From an Idea to a Research-Project

You have a research idea. You would like a research grant to enable you to pursue your idea. What do you do?

A grant application is a request for funding to carry out a research project. In order to write an application you need to have worked out the details of a project. An idea, even a brilliant idea, is not enough. So here I deal with that missing link: I explain how to use a research idea to work out the details of a research project.

Research Project

The details of the research project are the starting point for writing a grant application.

Why the Detail?

There are two reasons that you need to include details about your project in your case for support.

  1. The funder needs to judge whether your project will achieve enough to merit funding. To make such a judgement they need to know what research you will do. Usually they will want a moderately detailed description of what you will do, when you will do it and how you will do it so that they can assess the likely outcome of the research in relation to the grant you are requesting.
  2. The funder needs to judge whether the grant you are requesting is necessary and sufficient to enable you to do the research. Typically they want to know what resources you will use to do the research and whether the resources will be provided by the grant or by your institution.

How to Work Out the Detail

The easiest way to work out the details of your project is to imagine that you already have a grant and are ready to start research. You can start planning your imaginary project straight away. You simply describe what you will do to pursue your idea until it delivers something that the funder will be interested in. You can use this approach to flesh out a vague idea or to catalogue the details of a very specific idea. The only rule is that you have to end up with a description of a project that the funder will judge is worthy of funding.

It is better at this stage to write too much detail rather than too little. You should try to include enough detail to demonstrate that the activity will definitely lead to the outcome you intend. Don’t get too hung up on specifics. Most funders are looking for a plausible description of how you will use the resources they will provide to do productive research, rather than a detailed set of commitments to do specific actions on specific dates.

As you write about the research activities, you should include information about personnel, timing and resources. Say who will carry out each activity, when they will do it and what resources they will use. You can use this approach to compile the list of resources you will be requesting in the grant, or if the resource-base is predetermined, to ensure that you will make effective use of it.

It will be important to divide the project into three parts, so that you have three work-packages to frame your PIPPIN sentences. You can choose whether you build the project from work packages or divide it into work packages after you have built it. Whichever you do, you should ensure that the work-packages are created by compiling sets of research activities that produce clear outcomes rather than lumping together activities that occur within a particular time-frame or in a particular place. This is particularly important in collaborative projects: if each work-package takes place in a different institution it can give the impression that the collaboration is just a smoke-screen.

How Not to Do It

It’s really important to avoid the trap of refining the idea before you generate the project. It’s an easy trap to fall into because it seems obvious that you need to refine the idea, clarify the hypotheses you want to test, establish the research questions that need to be answered, and so on. These are the starting points for the narrative that justifies the research project to the funder, so why wouldn’t you start working on them straight away?

The answer is simple: the more you refine the question, the harder it becomes to devise a project that answers the question. The more work you do on the question the more likely you are to fall into the trap of the never-ending grant application. If you want the project-design task to be tractable, you shouldn’t do any work on the question until you have used it to define your project.

Creating the Research Questions

Once you have created the project, you use each work-package to generate a research aim or research question. If your work-packages don’t achieve research aims or answer research questions, you need to work on your project design until they do. This approach may seem artificial, but it is much easier than starting with a set of aims or research questions and trying to design a work package to answer each of them. You may find it difficult to create a research question from your work-package. You can be certain that it is much harder to design a work package that answers a research question that you have generated independently of it.

On-Line Workshops are Better Than Face to Face

I decided several years ago to launch on-line research-grant workshops purely as a convenience measure. Over the last few months I have created the materials for a fully on-line workshop. As the on-line workshops launch, I am a little bit surprised to realise that they are better in almost every respect than the face-to-face workshops that I have been delivering for the last five years.

I suspect that on-screen I am less engaging than in real life but I know that in every other respect the on-line workshops are better. The on-line lectures are shorter and clearer. They are supported by well-structured written material. The on-line workshops offer opportunities to get feedback. And they give participants more flexibility and more time.

