And, no, it may not always be just a matter of the quality of your research. It may be a case of hanging in during the selection competition for a few rounds more than your competitors. Because it’s not always about good research – sometimes it’s about good research and better research. And if the research is of equivalent quality then the competition comes down to what happens next with your research.
Eoin O’ Sullivan shared ideas for ways to survive the attrition within the process by which a review panel chooses which grants get funded. (And, by the way, Eoin encouraged all academics to get some experience of review panels – it profoundly changes one’s approach to writing!). (If you want to read a description of the whole process and an alternative view of the scoring sheets – then go to: www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/uploads/Peer_Review_Demystified_Peter_Scott_2002.pdf)
So what is this attrition process? When the reviewers assemble they can typically agree on a few brilliant grants that ‘must’ be funded, and a larger pile of grants which aren’t good enough and so are quickly rejected. But the biggest pile is the ‘maybe fund pile’. And so the review continues – but now looking for reasons to fund or, more dangerously and more easily, reasons to reject. And so slowly the reject pile increases. And this continues until there are enough grants to consume the available budget. So, towards the end it will be the last surviving grants in the ‘maybe fund’ category which will succeed.
So the question then becomes “how to keep out of the ‘rejected’ pile all the way to the end?” And the answer is “don’t provide reasons for reviewers to put your proposal in the bin”.
So don’t put your reviewer to sleep, or irritate them. Provide enough detail so they can assess what you intend to do – and make the detail relevant and meaningful.
And unless you have the financial wealth to fund your own election research, don’t just provide the banal assurances that are equivalent to asking voters reviewers to “just trust me”. The reviewers may not be expert in your field (in fact it’s likely that there will be generalists reviewing your proposal) so you will have to explain clearly and the ability to provide excellent and cogent explanations of complex concepts is a mark of the deeply competent. (Exemplified by Richard Feynman)
Go through and check your proposal document thoroughly – does every sentence add value?
You can significantly improve your proposal’s chance of staying out of the ‘reject’ pile by crafting a compelling ‘Pathways to Impact’ section. But note the title – it’s not ‘magnitude of impact’ so you don’t have to find the biggest possible number (by creative extrapolation). But you should identify the ‘pathway’. Who is next in the chain – who will pick up your work and do something valuable with it? Why will they care and why is your work an important step along the pathway?
Think also about the barriers to success and the tipping points which could translate stagnation to success. Is there anything that you can do to address these and if so how? Show how you can help and your whole proposal gains credibility and value. Can you perhaps involve some of the beneficiaries and get them to help you – and tell the reviewers how this will work. Think broadly about who might gain value from your work – in both the private and public sectors.
It is worth being conscious of the trajectory of sectors or the government’s stance on the sector that might use your work. Are you aligned with a national strategy? Perhaps an industry association can give you a direction. Perhaps you can find a sectoral roadmap that shows you where you can hook into it. And this alignment means your research is more likely to be adopted – which means the pathway will be a little less rocky.
And if you want to go a step further, then why not actually conduct a roadmapping session to work with your beneficiaries to map out how your research will translate into their plans. To see how others have done this see: http://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/roadmapping/case-studies/
In fast-moving fields of science maybe the world will change – together with the interests and priorities of your beneficiaries. So can you manage a process of continuous (or regular) engagement so that you stay close to those who have an interest in your success? And, if so, tell the reviewers how you’ll achieve this. [insert compelling here]
Check out the guidance from RCUK: http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/innovation/impacts/
Time consuming and often tricky to navigate – so why would you want to form partnerships with industrial companies?
But the key to success, both in the grant competition and in the real partnership, is specificity. What, exactly, do the industrial partners want? How, exactly, will they contribute to its creation? And then, exactly, what will they do with the results. If you can define this then you have a compelling story and excellent evidence to underpin your assertion that research is so valuable that it has to be supported…. Or at least that your proposal should not go in the reject pile just yet!
For more ideas and insights visit Eoin’s site: http://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/grant-writers-handbook/ – which includes guidance and checklists and links to yet further resources: http://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/grant-writers-handbook/links/