The cruel world of funding peer review

This article began life as a presentation for Peer review and grant funding: From evidence to practice at Melbourne University, 17 November 2017. Thanks to Adrian Barnett and Philip Clarke for inviting me to speak.


Before I begin, I should point out that I write from a position of incredible privilege. I’m not an academic – I’m a university administrator. I am securely employed, and have been for most of my working life. My job is to help academics find funding for their research.

In that role, I work with Australian academics from RMIT University. I work with artists, designers, educators, social scientists and humanities scholars, primarily on their Australian Research Council applications. A significant number of the academics that I have worked with over the last seven years have been early career researchers, generally trying to win their first major grant.

Early career researchers face a cruel world these days. Even though they are an increasingly diverse cohort, they are still generally imagined as young, full-time academics without significant outside commitments. They aren’t. Many of them have significant responsibilities outside of work, taking care of children and elderly parents or working on limited visas, far from home. Most of them have no secure work, while being expected to take on increasing levels of accountability. Their research outputs, their teaching performance and even their scholarly engagement with the world are under intense scrutiny and evaluation.

All this has interesting ramifications for the peer review system that we use for government grants.

A professor stands at the top of a pyramid of scholars and students. Advice flows downwards and cites flow upwards. When funding runs out, the scheme collapses.

Beware the Profzi Scheme, on “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

Read more of this post

Advertisements

Why should I bother?

Tim PitmanTim Pitman is a Research Development Adviser in the Faculty of Humanities at Curtin University.

He has worked in research development since 2007. His own research interest is on higher education policy, with a particular focus on increasing the representation of disadvantaged students in universities.

Tim tweet from @timothypitman.


Photo of street art by Christos Barbalis | unsplash.com

Photo of street art by Christos Barbalis | unsplash.com

I’ve been working in research development for a decade now and almost all of that has been focused on the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS).

Much of the ‘art’ of finding funding is universal across disciplines, but there’s also a need for research support that is more targeted towards HASS researchers.

I feel this especially keenly every year when researchers are submitting applications for Australian Research Council (ARC) funding (roughly equivalent to the National Science Foundation in the USA and the national research councils in other countries).

Often, institutional support processes designed to improve the quality of Australian Research Council applications appear to focus on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

This can leave HASS researchers scratching their heads, wondering whether that key observation, or sage bit of advice applies to them as well. Read more of this post

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

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