Better Lectures On-Line

My face-to-face workshops were almost entirely lecture-based, and always received rave reviews. So naturally I assumed that recording a face-to-face workshop would produce excellent lectures. The recorded lectures were fine except for two problems. The picture quality was appalling. And the audio content was dull, repetitive, and full of speech tics and idiosyncrasies. Clearly I had to take a different approach.

The cancellation of all my face-to-face workshops at the end of January created the opportunity I needed. I set up a studio at home and scripted and recorded new lectures. I enjoyed the recording and editing and I am very pleased with the results. The video lectures are clear, crisp and to the point, while retaining enough editing imperfections to create an impression of authenticity. Friends assure me that the appeal definitely comes from the quality of the content rather than the slickness of the production.

Written Material

The lectures are supported by extensive written material, which was originally intended to be published as a book, and may yet be. This has allowed me to resolve a long-standing problem with the face-to-face workshops. Although they were supplemented by slides, handouts, and blog-posts, the material was fairly disorganised. Now each lecture sits on a web-page. The web-page contains text that develops the points made in the lecture. The web pages are organised into three strands that address the main needs of workshop participants.

  1. They need to understand strategy: how to plan grant writing, what to do before starting to write, and what to do after finishing.
  2. They need to understand tactics: the characteristics of a good grant application and what to do to produce one.
  3. They need to develop skill: the ability to write the kind of text needed in a good grant application.

Feedback, flexibility and time

It has always been difficult to work on skill in face-to-face workshops. Skill only comes from practice. People get better at writing by practising their writing, and by getting feedback on what they have written. In a face to face workshop most of the time is taken up explaining tactics so there is little opportunity either for participants to write or for me to give feedback. In the on-line workshop, all the material is pre-recorded, so participants can practise writing and I can give feedback on what they write.

The principal cost of a workshop is determined by the amount of time that I have to spend presenting it. In a face-to-face workshop, the presentation time has to be a continuous block, bracketed by travel time to and from the venue. The need to travel meant that short face-to-face workshops were uneconomic, except very close to home.

In the on-line workshops, I stay at home, and all the material can be presented, for as much time as the client wants, without me. So my involvement can be as little or as much as the client wants and can be recorded, so that participants can choose when they want to engage with the material and with me.

The Fly in the Ointment

Despite all these advantages, the on-line workshops haven’t yet delivered what I expected when I first conceived them. I expected that on-line delivery would be stress-free. In fact, the stress has increased. I am comfortable with face-to-face workshops. I know how they work, I can see when they go wrong, and I know how to fix them. On-line workshops depend on web-page components that I don’t fully understand. I shall be anxious until they have built up a track-record of trouble-free delivery. I hope it will take less time than it took me to learn to lecture!

Changing Times

This has been a sad and difficult year for many, and we at Parker Derrington have had our share of sadness. Amanda Parker, our managing director, died of cancer in July. While her family, friends and colleagues celebrate the positive force she was in our lives, I have been developing the tools for a socially-distanced way of delivering workshops, and changing the web pages to reflect the new approach.

Over the next few weeks I shall be writing blog posts to raise awareness of our new offer.

Who is Your Target Reader?

This post is about who will read your research grant application, and how they influence the funding decision. There are three different groups of reader:-

  • referees, who are typically experts from outside the committee,
  • presenting members, who lead the discussion on your application by explaining it to the committee, and
  • the rest of the committee.

The three groups have different levels of specialist knowledge and different amounts of time. Failure to satisfy any of the groups can kill your chances of a grant but, surprisingly, the least knowledgeable readers who spend the least time reading your application are the ones most likely to push it across the threshold for funding – in either direction.

Referees

The referee only has to read one application

Referees are the most knowledgeable readers because they are selected from the international research community for their knowledge of your research topic, so there is a pretty good chance that they will understand your proposed research project. Referees are also likely to have enough time to read your application carefully because each of them has only one grant to read.

Unfortunately, the referees’ input to the funding decision is indirect, precisely because they only read one application. The referee writes a report and recommends a score. Low referees’ scores will likely sink an application, but high scores are no guarantee of success.

