Saving space

References, listed without any gaps between them.

My least favourite way to save space – turn the reference list into a solid block of text.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had all the space that you needed to explain your research carefully and completely to the funding agency?

Wouldn’t it be lovely if there was space for nuance and complexity?

Wouldn’t it be terrific if your application fitted within the stupid page limit and you didn’t have to delete another half a page…it’s already midnight and you just want to go to bed.

Much as I feel for your sleep-deprived editing self, it wouldn’t actually be very pretty at all. I’ve seen people provide thirty pages when they were asked for two. I’ve had researchers complain that they can’t attach their 50-page CV to an application. I know what it is like to have 130 pages of application to review and comment on, with just a couple of hours to do it. I know that there is never enough space to write what you want, in the way that you want.

I also know that there is never enough time to read what is submitted, with the attention that it deserves. Read more of this post


Advice on fellowships

A friend of mine is applying for a Fellowship and sent through a draft of her application. This article is based on my advice to her. It is written for the Churchill Fellowships in the UK, but it applies to most fellowships around the world.

Young Winston, looking dashing.

Winston Churchill as a new Member of Parliament in 1901, via Wikimedia Commons

Fellowship applications are hard. They force you to stand alone. You are often applying early in your career, when you feel like you don’t have much to skite about. The temptation to puff yourself up is overwhelming – then you read back on it and it makes you want to vomit, just a bit.

On the other hand, Fellowships allow you to stand out. This is your moment to shine. Your moment in the spotlight.

I guess it all depends on where you stand.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust have been giving out fellowships for over 50 years – they have a very clear idea of who they want to fund. So, I’m going to read their guidelines first, and mine them for advice.

Travel to learn – return to inspire…

We fund UK citizens to travel overseas, exploring new ideas, and return with global insights to inspire communities and professions.

These are the Churchill Fellowships – and they’re open to all.

This is the best thumbnail description of a funding agency that I’ve ever read. These should be your watchwords when you are composing your application. Write for this audience. Read more of this post

Looking backwards

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role. I’d just like to thank them for the chance to reflect on how our processes have changed, and will continue to change. 

Philosophical Transactions: giving some account of the present understanding, studies and labours of the ingenious in many considerable parts of the world. Volume 1, for years 1665 and 1666.

Frontispiece of Philosophical Transactions, by Henry Oldenburg, via Wikimedia Commons.

More and more research material is either being produced as digital objects or are being digitised. I can see the first copy of Philosophical Transactions from my desk. Open licensing means that more and more of this material can be shared.

However, when it comes to the administration of this research, it is a different matter.

I tried to look up a grant that the Australian Research Council (ARC) gave out in 1999 (20 years ago). I just wanted the bare minimum – title, participants and amount awarded (bonus points for years funded). It wasn’t on the ARC’s website. They are best of breed, but their database only covers grants awarded from 2001 onwards. I finally found it because one of the people involved had published their CV online, and had listed the details of the grant.

That is because this grant belonged to the Age of Paper. Now, we live in a digital age.

We have forgotten (or were born too young to know) that we used to submit grant applications on paper. Hands up all those people who remember physically counting the pages of a grant application before you made ten copies of it and then physically posted it (or, deadlines and academics being what they are, couriered it) to the funding agency.

We live in the age of The Great Digitising: that period after digitising everything became possible, but before everything was actually digitised. So, there are lacunae, or blank spots, like the ARC’s database of grants, which covers most but not all of what they have funded. The weird thing about the blank spots is that they are mostly in the recent past. Really early stuff, like Philosophical Transactions, have been digitised. Journals and source documents in the last 50 years? Not so much (generally because of copyright issues). Grant applications that are 20 years old? Not at all!

I was looking for that grant application because one of my academics (who wasn’t part of the original grant) wanted to build on that work. They will be applying with the same industry partner, to the scheme that is the successor to the funding scheme that funded the work 20 years ago. Read more of this post

Openness and security

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role. I’d just like to thank them for the chance to reflect on how our processes may change in the future.  

