Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Gamboling down grant-making lane

To paraphrase Adam Smith …
“Academics seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in talk of money, or complaints about funding agencies”.
My dad – who was not an academic – once joked to me that when academics met up they spent 90% of their time discussing money; where to get it, the general lack of it, etc., etc. Now that I'm all grown up and part of this scholarly world, I'd agree that money – especially for research – does tend to dominate our thinking to an unhealthy degree. We obviously have career pressures to apply for it (e.g. tenure), we often can't undertake research without it, universities are judged on how much academics bring in, etc. Getting our grubby little mitts on this money involves the dark art of grant writing; some academics seem to have an innate ability to write successful applications, but most of us don't ....

I want to cover my experience with grant writing in this post, drawing on my experiences applying for various grants and my experience actually working for the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK. As with much else in academia, I think it's important to share our experiences when it comes to things like grant writing – both in terms of our successes and (just as importantly) failures. Consequently, I'm going to outline my unsuccessful and successful applications. While I've been writing grant applications since 2005, my experience is limited to certain types of grants. For example, career-wise many people begin writing grant applications way before I did, primarily because they have to apply for doctoral scholarships, postdoc fellowships, and similar. I didn't do those things so don't have much to say about them. My experience is primarily with research grants, and some other grant types (e.g. events), and so I'm going to focus on these.

I’m going to start with my unsuccessful applications; I’ve included links to the main proposal (not the extra bumf they inevitably need), although only where I was principal investigator. I don’t want to say much about each of them since the purpose is more to provide a resource than really analyze why I was or was not successful. Take from them what you will! Afterwards I provide a few comments on what I’ve learned overall from the grant application process.

Unsuccessful Grant Applications 

United Kingdom

  • ESRC (2009): co-applicant on an application to look at the evolution old industrial regions across Europe. Wasn’t successful at two attempts, but taught me a lot about how to collaborate and how to develop grant proposals.
  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2009): principal investigator (with a colleague elsewhere) on application to critically analyze the impact of the UK’s social enterprise agenda on communities.
  • Nuffield Foundation (2009): principal investigator with two others on application to look at different funding rationales in the social economy. 
  • Leverhulme Trust Award (2009): was for an ‘award’ rather than ‘grant’, but not successful either way. Not sure what it needed really, but still good to try. 
  • European Research Council (2009-2010): co-applicant on a multi-country, multi-team application to the ERC to look at clusters across Europe. Involved a rather complicated application process in which we applied to the ERC first, and then each team had to apply to their respective national research councils. Although successful at the ERC level, the ESRC then rejected the project so we didn’t get to do it. I think the other national teams got funding though. 
  • British Academy (2010): principal investigator with a collaborator elsewhere on application to look at how free market think tanks represent and frame climate change. Only a small grant, but still unsuccessful.
  • ESRC (2010): principal investigator with a collaborator elsewhere on this application to examine open science initiatives and regional economic development. Wasn’t successful, but useful for developing an interest in this area even though it hasn’t led to anything concrete (e.g. publication).


  •  Ontario Early Researcher Award (2011): received relatively good referee comments back on this one but didn’t get it. Have since developed the proposal further and applied (successfully) to SSHRC (see below), so this ended up as a useful experience.
  •  Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award (2012, 2013): tried twice now and obviously I’m not innovative enough; will no longer be young very soon either! I kid myself that I’m still young so please don’t disabuse me of that notion.

Successful Grant Applications 

United Kingdom:

  • ESRC Seminar (2006-2008): principal investigator with two colleagues at Glasgow University (now elsewhere). Details of this grant are on the ESRC website here.
  • ESRC Small Grant (2007-2009): principal investigator with a colleague at Glasgow University. Details of this grant are on the ESRC website here, as well as the End of Project report here.

