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Thing 4: Grant Writing and Planning

From Films to Research Funding: What makes this bird go up and who was the real hero in Jurassic Park?

Dr Andrew Staphnill, RIS Research Development (Faculty of Science), University of Bath

In this blog we’ll cover a lot of groundwork in preparing for your next funding bid. In a later Thing (10) we’ll look in more detail at the writing process, and getting your brilliant ideas across.

The classic 1983 film ‘The Right Stuff’ centres on the lives of test-pilots and details the ‘ups and spectacular downs’ of aeronautical development at the heart of the space race. There’s a comedic line with a surprising amount of depth where the test pilot, Gordon Cooper, says “You boys know what makes this bird go up? FUNDING makes this bird go up.” With his colleague Gus Grissoms’s response of: “He's right. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” So in this blog we’re going to talk about research funding and the all-too-obvious point that you need some.

the poster of the film 'the right stuff'
Image by Jim Linwood at Flickr

While we’re on the subject of research funding in films, Jurassic Park is my favourite film of all time and probably a major part of why I did my PhD in genetics. It was released in 1993 and, it turns out, has contained a hidden joke for all that time. To recap for anyone living on Mars, Jurassic Park follows the story of John Hammond, a showman-turned-industrialist, who creates a theme park that features dinosaurs that have been brought back to life through bioengineering. But, “Life finds a way”, the dinosaurs escape and run amuck, killing everything in their path. A team of scientists who are evaluating the park at the time help guide John Hammond’s grandchildren through the deadly dinosaur island to eventual safety. But is there something we’ve missed? Who was the real hero in Jurassic Park? And who is the real villain?

Do you remember the name of the heroic palaeontologist who can outwit a T-Rex and outrun a car falling through a tree? Dr Alan Grant right? Alan Grant? A. Grant? …That’s right, the hero of the biggest science-themed movie ever made is ‘A. Grant’!

a black and white photo of a dinosaur in front of Jurassic Park
Photo by Yohann LIBOT on Unsplash

Now that your mind is blown open, let’s take a look at why Alan even got on to the Island: John says “I could compensate you by fully funding your dig… For a further three years” and that’s enough convincing. Alan’s colleague, Ellie Sattler, immediately responds with “Well, uh, where's the plane?” So both the hero and primary ‘villainous’ motivator for their visiting the island is research funding! Even the duplicitous software engineer, Denis Nedry (anagram of ‘nerdy’ – it’s a very rich script) is motivated by a cash payoff from a rival research team. So this hidden joke about research funding at the heart of Jurassic Park has been lying undiscovered for millions of… well ‘seconds’… just waiting for us to dig it up, dust it off, and display it for you here. Sorry if I’ve ruined the whole film for you now.

Ok, back to grant writing: the essence of grant writing is to design a strong logical research project and communicate it well. This sounds simple enough in theory, but it can be a frustrating, time-consuming rollercoaster that can test the patience of even the greats.

A black and white photo of Einstein about to write on a blackboard, facing the camera
'Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it.' -- Albert Einstein (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Many researchers go through their whole career improving their grant writing through a trial-and-error approach. Writing, failing, improving, and round and round we go until we get some luck or we run out of money and time. However, by realising that the key to success is well-structured thinking and writing, we can fast-forward through the heartache and frustration of so many failed project applications, to create a solid foundation for planning projects – your projects. Every grant contains common structural elements and aspects you need to cover, so by being more conscious of what they are you can write more efficiently (getting more shots on goal) and effectively (including a logical flow of all the convincing information reviewers are looking to see before they can write you a big cheque).

All the major component parts and rationale behind the project need to be there before we even think of blasting off with our writing efforts. So let’s write out a go/no-go checklist:

  • An Important Issue

This seems obvious but you need to be able to evidence it’s an important issue – with some big numbers showing why it’s a problem, and evidence from other important people and institutions that agree. Does the problem cost money, time, lives, impact quality of life, hamper a sector’s productivity for example? Does your work transform our understanding of the past or contribute to the theory that underpins your field? The important issue can’t just be that your funding is running out at the end of the year!

  • Research Need

What are the gaps in our knowledge? What do we know and what don’t we know and why is that a bottleneck for progress? What would be possible if we just knew how it worked better or had better tools?

  • Strategic alignment

You’ll need to put your project into context by citing both the funder and university strategy plans (outlining their investments and interests). This will show that you’ve thought about delivering for their needs and why your lab, research group, or research environment, is the best place for this type of project to happen.