The next step in the funding decision is taken by a grants committee, who produce a ranked list of the applications in a batch of about 100. The committee assigns a score to each application, and then compares the applications that have similar or identical scores. The final step in the decision is to distribute the available funding to the highest ranked applications. Typically there is enough money to fund about 20% of the applications.

The grants committee considers the referees’ reports as they evaluate each application. However, they also compare the application with other applications, which the referee has not seen, and consider it in the context of the committee’s aims, which may not be known to the referee. Although all the members of the committee can read your application, it is likely that only two or three of them, the ‘presenting members’, will spend much time on it.

Presenting Members

A presenting member can probably spend an hour on each application they have to present.

The presenting members are second to referees, in terms both of their knowledge of your subject and their reading time. They will probably have been selected to present your application because their interests are relatively close to your research area. However, the committee will only have about twenty members to cover a huge subject area, so the presenting members may not understand the finer points of your project. They will spend as much time as they can reading your application because their job is to explain it to the rest of the committee and to recommend a score. However, your application will be probably be one of a batch of about ten that they have to present, so it will be unlikely that they can spend more than an hour or two reading it.

The presenting member’s role in the decision is to explain your application to the rest of the committee and recommend a score. It is important to be aware that even if the presenting member thinks your application looks brilliant, their recommendation is likely to be pretty conservative. They have to leave themselves room for manoeuvre because of their relative lack of expertise and because they do not have time to analyse every last detail. So it is very common that a presenting member lavishes the highest praise on an application, and then recommends a score that is only just above the likely cut-off for funding. Then if other members of the committee notice faults in the application, the score can easily be reduced, and if the other members of the committee are impressed by the application, the score can be increased.

The Rest of the Committee

Committee members have so many applications they don’t have time to read those they don’t have to present.

The rest of the committee have a very important role in the decision. Their input can push a borderline score up to a safe score, or put it completely out of contention.

The rest of the committee probably make their contribution on the basis of a hazy understanding of your subject and a hasty impression of your application. They are unlikely to be knowledgeable about your research topic because the committee covers a very broad range of subjects and their expertise will be in a different area from yours. And simple arithmetic shows that they definitely don’t have time to read your application carefully. It takes about 5 or 6 hours to read a grant application carefully; a committee will deal with about 100 grants each meeting, and will meet about 3 times a year. Reading all the grants carefully would take 1800 hours, more than a year’s work. The most likely approach for committee members not presenting an application is to read the summary before the meeting and skim through the application itself during the discussion.

Which of these readers should you write for?

So what should you do?

  • Should you cram your application with detail, to impress the referees, and risk leaving the committee members scratching their heads trying to understand your jargon?
  • Should you fill the application with explanations, so the presenting members can understand it, and risk turning it into a dull textbook?
  • Should you write for the rest of the committee and risk patronising the other readers?

Or do the ‘Pippin’ key sentences make it possible to create a structure for the case for support that allows you to package the detail where the referees will look for it, while making your research logic clear to the presenting members, in language that makes your technical jargon self-explanatory?

I’ll tell you more in my next post.

Example PIPPIN Sentences that describe my Workshop

One reason that so many of the posts in this blog are about key sentences is that participants in my grant-writing workshops find it very difficult to write a set of key sentences. The structure of the key sentences and the relationships between the sentences are critical for my approach to writing a case for support, so I am always on the look-out for ways to help people write sets of PIPPIN sentences. As an exercise, I have written a set of PIPPIN sentences that summarise the grant-writing workshops. Here it is.

The workshop teaches a systematic approach to research grant-writing that  won the presenter continuous funding throughout his research career and that is informed by his participation in committee decisions on thousands of grant applications. A systematic approach to grant writing makes research grant applications easier to write and more likely to be successful; there are  three elements it must include.

  1. It must include an effective strategy to maximise success and reduce wasted effort, so that it is clear when to write grant  applications and  how to prepare.
  2. It must include a specification for an effective grant application, so that it is clear what to write.
  3. It must include a step by step recipe for producing effective grant applications, so that it becomes easy to  write.

The workshop consists of lectures and exercises to teach participants the three elements of a systematic approach to grant writing.

