Not many people realise that the summary section on your grant application is a direct line to the most influential member of the committee that decides where it sits in the funding priorities. You can make this person feel really good about your application, just as they start to read it. Let me explain how it works.
Grants committees everywhere are overloaded, thinly stretched and work very fast. Committees I have worked on would decide on a £300K grant in less than 10 minutes. Sometimes a lot less. I can remember a panel that decided on 72 applications in 6 hours. Meetings commonly last two days, so committee members will often have more than 100 applications to read for a meeting.
The subject spread of the applications is an even bigger problem than the numbers. Everybody on the committee is an expert on something. But expertise tends to have a very narrow focus, and for any individual member, most of the applications are outside that focus. Committees cope with this by designating a member, sometimes two or three, to become an expert on each grant. It is the job of these designated members to present the grant application to the committee.
The designated member is crucial to the success of your application. They explain to the committee what the grant is about. They say what the applicants propose to do, what are the specific research aims, how the proposed research project will meet those aims, and what will be done with the results. They summarise the referees’ recommendations and they recommend a score. It takes about 5 minutes. This presentation is hugely influential. Most of the committee will go along with the recommendation.
This system, or something like it, is widely used in the UK and overseas. There’s an excellent video illustrating how the US National Institutes of Health does it on youtube.
The nature of the review process means that the summary of your grant application has a huge influence on the designated member who presents your grant. Let me put you inside the head of a one-time presenter.
Presenting a grant is not easy. It’s always a stretch to get your head around someone else’s research ideas. There is a lot to keep straight in your head. And you are presenting in front of colleagues whose respect is important to you. You don’t want to look as if you are out of your depth in front of them. You feel that you want to do a good job.
Actually, you have to do more than one good job. Usually you have to prepare several presentations and keep them all straight in your head. Then you present them as each grant comes up. I once had to do 12 in one day.
As you pick up each application on which you have to prepare to speak, you have in mind both a nightmare and a dream. You can probably guess what the nightmare is. I want to tell you about the dream, because you have the chance to make it come true.
The dream is that the summary, which is the first thing you read, will start by saying exactly what problem the applicant proposes to solve and how. Then it will say what it is that makes the problem important, what are the specific research aims, how the proposed research project will meet those aims, and what will be done with the results. In short, the designated member’s dream is that the summary would be the ideal set of notes for a talk to explain the grant to the committee.
The dream continues: the introduction to the case for support makes exactly the same statements as the summary. Then the remainder of the case for support convinces the reader that the statements are true with detailed, evidence-based, argument and explanation.
So think about this dream as you write the summary of your next grant proposal. Make the dream come true. It will give your grant a huge advantage in committee.