Dr Eoin O’ Sullivan, who by his own admission, has read more research proposals than is good for one, shared some key insights with an audience of researchers drawn together by the Research Capability Development Programme and by the Engineering Departments research theme focusing on maximising impact.
In any typical round of research competition, there are many more applications than there are funds available. So, in pursuit of a simple life, reviewers typically divide the massive pile into three groups: “must fund”, “maybe” and “forget it”. (I’m paraphrasing Eoin’s words here). Assuming that you don’t have the brilliance or the track record to vault immediately into the “must fund” pile then the trick is to stay in the “maybe” pile and out of the “forget it” pile through several rounds of filtering.
Two ways to hang in there for as long as possible are to provide:
- Compelling “Pathways to impact”
- Convincing partnerships with industry
To create and present good cases for either of these you need to i) read the instructions – tripping over a procedural detail makes it easy for the reviewers to bin your idea, ii) start early enough to have time to do the job properly – particularly to interact properly with industry partners to get them bought into your ideas, and iii) be focused and clear – don’t try to research everything and be very clear about what you will actually do. If the reviewers don’t know exactly what you have in mind they can easily assume you don’t really know – a sure route to the “forget it” pile.
The difference that your research will make is a key part of Heilmeir’s catechism (www.csee.umbc.edu/~finin/home/heilmeyerCatechism.html) and Eoin highlighted the critical questions: “Who cares?” and “What difference will it make?”
This is where the impact statement and the partnership with industry come together: Who cares? Who cares now? Who is going to take your results and do next stage of development? Do you know them? Have you spoken to them? What challenges will they face? Will your results be in form that they can use immediately to go onto the next stage?
If you can create a compelling story about this then you can define impact. And if your industry partners can be precise, within their letters of support, about how they will take and use your results then you greatly reduce your chances of sliding into the “forget it” pile.
The key to success is not to just pick a large figure about, say, the size of the market or the number of people who will benefit. (Your competitors can and will do this). The route to success is instead to identify the sequence – what will be the OUTPUT of your research (what will be “better” as a result), what will be the OUTCOME (so what will be the “changes” from using the outputs) and therefore what will be the BENEFITS (what will be the economic or societal return from the outcomes). Having laid this out, then all you have to do is to describe the specific steps you (and your industry partners) will take – don’t forget the Research Councils encourage you to apply for funding for these steps. And this then is the ‘pathway to impact’.
Be clear about how you get from your research, through the intermediate steps, to the end benefit. Reviewers don’t expect perfect forecasts of the future – but they do require a clear presentation of the feasible steps to take your research and make a difference.
So what can your industry partners do to help? This is something you need to set aside the time to agree with them. Tell the reviewers of your work to date – about your joint work with industry to, for example, define the agenda, or the data already given to you by the industry partners to help you formulate your approach. Describe explicitly why your chosen partners (you did choose them carefully, didn’t you?) bring uniquely valuable help to the project – perhaps facilities, resources, data, access to a wider industry audience, or test cases for credibility. And mirror this by the partners’ letters that describe why they want to help and what they will do with your work.
And above all else – avoid pro-forma letters of support. They’re a certain passport to the “forget it” pile.
As for the other parts of the proposal, clarity and precision about what you and your industry partners propose to actually do will win over the reviewers. Vagueness becomes very clear to an attentive reviewer – and the consequence is usually a polite letter of rejection.
(and if you’d like a copy of Eoin’s slides, just ask at firstname.lastname@example.org)