Applications, Impact and Grant Review

You may recall that January – March this year turned into grant application fest 2011 with two big applications to fly out of the door.  One was a collaborative application with another academic, the other was me flying solo on a first grant application. The outcomes of both are still pending.  I’ve been meaning to share some thoughts on the process since then but have been putting off writing the post because every time I think of those grants, I add another thing to the list of things I may have done differently.  In anycase Cath @ VWXYNot has a great post up about pre-submission peer review of grant applications and this has forced my hand on the issue.

There were stages of the application process that I found quite enjoyable, particularly the early stages that involved grazing through literature, trying to find a niche and kicking ideas around.  Initially, this was quite fun because it increased my knowledge of the field and allowed me to play the ‘what if?’ game with various research ideas. The further down the path an idea goes, the more frustrating it is when you uncover the paper where the authors have done exactly what you wanted to do damnit!  Finally though I came up with a thread of research that I couldn’t find any papers on, yet seemed so obvious that I couldn’t understand why there weren’t any.  [Note: I found a patent in which this thread is mentioned as one of the possibilities in the ‘cover all possible options’ section, but no direct experimentation in the examples section.  I found this yesterday after over a year of looking for stuff.]  At this point I started developing this thread, looking at potential project strands within it, and hoping that it would all come together as a single idea (for a synthesis) that could have a few applications (to farm it out to undergrad project students easily, and widen the chances of getting funding).

This is about the point where I think I should have sat down and talked to one of my colleagues because I quickly found that actually constructing a plan of work and budget for a strand was quite challenging.  Working out what was achievable for a full-time postdoc or a PhD student, yet still ambitious enough to be worth funding was quite a task.   Now, I don’t know how helpful such conversations would have been in reality, but in theory they seem like a good idea because ideas that exist only in one persons head tend to be distorted by hope or enthusiasm and would benefit from a reality check.   In any case a few drafts of each application were read by colleagues who had lots of useful suggestions for improvement.

The other aspects of the application process were…sigh…also challenging.  But they were also relatively generic. Things like working out a budget (helped by our own research institute manager), working out what to put in all of those extra sections such as plan of work, benefits, lay summary, and the dreaded impact summary.  I point out the generic nature of these things because within a sub-field it would be possible for research mentoring on a group level to cover the key issues and pitfalls surrounding these sections.  How ‘lay’ does a lay statement need to be? [most of us have a hard time recalling just what suitable for an A-level student (final year high school) means, mainly because we didn’t do A-levels]. How much detail is required in the budget justification and how itemized should the budget be?  I think there is room for development of useful, non-jargon, resources in those areas.

But we have to talk about Impact. The first confusing thing here was the number of sections within a research council application where I had to talk about impact and beneficiaries.  I find myself to be pro-‘academics thinking more widely about their work and planning what they may do if it works’ but anti-‘academics stating their work will cure cancer/save the dolphins/make everyone like cheese/end anthropogenic global warming’.  I read a lot of blog posts and articles about impact summaries and became slightly irritated by the range of opinions and level of hostility towards the idea that existed.  I was, after all, looking for some inspiration to write one, not a manifesto for why they may or may not be a good idea.  The best pieces of advice that I managed to claw out of the maelstrom were to make statements that ultimately were testable.  Rather than to say ‘I will go and talk to school kids about this work’, it was better to set a measurable goal for the number of events involving school kids that you would aim to attend over the course of the grant.  If there were other stakeholders to be engaged, it seemed better to state the manner in which those engagements would occur, and the frequency.  At least at the end of the grant period it would be possible to go back through that list and tick off all those things that were achieved.  I wrote other stuff, of course, and probably waffled.  I have no idea if this was the right approach, but I am reminded that like my students I want to know the right way to do something so that I am more successful at it.  There just aren’t a lot of examples of impact summaries out there to look at [Note to PIs: really helpful if you let your resident grant wrangler show your successful applications to new academics, people can learn a great deal by looking at how established academics write grant apps].

I don’t really have an opinion on impact summaries other than to wish that the multiple sections devoted to the concept were rationalised into one or two. Apart from that I’m going to apathetically shrug my shoulders and note that it’s just the system we have at the moment so it really doesn’t matter whether I like it or not, I just have to learn to compete successfully in it.

As for the applications, they’re still pending so its the ‘ignorance is bliss’ or ‘its like an itch I can’t scratch’ stage depending on how you look at it.  Two summer student applications (one Nuffield, one Wellcome) were successful and start in the next fortnight so there is plenty to be getting on with for now.