Category Archives: Research Funding Toolkit

Seven Deadly Sins of Grant-Writing: Sins of Omission

3WiseMonkeysA couple of weeks ago I described deadly sins that grant-writers commit deliberately. This week I am dealing with sins that are just as deadly but much harder to avoid. The sins of omission just creep into your writing without you noticing and  you have to make special efforts to remove them.

The sins I want to deal with are Complex Sentences, Long Paragraphs, Poor Flow and failing to match the background to the project. They all meet  the definition of sin that I coined last week: “Anything that makes it hard for a committee member to pick up a clear understanding of the rationale of your research project, what it will discover and why that is important,  is a sin. So is anything that makes it hard for a referee to get a clear picture of the detailed reasoning in your argument and the detailed description of your intended research activities. Referees and committee both work under time pressure, so anything that slows them down is also a sin.”

Complex sentences are really difficult to avoid. They appear spontaneously in your draft. Most people can’t avoid writing them whenever they are trying to write something difficult – like a grant application.

That’s OK. Writing complex sentences isn’t the end of the world. Not unless your first draft is the end of your writing process. You must expect your first draft to be full of sins and you need to cast them out. You need to hunt through your draft and convert all the long, complex sentences into short, clear simple sentences. As a rule of thumb, you should redraft any sentence longer than 30 words or containing more than 1 verb or beginning with a digression – a phrase that is introduced by a word like “although”. And if it’s the first sentence of a paragraph you also need to make sure that the main message of the sentence fits on the first line.

It’s OK for complex sentences to appear in your first draft because that is usually the easiest way for you to write it.  But it’s not OK to leave them there. You have to replace them with simple sentences. This may involve breaking them up, or turning them round and it will take time, but you will get quicker with practice. Your final draft must be easy to read, and to speed read. Most of the people voting on your grant application will speed-read, or skim it. So if what you send them is full of complex sentences that have to be decoded carefully then they will not get your message, and you will have less chance of getting funded.

Long paragraphs are bad for two reasons.

  • I pointed out in my last post that most of the people scoring your grant will speed-read your case for support. Speed-readers read the first line of every paragraph provided there is white space between them. The longer your paragraphs, the less you communicate with speed readers.
  • Long paragraphs are usually very hard to digest. They are usually a sign that what you are writing is either very complex, or just a bit disorganised. The few readers who really want to read the detail in your case for support will find it hard.

If your paragraphs are longer than about 5 lines, try to break them up. If they are not too disorganised it will be fairly straightforward but if they are disorganised it may be easier to attend to the flow first.

Flow refers to the sequence of ideas that you present, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. Within paragraphs, good flow occurs when each sentence connects naturally to its successor. There are several ways of achieving this. If you have never thought hard about it (and I hadn’t until a few months ago), Google will find you countless sources of advice. I recommend that you read the Using English for Academic Purposes Blog, which has a section on paragraphs and flow.  The basic approach is that  you should always start the paragraph with the topic sentence, the one sentence that sums up the paragraph. Then, to  get good flow within the paragraph you make sure that the first sentence leads naturally to the start of the second sentence, which leads naturally to the subject of the third sentence and so on. This makes it easy for the reader to read through the paragraph without having to pause and analyse the wording to work out what you mean, or having to keep several ideas in mind in order to follow what you are saying.

Flow between paragraphs is also important and again Google throws up hundreds of ways to help you make it smoother. I think that the best approach here is to reverse outline, as suggested on the Explorations of Style blog, which is full of good advice on how to make your writing more readable.

Failing to match the background to the project is a sin against Derrington’s first commandment. You won’t go to hell for the sin but you may enter the purgatory of grant rejection. The commandment requires that before you describe your project and the outcomes it will produce, you use the background section to make the case that we need exactly those outcomes. It’s a pretty basic selling technique. It persuades the customer that they want what you are selling before you describe what you are selling. I have explained before how you use key sentences to create a structure that implements the technique by creating a background section that deals with the outcomes in the same order as the description of the project, and that explains, outcome by outcome, why we need them.

The key sentences also give you the best way to fix a mismatch between background and project. Basically you create the key sentences and then you use them to re-organise your text. And then you use them to write an introduction.

If you read a few successful grant applications you will realise that the sins are not fatal: most successful grant-writers commit them. However, the sins all make it less likely that you will get funded because they make it harder for time-pressed committee members and referees to do their job. Of course you may be lucky enough that the committee sees the merit in your application despite you making it difficult. But why take the chance?

