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.

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What’s in a researcher induction kit?

"Pool of Knowledge" (Detail from the "Pool of Knowledge" sculpture by Stacey Spiegel, Living Arts Park, Mississauga, Canada) Photo by Ian Muttoo | www.flickr.com/photos/imuttoo

“Pool of Knowledge” (Detail from the “Pool of Knowledge” sculpture by Stacey Spiegel, Living Arts Park, Mississauga, Canada) Photo by Ian Muttoo | http://www.flickr.com/photos/imuttoo

When I started a new research fellowship in a new institution and city, it took me at least a semester to find my feet.

In that time, I felt the full force of ignorance as I flailed around trying to find out who should review my grant applications (beyond my own collegial networks), what I might be entitled to as a staff member, and trying to get a handle on the new university’s structure.

More importantly, I needed to spend time learning the culture of the place: the person who occupies a certain role may not be the person you’d expect to do the work, etc.

Any expectations that a new staff member (in this floundering state) is going to immediately be productive and successful are not the most realistic. Even if they’ve got grants that they’re carrying over from one place to another, there’s a lot of information that they’ll need to establish themselves.

The earlier that incoming researchers know this information, the more quickly they’ll be able to gain momentum for their research planning and writing.

For a new-to-institution researcher orientation kit, then, these are the basics that I’d include:

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Don’t be late

Table showing 23 teams completing applications. Four start 30 weeks out, the rest come in afterwards. One team starts three weeks from deadline!

Applications in a 30-week development program, from expression of interest (EoI) to withdrawal (NFA) or submission.

This diagram shows the flow of applications during a recent development round for a major government funding scheme. If you are in the US, think ‘National Science Foundation’. In the Commonwealth, think of a major Research Council funding scheme.

Have a look at Team 23, right down in the bottom right-hand corner of the chart. They started their bid at the very last minute. They didn’t make it to submission. They were late. Really late! “Why are you putting in this application” late.

I hate applications like that. Here’s why. Read more of this post

Are academics good (research) administrators?

MurielSwijghuisen-smDr Muriel E Swijghuisen Reigersberg is a visiting fellow at the Music, Mind and Brain Centre, Psychology Department, Goldsmiths’, University of London.

She has a doctorate in applied ethnomusicology focussing on Australian Aboriginal choral singing. Her current research looks at the relationship between music, health and wellbeing from an ethnomusicological, cross-cultural perspective.

Muriel is also a research development officer and occasional acting head of research office at Goldsmiths’, University of London. In this capacity, she oversees the University’s UK grants portfolio, sits on the University ethics committee as a full member, and works on the implementation of the UK government’s open access mandates (among a great many other things). She is on Twitter as @murielSR.


Now, there’s a question.

Being both an academic with a doctorate who still conducts her own research whilst holding down a successful post in research administration, I might be qualified to offer a perspective.

My career trajectory also provides an immediate answer to this question, which is: ‘Yes, academics can be good (research) administrators.’

In my experience, however, academics are not all good at research administration. The reasons for this vary from a general antipathy towards engaging with what is seen to be a form of oppression and managerialism to a genuine personal inability to deal with bureaucracy.

Let’s face it: some people are just terrible at paperwork. And being terrible at paperwork tends to have very little to do with whether you are an academic or not. It’s a personality trait.

In my 09:00-17:00 administrative world, I have often come across the suggestion that ‘our academics’ (sometimes you’d think they are a different species altogether) are incapable of filling in forms accurately and in a timely fashion. Why might this be, I then wonder? I seem to manage form-filling quite well, despite my academic handicap.

Another vague and somewhat circular argument that’s put forward is that academics should not be expected to engage with administration because of their brilliant academic status. Being a Dutch social scientist based in the UK, I question whether the British class system is responsible for such attitudes here. When I spend time with my academic peers at conferences and other such events, I am regaled with tales of woe recounting the oppression, ignorance, and administrative managerialism they face. The usual culprits responsible for causing this lamentable hardship are ‘the University’ or ‘Central Services’ – whoever, or whatever, they are. The world of administration seems to be a faceless mystery to many academics.

To demystify this world a bit – my world of being an academic and administrator – I’d like to offer a more nuanced perspective.

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Free to good home – one Research Whisperer

Map of Melbourne city, showing three campuses

RMIT’s city, Brunswick and Bundoora campuses, courtesy Google Maps

I’ve just finished a ‘grand tour’ of all the Schools in our College (read “Departments in our Faculty”, depending on your terminology).

It was great! I spent three days a week, for a month at a time, working in a completely different space.

In the middle of last year, when I came back from China, I sent a note to our seven Deputy Deans (Research). It was headed ‘Free to good home – one Research Whisperer’. In it, I asked if they would be interested in hosting me for a month. They would need to provide a desk and a chair, and access to electricity and the wireless network.

In return, I would spend three days per week in their School for a month. I’d still be doing my normal work, but I’d be a visible presence and would be able to meet with their staff, etc.

I was overwhelmed with the response. One school came back literally within minutes of the post. Every other school responded positively, with the last one even expressing the fear that they might be too late, and have missed the boat.

Every school was different. Some had real difficulty finding a seat for me. Others were able to give me a room with a view. For me, it didn’t matter where I sat, as long as I was where the action was.

Being in a central unit, it is easy to be seduced by the image that the centre is the focus when, in fact, the work happens in the schools, departments, and centres. That is where the teaching and research happens. Everything else is a scaffold to support that work.

Getting back to the periphery is a very simple, very powerful way to demonstrate that you recognise that fact. This is how it worked for me:

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Five superpowers I wish I had

Silver statue of a man, standing dramically posed with rope around his waist.

My next superhero, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Let me tell you a little secret.

I’m not Superman. I’m not Spiderman (sometimes, I feel like poor, put-upon Peter Parker, though). I’m not Iron Man and I’m definitely not Wolverine (although you might think I have adamantine claws once I’ve torn through your latest draft application).

Actually, I’m not a superhero at all. At best, I’m a “highly trained normal”, in the parlance of the comic book world (and some would question the ‘highly trained’ bit).

Which is funny, because a lot of you seem to think that I do have superpowers. I don’t, I assure you.

If I did, I’d be out saving the world, rather than trying to save your grant application. Despite this, you maintain an unshakable faith that I can do the impossible.

To prove my point, here are five superpowers that I don’t have (although I wish I did):

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Easing the load

The Fairy Horde and the Hedgehog Host, an artwork featuring a hedgehog that has been colonised by fairies

When fairies attack, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

People seem to be talking about how the peer review funding system is in crisis – more applications, less funding, not enough reviewers, etc. Always eager to help, here’s this Research Whisperer’s Top Five ideas on how funding organizations can reduce their workloads.

My examples are based upon the Australian Research Council (ARC), as this is the system I know best. However, these ideas can adopted by any funding agency. After all, I pinched three of them from existing funding schemes.

1.  Review a set number of applications

One of the fears seems to be that a rising number of applications is forcing the quality of peer review down. The thinking goes like this: more applications means more reviews required. More reviews means more applications per reviewer (on average). Reviewers, therefore, may be spending less time on each review, or even be refusing to review applications. Without suitable reviews, the system of peer review falls over, catastrophically.

If this fear is justified, one response could be to cap the number of applications accepted. This process is known as ‘demand management’ in the UK context. The ARC knows how many admin people it has, how many people it has on the College of Experts, how many assessors it sends applications to, how many reply, how long the average application is for each scheme. These figures could be munged together to provide an upper limit of applications that the ARC would accept for each funding scheme that it runs.

If they know their capacity, the question then becomes how to make sure that only that number of applications are presented each round.

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