Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On applying for research grants

Writing grant applications is no fun. I just submitted one this past weekend, which consumed much of my time the last six weeks. Not all applications are so time-consuming, but this particular one includes several partner organizations, and the planned research activities have a large number of moving parts. Now that I’ve submitted it, I’ve time to catch up on other activities, like writing blog posts. Since I’ve been spending so much time writing a grant application, I figure I might as well blog about grant application writing.

Writing a successful grant is a combination of art and science, as you try to jam a coherent, theoretically grounded, methodologically sound project description, budget request, and assorted training and outreach plans into a finite number of allowable pages and word counts. Then you sit back and hope you get sympathetic external reviewers, and that the adjudication committee recognizes the elegance and brilliance of what you could achieve if only you had the money. Ugh.

I’ve been fortunate; I have never been without a grant since the year I got my first tenure track position (2006-7). My go-to agency for funding has been the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), from whom I’ve received five different grants over the years. On two of these I was the sole applicant, and on the other three I was the lead applicant with multiple co-applicants. I’ve held grants from a few other funding agencies as well.

I’m also fortunate in that I’m in a fully-funded, tenured academic position and not a “soft-money”-funded, research scientist position. I have colleagues who are in the latter category, which means they have to be continually beating the bushes to find new grants in order to keep their jobs. Should I fail to obtain the grant for which I’ve just applied, it will definitely curtail my ability to do research in the short term, but at least I will remain employed while I refine my next grant application.

Over the last three academic years, I served as an adjudicator of SSHRC standard research grant applications (called Insight Grants), working on the panel that ranked applications for environmental and northern research. It was a fascinating experience, and gave me some useful insights into what makes for a successful grant application, which I am happy to share. If you’re an experienced researcher, what now follows is likely old hat, but maybe it will be of value to someone.

The most important ingredient for a successful grant application is to start with an interesting research topic. This sounds elementary, but it is the thing that most quickly distinguishes those that finish at the top of the list from all the others. I can still remember many of the top-ranked applications from competitions I helped adjudicate. In each case, quickly upon looking at these applications, I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s a really important question this applicant is tackling”. SSHRC refers to this as “the Challenge”, and if you’re not taking on an interesting and important challenge, your chances of success are poor. And remember, what’s interesting to you may not interest the rest of us. I happen to think the writings of Wendell Berry are fascinating, and would love to operationalize his ideas of “complete solutions” and “solving for pattern” in my research. But other people might not have a clue what I’m talking about or, if they do, may think Wendell Berry is a crackpot. So, if I want to get a grant to do something like that, I’d have to work hard to persuade the reader that it would lead to some pretty cool results.

Of course, it’s not just the nature of the challenge itself that’s important, but how clearly it is described in the application. Each application starts with a 1-page summary, which is possibly the most critical part of the whole package. If, by the end of that one page the external reader is not enthused about what the applicant intends to do – or worse, is not entirely clear what the applicant intends to do or how to do it – that application is unlikely to succeed.

Assuming that the challenge seems important and has been clearly articulated, the next question is whether the proposed methodology makes any sense. The more clearly and articulately an applicant can describe her/his research methods, the better. Lots of people have good ideas, but not so many know how to follow through on them. The panel for which I was an adjudicator attracted applications from researchers in many different disciplines. I didn’t necessarily know all the methodological options and practices used in all those disciplines, but I could easily recognize when the applicant herself or himself hadn’t given enough thought to their proposed methodology. Common problems were vague descriptions of data collection and analysis procedures, mixes of methods that seemed to have little coherence, trying to do too many things at once, or applying overly simple methods to complex problems.  A reviewer or adjudicator should be able to read the methodology section of an application and immediately say, “Yup, that makes sense”.

Another common flaw in unsuccessful applications is an unimaginative knowledge mobilization plan (KMP). It’s not enough to do good research, how are you going to let the world (and important stakeholders) know about the results? One thing I can guarantee you is that every single application sent to SSHRC this year will include a statement that the applicant will present his/her research findings at scholarly conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. Every single one, from first to worst. So, if you want to distinguish your application from all the others, come up with an innovative KMP. Try to use social media, internet sites, mainstream media, community gatherings, and other non-traditionally-academic vehicles for disseminating your important findings. But make sure you have a plan; if you simply write a laundry list of possible outlets without giving any thought to how you’ll target them, it will be apparent you haven’t thought it through. 

Then of course there’s the budget. Unless you’re applying to a private foundation, when you apply for funding, you’re asking for taxpayer dollars to be taken from other potential uses and given to you. There are still some professors out there who live in a dreamland where they think they are entitled to public research funding. Don’t be one of them. It is a privilege to receive public money to do research, so act accordingly. Explain and justify, with as much detail as possible, why you need the funds you request. Adjudicators are impressed by applications where a large part of the funding will be used to train students, provide them useful skills, and produce what’s referred to as ‘highly qualified personnel’, or HQPs. This is a win-win situation – you achieve your research goals, students develop useful skills, society gains as a whole. Public money well spent. Adjudicators are going to be less impressed by applicants whose idea of ‘training’ is to hire a student assistant to photocopy things, or who want to do a lot of expensive travel to exotic locations for unclear purposes. All of the adjudicators I worked with on SSHRC panels took very seriously the importance of ensuring that public funds are spent wisely, so make sure you impress upon them that you do the same.

In days past, it used to be that the same old people would get grants to do the same old research, year in and year out. Part of it was because heavy weight was placed upon the researcher’s track record/past experience. The easiest way to get a grant was to have already had one, which was unfair to younger researchers and to people who wanted to do research that didn’t follow well-trodden paths. While there is still considerable weight given to experience, in SSHRC competitions today it counts for about 40% of the overall score when evaluating an application. So, if you have lots of experience in managing grants and in doing similar types of research in the past, great. But what if you don’t? One obvious way is to seek out co-applicants to join your research team who have the requisite skills and experience you lack. A newly-hired assistant professor who applies for a $250k research grant and wants to train 5 graduate students may be looked at skeptically by an adjudication panel; that’s a lot of people and money for anyone to manage. But, if that same applicant asks a senior professor in her/his department to be a co-applicant to help guide student supervision and financial management, the application suddenly looks a lot more feasible.


That’s enough tidbits for now. Remember, advice is worth what you pay for it, so take my unsolicited hints for what they’re worth. Good luck on your next grant application.