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The Importance Proposition

ImportanceIn the Research Funding Toolkit we explain that funding decisions depend on whether the case for support makes four propositions. It has to convince the reader that it is important, that it will be a success, that the team are compentent and that the grant will be value for money. We refer to the four propositions as importance,  success, competence, and value for money. In the next few posts I want to deal with the four propositions in turn.

I begin with the importance proposition because it is where funding agencies begin. If a grant application doesn’t make the importance proposition, nothing else matters. It doesn’t get funded. Period. The other propositions will not even be considered.

As with so many writing problems, addressing the propositions is easier if you consider the reader’s perspective. There are three aspects to this.

  1. You can think of the reader as having questions in their head as they read your grant application. In the case of the importance proposition, the main question is “How important is this?” 
  2. The reader’s definition of terms like “important” is not necessarily the same as your definition.
  3. The reader will want to formulate their own answer to their questions, rather than to accept your answers. They will not be impressed by an assertion that your proposed research is important, rather they will be looking for evidence.

So let’s consider how the readers of your grant application might define importance and how you answer the questions in their heads.

It’s a question of priorities.

Every funding agency has a distinctive mission, from which they derive a set of priorities. Large agencies often have such a complex mission that they will have a range of different schemes, each with a different set of priorities. The priorites are quite carefully defined and usually very well publicised. It’s helpful to separate those related to direct research outcomes from those related to indirect research outcomes.

Direct Research Outcomes

Most agencies set the highest priority on the kind of knowledge the research will produce. Academics tend to emphasise outcomes that contribute to knowledge and understanding. Most research funding agencies also set a high priority on outcomes that advance our understanding of the world from a particular set of subject perspectives. However, this is rarely the only, or even the highest, priority.

Agencies that get their funding from national governments often set a higher priority on outcomes that contribute to health, the economy and society. All the UK Research Councils now require you to list the non-academic beneficiaries of your research. When Amanda served on the BBSRC Animal Sciences Committee the Chair would often ask “How is this going to contribute to UK plc?”

Research charities can be very narrow in their focus. Many medical charities limit their interest to a single disease. This kind of focus can help charities to raise funds from public donations. Clarity about their priorities makes it easy for them to ask for money, as well as dispense it.

Endowed charities often have a very broad mission that reflects the intentions of their original benefactors, see for example the Leverhulme Trust, which supports research across all academic subjects.

As a rule of thumb, evidence about the importance of direct outcomes goes in the background to the case for support. This is the main purpose of the literature review and you should use it as a criterion for whether or not you cite a piece of literature there. You should cite the literature that makes it clear that the outcomes of your proposed project meet the priorities of the funder. When you do this it always helps if you can refer to the priorities in the funder’s own words by quoting from the guidelines for the scheme that you are targeting.

Indirect Research Outcomes

Many agencies have priorities that relate to consequences of doing research, rather than direct research outcomes. Training and career development are common priorities, which sometimes have their own schemes. See for example my post about the NIH K99/R00 scheme. Fellowship schemes  and career development schemes such as Marie Sklodowska-Curie and the European Research Council  prioritise the career development of individuals above direct research outcomes.

As a general rule, evidence about indirect outcomes is requested explicitly as part of the application. Most fellowship schemes will require statements from the host organisation to reassure them that the prospective Fellow will be supported, mentored and provided with appropriate facilities. The complex application forms for schemes like  Horizon 2020 reflect the fact that European research funding has priorities connected with the development of a European research community that brings together international teams that span industry and academia.

In conclusion, if you want to make the importance proposition you should do two things.

  • First, for every research outcome, ask yourself “Where in the background do I make it clear that this is important and what evidence do I cite?”
  • Second, no matter how bizarre and irrelevant the requirements of the application form might seem to you, follow them to the letter.
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Committees and Referees

Committees Like a Simple Story: thanks to Science and Ink http://www.lab-initio.com

Committees prefer a clear story: http://labinitio.com

The Journal Nature reported yesterday that scientists have complained that there is a mismatch between expert referees’ evaluation scores of research grant applications and funding decisions.  Different interviewees claimed that this mismatch either does or does not indicate either a flaw in the system or mistakes by referees or by committees.

There may be flaws in the system and mistakes probably happen, but there is a more obvious reason that referees’ scores should not be expected to predict funding decisions. Referees and committees do different jobs which impose different constraints on the way a grant application is written. Very few proposals are written in a way that satisfies both sets of constraints, and so, for the majority of proposals, there is no reason to expect a close match between the referees’ score and the committee’s score. Before I explain the constraints and how to meet them, I’ll clarify the story and explain its relevance.

