Success in Funding

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This blog is based on a talk I gave for our PGCAP. Given that a repeated message during the day was about the appalling tendency of academics to use acronyms that mean nothing to people outside their narrow field, I will of course elucidate… The Post Graduate Certificate in Academic Practice.

My talk was part of a day delivered jointly between IAD and the Research Support Office (RSO) on the theme of building a stronger research profile. As part of this, participants were given an overview of some key strategic funding opportunities by my colleague, Catherine Burns, from RSO and then asked to consider the funders and schemes best suited to their research experience and interests. I then closed the afternoon with a few perspectives on what makes for a successful application and applicant.

My slides are here (Funding landscape_SS) but I wanted to use today’s blog post to add some detail to the presentation and explain why I made the points it covers. I’ll also try to include what I can remember of the additional points made by Gordon and Hamish from RSO. The presentation was built around 6 big ideas:

  • Pick the Right Funder
  • Understand the Funder
  • Understand the Process
  • Convince the Reader of the Proposal’s Importance
  • Present the Right Profile and Experience
  • Get the Right Support

Pick the right funder 

Once again I used this section to encourage people to feed their inner wonk as I think this becomes much easier if you have read the key strategic reports which are influencing UK research funding. You also need to understand how the University is reacting to these. Our current funding landscape is incredibly complex but that’s good news for us because we have a team of experts who will help you to navigate it.

Understand the funder

Once you’ve worked out the best fit, the next stage is to research the funder. They will usually have a bigger purpose – can you work out what it is? If it isn’t clear from their strategy documents and vision statements, look at examples of successful awards and  how they come to decisions about funding. Looking at the track records of successful applicants will also help you work out what they expect to see in your CV on the way to this proposal. The clues are all out there, but also find out what internal expertise we have – Edinburgh is full of reviewers, panel members and successful grant holders. Pick their brains.

Understand the process

Decisions about the funding usually involve a multistage process. Any proposal must be effective at each stage and meet the needs of the different audiences it will face. The first hurdle is to apply for schemes you are eligible for. Don’t ignore this point because it is always the first thing that any programme manager will say when asked about funding success. (This suggests they spend a lot of time returning unsuitable applications.) The next gatekeeper is the  reviewer, who I described as an expert with a magnifying glass – they will scrutinise costings, feasibility, methodology. Finally the panel play their part, but they have to look from the helicopter. Their concerns are about the big ideas in the proposal – what’s the state of the art, why are you novel and why should anyone care?

Convince the Reader of the Proposal’s Importance

These points came from reflections on proposals I’ve seen over last few years (with the cautionary note that these have mostly been complex EU and doctoral cohort grants). Despite the size and detail in these I can still remember the ones that were well written. I felt a sense of excitement about the research and an almost personal commitment to getting the funding. You want to get reader to feel that excitement. You want them to sense how important it is to you and that they want to play their part in getting it funded. It’s difficult to explain how to do this, but if you read a few successful grants you’ll udnerstand what I mean.

I would find it almost impossible to find the right tone of voice to achieve this on my own, so my advice is to get lots of people to read it as it develops. Look for people who can represent the reviewer and panel perspectives and find a way to convince both sets of decision makers with your writing.

Taking this apporach is also more liekly to result in an application which is easy to read and understand. This often manifests itself as internal consistency – a phrase I first heard from a very experienced panel member. This means that the idea is developed in a way that the reader can follow – all the key information is there and builds to convince that this is the right time, the right way and the right person. Ultimately it achieves the right outcome. When you set the context this leads to the core question which leads to the approach you will take which leads to the results you’ll expect which leads to the grand change in the world you are promising. (At no point should the reader feel baffled about anything that’s suddenly been thrown in – guide us gently through your big ideas.)

Present the Right Profile and Experience

This means that I’m convinced you are the right person for the job. Funding research is a risky business, not just in terms of who you give the money to, but also who you don’t. Every rejected proposal is a huge missed opportunity, so panelists want to be convinced that you are worth that risk. They need to see consistency between your track record and ambition; they need to see you will be able to achieve results because of experience and skills; they need to see you are working with the right people and these people want to work with you. In short, convince them you are safe.

Get the Right Support

This covers a number of ideas. There are the actual “letters of support” which must be specifically enthusiastic and committed. You want them to talk about how important the work will be to them and what a difference it will make, rather than general luke warm sentiments. Whilst thinking about this, remember that you take these people out of the reviewer pool by including them in the proposal, so pause for a moment and think who you want cheering from the inside and who you hope might cheer from the outside.

Anyone who reviews the proposal has the potential to become one of your cheerleaders,  so make it easy to read and easy to review. Understand the review process and structure your proposal to present all the information they need and to be convincing about the strength of your case.

Finally, remember that your reputation may walk into the room ahead of you. Are you out building your profile through seminars, visits, collaboration and engaging with others. What do people say about you and your work? Think about your uncontainable self and make sure that everyone who could be an advocate knows about your plans.  This way they can highlight your potential and achievements to the right people.

The final message is that there is an art to grant writing and it does come with practice, feedback and guidance. To anyone reading this I wish you good luck, but also the message that failure isn’t personal. Keep trying.

A couple of final references:

Arevalo, J. A Measure of Excellence of Young European Research Council Grantees Research Management Review, Volume 21, Number 1 (2016) I spotted this on twitter during the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators Conference which I sadly didn’t attend in Malta. (No, not bitter. I like Birmingham.) It’s not perfect – our local expert isn’t convinced of the link between h-index and success, but it shows that you can learn a lot about funding by doing a bit of research.

The reference above to the “Uncontainable Self” comes via the Digital Footprint MOOC and is taken from The academic online: Constructing persona through the World Wide Web Kim Barbour and David Marshall First Monday Volume 17, Number 9 – 3 September 2012 


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