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

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