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Page 1 of a US Department of Defence document with heavy redactions.

Redacted document, via Wikimedia Commons

This statement is standard boilerplate at a lot of universities (and other organisations). It is designed to demonstrate due diligence in reducing risk, I think.

For me, this statement encapsulates the disjunction between where our researchers are going, and where the university administration stands. Research is becoming more and more open. Open journals, open data, open everything.

As administrators, we remain steadfastly closed. Grant applications are confidential. Research contracts are confidential. Even our emails are confidential. There are good reasons for this confidentiality, in some instances. A lot of the time, though, confidentiality in administration is business-as-usual atrophy. An all-pervasive attitude that we don’t even think about anymore.

This blog is a good example of that. For the last seven years, we’ve published an article every week (almost) about doing research in academia. All the articles are available for everybody to read. When we first proposed this idea, our manager was quite suspicious. Why would we want to give away the university’s “secret sauce”? Wouldn’t that make us less competitive? Actually, when it comes to constructing a good budget, or a Gantt chart, or most anything else about what we do, there is no secret sauce. It is all standard stuff. But thinking about our professional practice every week, and publishing it openly for others, has been enormously beneficial. Read more of this post

When grants were handwritten

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role.

I couldn’t actually be in Edinburgh, so my main contributions was a personal reflection on the last 30 years of research administration, and how the technology has changed. This is an expanded version of that talk.

1987: Thirty years ago

A grant application form from 1987, for the Australian Research Grants Scheme

1987: note the ‘Office use only’ boxes, where we could hand write the file number.

Thirty years ago, I began my career in research administration working for one of Australia’s national funding agencies, the Australian Research Grants Committee. I spent a lot of time on the telephone, talking to universities because, at that time, there was no effective email between government departments and the universities. I also spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the photocopier, as everything was delivered on paper.

Here is an exercise for you: imagine all the major grant applications that you submitted this year, printed out eight times each (I think we asked for eight copies of each application). Then think about the logistics involved in getting them physically transported to the funding agency on time. Today? We just push a button.

The year that I worked there was the last year of the Australian Research Grants Committee. In the next year, Don Aitken transformed it into the funding organisation that Australian researchers know today, the Australian Research Council. It was part of wider democratisation of the Australian university systemRead more of this post

Ratbag research

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 9 March 2018 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

A country scene, with three posts in the foreground: Strength; Mates; Ratbags.

For Mates and Ratbags, by Michael Coghlan, on Flickr.

Last year, the International Campaign to Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace prize for their work “to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and their “ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”.

Recently, I was at an event where the inimitable Dave Sweeney lovingly referred to ICAN as ratbags. He wasn’t being insulting – ‘ratbag’ is one of those wonderful Australian words that means that ICAN are troublemakers, people who are contrary, and don’t follow the rules.

I immediately knew what he meant. In 10 years, ICAN has gone from a group of activists, doctors, academics and concerned citizens to a worldwide advocacy group that has spearheaded the creation of an international treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. They have had a huge impact in changing the way that people, and countries, think about nuclear weapons. Read more of this post

Mind the gap

“This project fills in a significant gap in the literature…”

“This project will address this significant gap in knowledge…”

Text on a railway platform that says 'mind the gap'.

Mind the gap, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read several applications that identify a gap in the literature. The ‘gap’ is a useful way to think about your research. It is often presented as a triangle (or a square):

Poincairre says…
Munroe framed the problem in this way…
Flanders contributed the theory of…
However, between those three approaches, there exists a gap…

Sometimes, this research gap is real. Sometimes, it is a little bit constructed (for the purposes of the theoretical argument, of course). In the end, it doesn’t matter. You’ve found your gap.

That gap in the literature? It won’t get you funded.

If you have a gap, and every other applicant has also identified a gap, then that makes your application just like everyone else’s. It doesn’t differentiate you from the crowd. It is a necessary condition for being competitive, not a competitive advantage. Demonstrating it gets you in the game, but it certainly doesn’t win you the grant. Read more of this post