Small grants (£1000-5000):

  • Adam Smith Foundation (2008): principal investigator with two collaborators from another university and third sector. We didn't actually end up spending this money for a range of reasons; I think this might happen more often then we’d think but maybe someone else has a better idea.
  • Interns@Strathclyde (2010): principal investigator working with a student intern on a project looking at the role of free market think tanks in climate change debates. Worked out relatively well, but nothing published from it (yet!). 
  • Department Research Fund (2010): principal investigator, but working with a colleague elsewhere. The aim was to look at open science initiatives and this grant enabled us to pay for a temporary research assistant to collect some data on these initiatives. Ended up revealing that we needed to do a lot more work to make this project workable, which we'd tried to do with a grant to the ESRC, unsuccessful though (see above). 
  • Regional Studies Association Research Network grant (2010): principal investigator on an ‘events’ grant with collaborators at two other universities; didn’t really work out as we wanted for various reasons, some of which I allude to in this event report.


  • SSHRC Insight Development Grant (2013): principal investigator and first time application to Canada's SSHRC. Feel very lucky getting this as it provides me with the opportunity to get into a whole new area of research I've been wanting to do for some time now. The grant took me about a year to develop and get in shape, passing through several iterations with considerable input from my Faculty’s research office (big thank you!); one person there really pushed me to define and refine what I’d put in the proposal and it really helped me.
  • Work in a Warming World CURA sub-Grant (2012): principal investigator on this one, which is an ongoing collaboration with Professional Engineers Ontario / Ontario Centre for Engineering Policy and Practice. My graduate assistant and I have already had a short article published out this research and we're currently organizing a workshop to disseminate some of the findings. This is my first proper experience of collaborating with non-academics and I'd say that it's been a fairly smooth ride, so far at least. Although PEO/OCEPP aren't really involved in the research directly, they have played a critical role in developing relationships with informants and helping to disseminate the research. 
  • SSHRC Public Outreach (2012): As a “collaborator” I wasn't involved in the writing or application process. I was more of a 'name' to add to the form and so don't really have much to say about this one.

 Small grants ($1000-5000):

  • LA&PS Minor Research Grant (2011): principal investigator on a project investigating the implications of the global financial crisis on the UK life sciences; enough money to travel to the UK, do some interviews and then get them transcribed. Going to get two-three papers out of this, which is really cost effective research. Small grants are a boon when they come off like this one.
  • SSHRC Small Grant (2012): principal investigator on a project looking at statistical trends in the UK, USA and Canada. Basically paid for a graduate assistant to do some secondary data collection.
  • LA&PS Event Grant (2013): principal investigator organizing a workshop – see here for CfP.

Things I’ve Picked Up Along the Way 

I’m not actually going to write about how to write a grant proposal – I think this can be very specific to different disciplines, countries, funding agencies, and so on. There is help out there though, one example being the Professor Is In. So, what I’m going to do below is simply run through some generic things I've learned over the years:

Time & Effort

  1.  Emotional investment: to begin with, it's important to note that writing a grant application is a tiring and trying experience. It can take much more (emotional, relational, etc.) effort than writing a research paper, or anything similar, even if it is shorter in (word) length. Moreover, it often involves a significant emotional investment since there is a greater likelihood that a grant application will be rejected than a research paper, and it's likely of greater importance for the applicant than other sorts of writing (e.g. our careers and livelihoods can depend on them).
  2. Time and timing are important: it can take years, quite literally, to develop a good grant application; yet, at the same time, a grant application may only be fundable for a certain period of time when the topic captures the attention of relevant referees and / or funding agencies. It is, therefore, useful to have several things on the back burner at any one time that can be turned into a grant application in short order. Multiple projects are therefore good, in my book (but maybe not everyone’s). 
  3. Details matter: many of my unsuccessful grant applications have been thrown together at the last minute, which shows. Any good grant application needs to relate the research objectives to the theoretical framework to the methodological approach, and all of these need to relate to some underlying rationale for the project. To do this requires thought and time, as well as sometimes painstaking mapping of all these things. My approach now is to make sure that the research objectives/questions are explicitly referenced in the theoretical/methodological framework and research methods, which build on the objectives/questions very directly (i.e. “In Stage 1 this project addresses Research Question 1 …”). This may seem obvious but it is pretty common to drift off from objectives when writing a proposal; mapping helps in this regard. 
  4. Preparation: there are usually more things to do or fill in than the proposal alone so make sure you have set aside plenty of time to do these things. One excruciating task I had to complete recently was filling in the new SSHRC Common CV template – I’ve not encountered a more mind-numbing or infuriating activity for some time (if ever!). It literally took me about a day to fill in the template, so I would strongly encourage people to do that sort of thing well ahead of time and maybe even before you have a grant application in mind.

