Review a Research Grant Application in Five Minutes

PeerReviewCartoon

Cartoon by Nick D Kim, http://strange-matter.net

This post tells you how to do a five-minute review of a research grant application. If you are asked to comment on a grant application by a friend or colleague, you should begin with this five minute review. In 95% of cases it will be all you need to do. Except create the feedback sandwich of course.

If you are writing a grant application, before you ask anybody else to read it you should spend five minutes reviewing it yourself. Far too many of the grant applications that I get asked to read take me a lot less than five minutes to review. Then it takes several days to construct a palatable feedback sandwich with the filling  “rewrite this completely”.

I don’t say you can review the detailed content of a grant application in five minutes. That takes longer and I will write about how to do it quickly in a future post. However, five minutes is plenty of time to review the framework of the case for support and check that it is appropriately used.

The framework is important for two reasons. First, if it is good, it tells the reader the essential story of your grant application very quickly. Remember, most readers only want to know the essential story. Second, the framework guides the reader to the detailed content that supports and justifies the essential story, so that the detail can be reviewed effectively and quickly.

‘Summary Sentence’

The most important part of the framework is a summary sentence. This should say what the project will achieve and enough about how it will achieve it to give a bit of distinctiveness and a bit of plausibility. It is essentially the elevator pitch, except that instead of taking 30 seconds to 2 minutes to say it or read it, it should take more like 15 seconds. The summary sentence should be the first sentence of the introduction, so it should take no time to find it, you still have 4 minutes 45 seconds left.

If you read my last post you will recognise that the summary sentence is what I refer to there as the first key sentence. So it will come as no surprise that you should check that the summary sentence is re-used as the first sentence of the part of the case for support that sets out the background to the research project (In line with previous posts  I am going to refer to this as the “Background” although different funders call it different names). Let’s allow 15 seconds to do that. 4 minutes 30 seconds left.

‘Importance Sentence’

Now you should spend 20 seconds checking the second sentence of the introduction. It’s the importance sentence. It should say something about why it is important to achieve whatever the project will achieve. Make a mental note about whether the importance sentence has a practical element. Does it mention a real world problem – childhood cancer, the economy, forgetfulness in old-age, or some such. It’s not essential that there is a practical element to the importance sentence but it has implications for the dissemination sentence, which you will review in a few minutes time.

As soon as you have checked the importance sentence for practical content, jump to the background section and check that the importance sentence is repeated there. This is just a quick glance, so it should only take you 10 seconds. You have 4 minutes left.

‘Aims Sentences’

Go back to the introduction. Immediately after the importance sentence there should be a set of aims sentences, about four sentences setting out the aims of the project. The aims sentences should state things that we need to know, understand, characterise or in some way discover. The aims sentences could be preceded by a linking or framing sentence and they could easily be formatted as bullet points. Checking that the aims sentences are in the right place should take you 10 seconds. Do not look at the content of the aims sentences yet. Wait 30 seconds until we get to the sub-project overview sentences.

Now you should check the next sentence of the introduction. It should be the ‘project overview sentence’.

Project overview Sentence.

The project overview sentence gives a simple one-sentence overview of the project. It might also be structured as a linking sentence to the four or so sub-project overview sentences, which should immediately follow it and which could appear as bullet points and could be expressed as objectives. It should take you 30 seconds to read the project overview sentence and 20 more to check that it appears again to introduce the part of the case for support that gives the detailed description of the research methods and of the project.

As Jacqueline Aldridge points out in the Research Funding Toolkit blog,  the overview sentence often gets buried at the end of the section that it should introduce.

Next you can spend 10 seconds checking that the sub-project overview sentences follow the project overview sentence. Now you are ready to check their content against the content of the corresponding aims sentences.

Sub-project overview sentences; content of aims sentences

Each aims sentence should link logically to the corresponding sub-project overview sentence in the following way. The aims sentence should say “We need to know X”. The sub-project overview sentence should give a very brief description of the research in the sub-project and should end with a clause that says “this will tell us X“.

The aims sentences should be repeated in the background. Each of them should introduce a discussion of the evidence that supports the assertion that this is an important aim.

The sub-project overview sentences should be repeated in the part of the case for support that describes the project in detail. Each of them should introduce the detailed description of the corresponding sub-project.

This checking and matching will probably take nearly a minute to do for the first aim/sub-project overview sentence pair but the others should be much quicker. It’s just a matching exercise after all. Lets assume it takes 2 minutes. You have a minute left, and only the dissemination sentence to check.

The dissemination sentence

The last sentence of the introduction should say what will be done with the results. It is the dissemination sentence. You need to check that it is repeated in the description of the project as the introduction to a section on dissemination. You also need to check that, if the importance sentence has a practical component then the dissemination must have a corresponding practical element. For example, if the project is going to discover a cure for a disease, the dissemination needs to promote the use of the cure in some way. As a general rule there must be a plan to disseminate the results in a way that makes it likely that the claimed practical benefit will be realised.

What to do with the outcome of the review

Only about 5% of grant applications will pass this five minute review. If you are reviewing a grant application for someone else and it passes, it should be pretty easy to review the detailed content. I’ll give some helpful pointers in a future post. It goes without saying that if the grant you are reviewing is yours, it is safe to give it to someone to review.

In the more likely case that the grant application fails the review, then it needs rewriting. If it’s yours, that’s pretty simple. Read my post from last week. Write the 12 key sentences and use them to organise the text you have already written. If you can’t write the 12 key sentences then you shouldn’t be writing a research grant.

If the grant application is not yours, you need to write a feedback sandwich. Basically the grant needs to be rewritten before it’s worth looking at the detailed content. I’ll say something about how to do this in my next post but whatever you do don’t use the phrase “completely rewrite”.

 

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