Why are grant applications confidential?

Photo of a large bag labeled 'Confidential Paper for shredding & recycling'.

Confidential Paper for shredding & recycling, by Dan Brickley on Flickr.

One of the first rules that I learnt when I started as a research whisperer was that grant applications are confidential documents. We should never talk about an application, other than with the applicants.

I’ve seen that rule applied with different levels of stringency at different times.

Think about these questions for a moment:

  • Should the very fact that someone is drafting an application be treated as confidential information?
  • Should you be able to talk to other people in the research office about a draft application? How widely?
  • Should you be able to send an application for internal review? Do you need to check with the applicant first?
  • Is an application still confidential after the grants have been announced? Can we put successful grant applications into a library, so that others can learn from great examples?
  • If two applicants are working on similar topics, and would gain from working together, can I introduce them to one another? How?

These questions define the borders of confidentiality. Most research offices would have different answers to some or all of these questions.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if confidentiality is the best way to go. Perhaps we have more to gain from broadcasting research ideas widely, than from keeping them close. Read more of this post

Top tips for internal grants

Reza profile crop - smallDr Reza Mohammed is Senior Coordinator, Research Development, in the Research Office at RMIT University, Australia.

He leads a team that manages the University’s research-related professional development program for staff, its Early Career Researcher Network, and many of its internal research funding schemes.

Before transitioning to research administration, Reza held positions in academia, industry, and conservation education.

Read the guide(lines) | Photo by Reza Mohammed

Read the guide(lines) | Photo by Reza Mohammed

Many universities allocate funding to support research collaborations, research projects, and travel fellowships.

As public funding for research decreases annually, competition for internal funding becomes increasingly fierce.

The pros and cons of internal funding are discussed in another Research Whisperer post, and I want to talk about how to win internal grants.

If you’re a researcher wanting to increase your chances of success, lean in close so I can share my top five tips with you.

Read more of this post

Little Chickie

Seven or eight little chickens with their mother hen

Chicks, by Rob Faulkner on Flickr

This post was co-written with Rosemary Chang. Rosemary is an academic developer. In her current role, she helps university staff with the scholarship of learning and teaching (SoTL) and teaching award applications. Her PhD research focuses on anxieties in creative writing practice and mindfulness. She tweets about uni matters, writing, and mindfulness @RoseyChang.

Jonathan: Last year, Rosemary and I were talking about her grant application. I explained that she needed to get two different types of advice – advice to make the core idea stronger (which I couldn’t give her), and advice about protecting her core idea from attack (which I could).

We talked about the central idea of her research project as being like a tiny little baby chicken. A precious and very, very fragile little chickie.

Rosemary: The ‘little chickie’ metaphor was very helpful advice. When I went to Jonathan I was in the thick of writing. My research partner and I had honed the project idea over many months. For me, it was a new area of interest. The writing process felt like molding quicksand. Although I’d written a successful grant application before, I did that for someone else. Writing my own was different. What pointers could Jonathan give me? Read more of this post

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

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

The price of poor grant feedback

Photo by Dietmar Becker | unsplash.com

Photo by Dietmar Becker | unsplash.com

There is that moment when you find out the results of a long-awaited grant round.

It can be euphoric and somewhat surreal, or it could lead to much shoulder-slumping.

Given today’s research funding environment and the success rates in major funding rounds, there’s probably more shoulder-slumping than anyone would like.

This wrenching, life-affecting result is a tough phase to get through. That’s why I wrote “Picking up the pieces“, for researchers to look ahead and get back into the grant application cycle, after the requisite, understandable period of ranting and tearing of hair.

Recently, I’ve heard several anecdotes about unsuccessful grant applications and their aftermath, and it made me want to revisit this topic. Not quite in a white-hot rage (as can be Research Whisperer’s wont), but certainly with a sustained seething.

My issue is the poor to non-existent feedback that often accompanies unsuccessful grant applications.

Read more of this post

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.
Read more of this post