  1. The presenter will explain how the uncertainty of funding decisions can be ameliorated by an effective strategy to maximise success and reduce wasted effort.
  2. The presenter will analyse how funding decisions are made and derive a specification for an effective grant application.
  3. The workshop will include writing exercises to help participants follow the presenter’s step by step recipe for producing effective grant applications.

The presenter explains how the approach is based on real-world experience of applying for and awarding research grants, so that participants can use the workshop to develop a funding strategy tailored to their own experience and ambitions.

There are exactly ten key sentences in the set and they conform to the pippin specification –

  • Promise sentence, a single sentence description of the workshop
  • Importance sentence, stating the value of the workshop
  • 3 Problem sentences, each stating and justifying a problem.
  • Project sentence (in this case a summary of the workshop activities)
  • 3 implementation sentences, each of which describes a part of the workshop and then uses exactly the same words as the corresponding problem sentence to describe the outcome of that part of the workshop.
  • A sentence that wraps up the description of the workshop and says what happens next.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that these sentences were originally published at the end of my PIPPIN post. I decided to pull them out and make them a stand-alone post because of the need for examples of pippin sentences. Expect more short posts with examples.

Key Sentences are a PIPPIN for Communicators

Pippin: “An excellent person or thing”, Oxford English Dictionary

A few years ago I found that writing a summary in the form of a set of key sentences is a good way to start writing a complex document with a specific set of requirements, like the case for support in a grant application. Since then I always start a case for support by writing a set of key sentences and I teach workshop participants to do the same, with mixed results. Most workshop participants find it very hard to produce key sentences that work well, and sometimes I wonder whether a different approach might be better. Recently I have come to realise that the most important advantage of the key sentences is the help that they give the reader.

Key sentences create a framework for the case for support that makes your main points accessible to every reader and places the detail that supports your arguments where readers will find it. Consequently, even if key sentences don’t help you to write a case for support, you should use them to structure the case for support when you have written it.

The key sentence framework gives a document a hierarchical structure, so that it starts with the most important point of the document, states the main points, and then fills in the details. Each key sentence states one of these points, starting with the most important, and continuing with those that support it. The key sentences comprise the introduction to the document; they state every point you want to make, beginning with the most important.

The rest of the case for support consists of a series of sections, each of which begins with one of the key sentences, and continues with the detail that supports it. The key sentences reappear in the same order as they appear in the introduction, starting with the second. This means that the introduction states every major point you make in the document, in the order in which you make them. Each of the other sections repeats one of the points, helping the reader to remember it, before supporting it with the detail that will convince critical readers to accept the point. The first key sentence doesn’t reappear after the introduction because its job is to start the first section, the introduction.

It makes sense to give each section a hierarchical structure too. The first paragraph of the section summarises the section by stating the points you want to make in the section, the section continues with paragraphs that make those points in order. The paragraphs are also hierarchical: each one begins with its topic sentence, which states the point of the paragraph, and continues with the sentences that support or develop it.

For a research project grant application there are ten key sentences. I have named them so the initial letters spell the word PIPPIN, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “An excellent person or thing”. Other kinds of grant application, such as fellowships, need a slightly different set of key sentences because they need to make a different set of points. The PIPPIN sentences are:-

  • Promise – a one-sentence overview of the whole case for support. It should say what the research project will achieve, in a way that is both accessible and convincing.
  • Importance – this sentence tells the reader what is it that makes the project important to the funding body you are applying to. This sentence should give evidence that the project will help achieve one or more of the funder’s strategic aims.
  • Problem There will be three sentences that state problems that your project has to solve in order to fulfil its promise. There will be three problems. These sentences are part of a device to convince the funder that the project will be a success. The ‘Implementation’ sentences (see below) complete the device.
  • Project There will be a one-sentence summary of the project to say whatever you need the reader to know if they only read one sentence about the project.
  • Implementation There will be three sentences that describe the main work-packages in a way that makes it clear that each work-package solves one of the three problems. This convinces the funder that your project will work.
  • Next This sentence says what will happen when the research is done. It could be about ensuring impact or exploiting other opportunities created by the project.

