I recently had the opportunity to run two funding workshops which were designed to act as an introduction to research funding for a range of academics, many of whom were early in their research careers and some who had never engaged in a research funding application before. The two sessions were populated by staff from the same department of a university here in the UK. To do something different we decided to run some mock review panels in the workshop using real bids. Most of these bids were written in the last two years but some were older. We also knew what the outcomes were for these bids but we kept that information secret until the end of the process. In total there were seven mock panels and even though some of the panel members had never seen a research funding bid before there was a level of consistency and coherence in the decisions (or lack of decisions in some cases!). So what did we learn:
- All of the panels were highly critical (or full of praise) for the abstracts and opening statements on the proposals. They quickly learnt the value of making your abstract or opening paragraph as clear as possible, punchy, relevant and interesting. They agreed that you needed to state the problem you were solving upfront and emphasise the importance of solving this problem now. Some of the proposals failed (in the panels and real life) at least in part because reviewers were lost or confused so early in the proposal.
- Budgets – everyone hates doing budgets but everyone loves to tear other people’s budgets apart! Although some panel members felt they didn’t have enough expertise to make a judgement the majority of panel members were quick to judge whether they thought something was good value for money or in a number of cases was under resourced.Being realistic and accurate with your budget is critical to any application.
- Impact came up over and over again. People were keen to see impact in applications. As the panels all picked this up it is clear that impact is becoming a more integral part of the process of applying for research funding and that it remains at the forefront of applicants minds. Two things stood out though. Firstly there is still a lack of understanding of what impact is, the academy remains on a learning curve. The panels wanted to see impact but struggled to articulate what impact would look like. Secondly it shows the importance of reading guidance as each funder will treat impact differently and for some it has less importance attached to it when compared to major funders like the Research Councils.
- I was expecting that the panels would focus heavily on the methods, the research idea and impact but I wasn’t expecting them to notice the CV’s or track records of the applicants in such detail. What was apparent by the end of the session was the importance that the panels placed on track records when it came to making a positive decision on funding. a strong track record of previous funding, research and publications gave the panel confidence in their positive choices.
- Everybody likes to attack a methods section! No matter what discipline you are from most people feel qualified enough to try and comment (often negatively) on the methods sections of an application. It seems, no matter how much detail is given, people always wanted more. Less attention was paid to whether the methods would give answers to the research questions posed, the focus was on the detail of the methods and often whether people agreed with the methods on any level. Explaining your methods and approach in as much detail as possible is highly recommended. A couple of really useful blogs about the methods section of funding applications can be found here and here.
- And some weird and wonderful things like punctuation…..For some panel members issues around punctuation and grammar were seen as big red flags, some of the panel members wanted to turn down whole applications on the basis of one or two typos. Now don’t get me wrong, an application riddled with typos or grammatical errors is not easy to read and should raise alarm bells but one or two typos in a ten to twenty page application shouldn’t result in it being binned. I think it can be the case that people latch onto these types of errors only when there is very little wrong with the application or perhaps they don’t understand the application and resort to nitpicking. Or maybe I am too harsh?
Although most of these bids were in the subject area of the department concerned there wasn’t necessarily widespread expertise in the areas across the panels. As such they did at least partially reflect the type of panel your bid might face one day. Given this it wasn’t all that surprising what was picked up (both positively and negatively) but it does show the importance of getting your message right, providing an accurate and realistic budget, outlining methods that make sense and answer the research questions and which can lead to real impact. In addition to this the track record of the applicants was recognised as a key part of any proposal which just goes to show that tailoring your CV and relevant publications and research is an important part of any application.
And finally, despite the panels being a little too picky in some areas there is plenty to be said for taking care to make sure you use correct punctuation and iron out any typos! But please, if you are ever on a funding panel and come across a proposal which is sound expect for a typo or two, please don’t bin it – take a rounded picture of the application and what the research might achieve.