  • Timeliness

Can you explain why now is the right time for this project? Why can’t this wait and why will another year of collecting preliminary data ruin the opportunity (i.e. what is the opportunity cost of telling me to come back next round)? Has there been a new data set or other sources released in this area, has some interesting new technique or publication emerged in the area? Have you got some exciting new preliminary data that just needs to be explored while things are still fresh? Explain why this project is needed and why now is the right time.

  • Novelty

The novelty of your approach is often an area that researchers think is obvious, but you really need to connect the dots. The best way is usually a quick cross-comparison between what has been done before and how your approach is different. This contrast is much more helpful for non-expert reviewers who don’t know the range of options that you are already familiar with. Some justification for why this approach hasn’t been tried or is likely to work now is also needed, to show you’re not making the same old mistakes that others have tried.

  • Feasible

Feasibility issues sink so many proposals because it’s all too easy to ‘promise the moon’. It’s good to be ambitious but you’ve got to walk the line between ambition and delivering the goods. What evidence shows that you can get the project done within the time, budget and skills of the team? Where possible, evidence your timelines and guide the reviewers through your logic – have you done these experiments before (maybe in your preliminary data) – how long did they take/ cost etc.? Have you conducted a pilot questionnaire or set of interviews? Do you have an existing track record for similar publications or public engagement activities? Now you’d be scaling that experience up but don’t get greedy and start saying it’ll cost half the money or that you can do twice as many as you managed previously. Promise what you can show you can deliver and include time for things going wrong.

  • Project Team

Who’s on board with the project? Is it just you or a larger group? The process of bringing a research team together is complex and may involve significant lead-up time. For funding applications involving multiple people, you’ll need to describe each member of the project team, what skills they have, and why each has been included. When you’re thinking about the project team try to imagine a Venn diagram of overlapping research interests and skills. Some overlap is fine but each member of the project team needs their own niche and expertise that they are adding to the project. The early career researchers or PhDs doing the heavy lifting of the experiments will need mentorship and development, so think about their skill-sets and career paths as well. If you are the lead applicant, consider how you will co-ordinate the team, to keep things on track. (If you’re an individual scholar you won’t need to assemble other people but you may need to imagine yourself in multiple roles, and think about how you will manage each aspect or where you need to develop skills.)

  • External collaborations/partners

Similarly, with collaborators and partners like industrial companies, clinicians or charities, each of these members will need specific roles and responsibilities that line up with their skill sets, resources and experience. Forging these connections to a level where you’d be collaborating on a project may take time - make sure you account for this! They might just be sitting on the sidelines giving advice along the way but if you can’t describe who is doing what and by when, it will just confuse reviewers. Collaborative partners and whole sections of the project can seem like bolt-on additions or just including people for the sake of it unless they have a defined role within the project that adds value to the overall objectives.

  • Needed Project Outputs

What will we have to show for the project at the end, and who is going to care? Are you creating a data set, a prototype, a new analysis technique, a better understanding of a social need or a new material, for example? Are the things you’re going to produce from the project really needed by the community and if so, how are you going to share them? You’ll write up some publications, sure, but if this is a topic the community cares about then how will you get the message to them and drive those citation numbers up (conferences, making data sets or online analysis tools available via a website, for example).

  • Value for Money

The project needs to deliver a good bang for the buck but keep in mind feasibility and over-promising. Request the budget and resources you need but be conscious of what the funder will have to show for their investment in you. Finally, ask yourself this: if you were using your own money for this, is this how you’d spend it?

Most academic organisations have a research development department with people like me there to help you develop your applications, stress-test the concepts with feedback and ultimately try to help you win those grants. With your good ideas and research funding you’ll have what you need to help make the world a better place. So, reach out to your institution’s grants, funding, or research development team and see how they can help you fly!

Pod Discussion

One of the best ways to further develop your ideas is to talk about them, with people within and outside your discipline. We invite you to arrange a friendly ‘pitch’ session with your pod to talk about your current or planned projects, thinking about how you can meet the themes from this Thing’s checklist.

  • What is your research aim?

  • How will it be done?

  • What is its significance, or what difference will it make?

You may also like to link this to the UN Sustainable Development goal that brings your pod together.

This blog is written by the irrepressible Andrew Staphnill, from the Research Development Department at the University of Bath, whose work helps researchers to clarify the Why, How and So What of their funding applications.

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25 de mar.

The mark of a fantastic blog post? When a reader creates a section in One Note to make notes! Thank you for an informative and very helpful post!

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