The story was based on 302 grant applications to the Medical Research Council. It states that some applications that received high scores from the referees were triaged (rejected without being discussed by the committee). Of the proposals discussed by the committee, the story states that the group of applications that were successful and the group that were rejected had ‘a nearly identical spread of scores’. It’s worth noting that the story focuses on a statistic of the scores that is not particularly informative (spread) and does not mention any other statistics. It is relatively common that the referees include both friends and foes of the applicant, which can cause the spread of scores on a single application to range from the lowest to the highest possible. Consequently, nothing that the story says about this rather small data sample indicates a general failure of referees’ scores to predict committee decisions.

However, whatever we may try to conclude from this small dataset, most funding agencies (the EPSRC is an exception in the UK) ask referees and committees to do very different jobs. These jobs depend on different aspects of the way the proposal is written.

Referees work alone and each one works on a single application. The referees are expected to be experts in the same research field as the applicant and their evaluations are typically seen as coming from within that field. Their main task is to test the detailed rationale of the proposal. Are the research questions important? Is the research approach feasible? Does the research team have the ability to carry out the project? What is their standing in the field? Has their previous work made a significant contribution? Is the approach novel? Are other teams likely to get the answers first?

To get a good score from a referee, a grant application must contain relevant detail. Evidence that the questions are important and relevant must be cited. Any evidence to the contrary must be dealt with effectively. The research approach must be described clearly and in sufficient detail to convince a knowledgeable sceptic that the project is feasible, can be carried out with the resources requested, and will lead to the promised outcomes.

The committee works as a collective and takes a view across all the applications before them, typically about 100 for a single meeting. They must also take a view across all the different research fields that the committee supports. They need it to be clear that the project will deliver an  outcome that will have importance beyond the immediate research area and that the applicant has identified an approach that is likely to be productive and that the research team has the skills to deliver it. They need to know what the research aims are and how they relate to the overall outcome. They need it to be clear that the research objectives will satisfy the research aims and deliver the overall outcome and that the results will have appropriate impact

More importantly, the committee also works very quickly. They have to reach an agreed view about grant applications which most or all of them may not understand completely. For the committee to score an application highly they need it to be possible to understand it on the basis of a single hasty reading – or even a quick skim. The case for support should have a very clear structure that states clearly what will be the research outcome, why it is important, what are the research aims, what are the objectives and what will be done with the results.

Of course the best possible case for support has a clear structure that enables the committee to understand it and appreciate its strong points. It also uses the structure to guide the referees to the relevant detail. In my experience cases of support written in this way get very high scores both from referees and from committees. Unfortunately they are very rare but this blog explains in several different ways how to write them.

 

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Build the Project, Then Fit the Question

Was your question clearly linked to your project?

Is your question important to the funder?

The first thing you must do in a grant application is convince the reader that you are going to address a question that is important to the funder. In chapter  7 of The Research Funding Toolkit, we refer to this as the ‘Importance Proposition‘.

The importance proposition is fundamental: your grant will definitely not get funded unless you convince the reader that your research question is important to the funder. Even so,  you should take a project first approach. Generate your project and then fit the question to it. Do not try to pick an important question and then design a project to solve it. The project first approach is quicker – often by several months – and it reduces the risk of writing a zombie grant.

The project first approach is easier if you take a modular approach to project design and start by generating a catalogue of sub-projects.  As you generate each sub-project, you should ask  yourself if the outcome will contribute to answering an important question. If it will, keep the sub-project and begin preparing yourself to make that case. Otherwise, discard that sub-project and try  to generate another one with an outcome that will contribute to answering an important question.

Once you have a few sub-projects – ideally at least five or six – it is easy to generate projects. The ideal project has three, or just possibly four, sub-projects.  When you combine sub-projects to generate a project you need to start looking hard for a good research question. You need a question that covers all  of the sub-project outcomes comfortably. It is better to take a question that is too big to answer, and answer it partially, rather than risk picking a question that is too small to be exciting and answer it completely.

An important part of your development as a researcher is to develop the ability to design projects that produce results that help to answer important questions. I absorbed this from the culture of the lab in which I did my PhD and this is part of the approach we recommend in the book. However, it is also possible to search on the web to see if a given funder will fund the kinds of research outcomes you are likely to produce.  Obviously every funder’s website will have a statement of their remit, but this can be hard to interpret because it will be couched in terms of questions rather than outcomes. A better way to get a sense of the outcomes that excite a given funder is to scan their press releases. Best of all, some funders have a database that includes the abstracts of all their funded projects.

The Gateway to Funded Research is a searchable database that covers  all the UK research councils. The Projects and Results page on the European Research Council website is also searchable and allows you to see research outcomes.

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