  1. Learn to commit collaboration: research grants often involve working with other people on a project. This is why they can take so long to develop, and developing a grant application with others might take all that time and effort (see above) even if, ultimately, it's not successful. Part of this development process involves building up a rapport with your collaborators, which might just involve meeting up and discussing ideas without actually putting them down on paper. We have to accept that some of these relationships will work out and some will not; don't flog a dead horse if it's collapsed under the weight of indifference, inertia or some other random event (e.g. moving continents). At the same time, don't expect (intellectual) sparks to fly in the first few meetings.
  2. Taking charge: while this might contradict the above comment, I also think that any successful (for you individually) research project necessitates you taking ‘ownership’ (for want of a better, less management-speak word!) of the project, rather than simply following on what others want to do. You need motivation to do anything and if the project ends up being something you're not into then you're unlikely to put the effort in that will lead to the results you want. This is not about being selfish, it's about doing things you want to do and spending your effort on those, rather than trying to do as much as possible with as many people as possible. If it doesn't seem that exciting to you then don't do it; spend your time on something else and don't piss off the people who it does excite.
  3. Working with non-academics: one important part of research collaboration is working with non-academics, of whatever stripes. It’s a great way to get out of the academic thought bubble, or navel-gazing we sometimes do, and ensure that our research is useful or helpful to someone in ‘real’ life. Obviously there are tricky issues we need to navigate when we try to do this, including thinking about whose priorities come first or how to ensure that everyone’s priorities are addressed, and so on.
Money Matters

  1. Financial Climate: it is evident to me that the funding climate for academic research rises and falls. At certain points in time (e.g. late 2010s in the UK) the funding climate can be very poor, meaning that the chance of being successful when applying for grants can fall to 10% or worse (depends on your field obviously).
  2. Money availability: all the above being said, there is plenty of money available out there, even if it seems like there isn't or it seems like the amount is too low – check websites like Pivot or your own research office. Universities, for example, often have pots of money for academics to access and although the money available might seem small fry – a few thousand dollars, pounds or euros – it can often be enough to carry out a project that leads to one or two journal articles, which is the purpose of research grants after all.
  3. Money needs: when thinking about writing a grant it’s important to think about what you want the money for. This may seem obvious, but sometimes we end up applying for grants or collaborating on grant applications for other reasons (e.g. career, a friend asked us, etc.). think about how you do research: e.g. do you want to do it yourself? Do you want to train research/graduate assistants? Do you want to travel? Do you want to disseminate it? All these things (and more) cost money, although maybe not as much as we might think.
  4. Budgets: contact your research office (or equivalent) early on in the process to discuss how to prepare a budget; it may be vastly different in different places so it’s good to do this even before you apply for a grant when you move to a new institution. Obviously you have to understand what funders will pay for, but it’s also necessary to think about what you can do with different amounts of money. Certain projects will simply cost more because of the methodological approach and research design; maybe you could split such a project up and fund it with different pots of money. There are certain institutional limitations with budgets as well; for example, in the UK now the ESRC and other research councils pay ‘full economic costing’ (or FEC) which means that all budgets are inflated quite a bit by the budgeting system (e.g. full-time, permanent academics have to cost in their own time on top of the costs of hiring research/graduate assistants).

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