Choosing the unicorns – An ECR’s perspective on grant reviews

Emma Birkett is a Teaching Associate in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham and lives in the quiet backwaters of Derbyshire, UK.

Her research examines motor timing deficits in children and adults with developmental disorders, especially dyslexia.

She teaches in the areas of child development, dyslexia and educational assessment. She is currently developing a module for a new master’s programme in developmental disorders, setting up a research project on ensemble timing in children and conducting a study on active teaching methods for her post-graduate teaching certificate.

Emma can be found on Twitter at @emskibirkett.


The other day, I read the guest blog on Research Whisperer by Adam Micolich about capturing unicorns, a.k.a landing your first successful grant application. I found it really helpful for early career researchers such as myself, and wanted to offer another perspective on the funding process: that of a grants reviewer.

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing two grant submissions.

Unicorn [Photo by Yosuke Muroya | http://www.flickr.com/photos/hamur0w0%5D (Shared via CC BY-NC 2.0)

Once my initial imposter syndrome worries evaporated, I found it was a useful learning experience.

I wanted to share what I’ve learned with other early career creatures on their journey towards capturing that mythical unicorn of a successful grant application! It’s really interesting to compare Adam’s and my tips, given our differences in career stage and grant application experience.

The first application I reviewed this year arrived on my desk in autumn. Two colleagues were submitting an expression of interest to a charitable organisation and I was asked to be the internal reviewer. As in many departments, this internal review process is a quality check prior to external submission.

The second opportunity to review a grant application came after a colleague recommended me as an external reviewer to another charitable body.

The first proposal was outside my research area whereas the second was a close fit with my knowledge and experience. Both reviews provided a great opportunity to learn about what happens after grants are submitted and what reviewers expect. Read more of this post

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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