had put something in last year, it had been reviewed, then rejected. I offered to have a look at it, to treat it as a first draft for this year’s application round.

It turned out that I thought that the researcher needed to:

  • Clarify the core research question,
  • Cut back on the background, and
  • Flesh out the project plan.

This is pretty standard. I tell people this a lot!

I’m thinking of getting a ‘Detail! Detail! Detail!’ t-shirt made up.

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