I designed the PIPPIN key sentences to meet the needs both of the grants committee, who decide on the ranking of the grant, and of the referees, who write an expert report for the committee. The differences between their roles mean these two groups read the grant in different ways.

The grants committee don’t have time to read the case for support carefully, and most of them will find the specialist jargon of your field impenetrable. So the PIPPIN key sentences state the things committee members want to know as clearly as possible. The sentences are repeated more than once so that the jargon they contain becomes more familiar. The introduction tells exactly the same story as the full case for support, and uses the same words.

The key sentences also form the core of any summaries that are attached to the application form, including the lay summary, the technical summary and the aims and objectives. Some members of the committee may read these summaries instead of the case for support, so using the key sentences ensures that these people read the same story, in the same words, as those who read the case for support. Even those who read the case for support will probably read one of the summaries first. Using the key sentences in the summaries makes these readers more likely to understand the case for support when they read it.

The key sentence structure also makes the referees’ job as easy as possible. Referees read the case for support actively, looking for detailed evidence to support the main points that they noted on reading the summary. When the key-sentences reappear in the introduction, they reassure the referee that the case for support will deal with all the points listed in the summary. When they reappear again in the case for support, the key sentences guide the referee to the evidence they are looking for.

The pippin key sentences work to ‘sell’ any kind of project. They can also be adapted to sell similar activities, like my grant-writing workshops. I am also working on a set that sell my formula for a case for support.

If you have a different kind of grant application you may need a different set of key sentences. For example, in a fellowship application you would need a key sentence about what makes you a suitable candidate, and one about what makes your institution a good place to hold the fellowship. In grant applications where you have to write about your track record, you should create a key sentence for each point you want to make. In fact, key sentences are a good way of giving structure to any document that you want the reader to be able to read quickly and summarise easily. You create the summary as a set of key sentences and then you use the summary as a framework to organise the document. It’s unlikely that your set of key sentences will be the same as PIPPIN, but you will definitely find them to be an excellent thing.

Given all the benefits of the key sentence structure, you might question why anybody should structure a case for support in any other way. I don’t know the answer, but if you want to make your case for support easy to read you should create a set of key sentences and use them as a framework to organise the text.

Work Life Balance: Cycling and Photography are as Important as Grant Writing

Tom Dumoulin leads Geraint Thomas up the Col d’Aubisque but fails to shake him off.

One of the great things about my wife being my boss is that she tries to improve my   work-life balance. Over the last year she has encouraged me to resume two hobbies, cycling and photography, that got pushed out of my life decades ago by work. As with almost everything I have ever done, in dropping and resuming these hobbies I have made some blunders that enabled me to learn important lessons. Those lessons are the pretext for this blog post. They have also caused me to broaden the remit of the blog.

The two most important lessons I have learned are:-

  1. Taking on new challenges is easier if you get help from experts. Self-reliance isn’t always a good strategy.
  2. If you don’t take your hobbies seriously they don’t improve your work-life balance: they make it worse. You have to subtract from the work side of the balance when you add to the life side. If you don’t reduce the time you spend working when you increase the time you spend on hobbies you run out of time.

Like a lot of people in the UK, I started taking an interest in cycling when Bradley Wiggins became the first  Briton to win the Tour de France in 2012. Watching his win gave me a sense of the complexity of the grand tour. Since then I have watched all the grand tours on tv and last year for the first time I went to a race. I took my own pictures of Geraint Thomas in the yellow jersey on the last climb of the Tour, the Col d’Aubisque. That was a fabulous day out with my camera, but it would have been be even more fun if I’d had my bicycle too. So a month later I took my bike to the Vuelta a España and cycled up two of the summit finishes before watching the race.

Simon Yates wins the stage at Las Praeres on his way to winning the 2018 Vuelta a España.

The experience showed me how unfit I was. I struggled up the climb, stopping every few minutes to catch my breath; the professionals raced up after riding over 100 miles. Obviously I’ll never be as fit as they are, but I decided that I should take on a cycling challenge to force myself to get fit. So next week I will be setting off from Lands End and cycling to John o’ Groats, LEJoG, as it is known.

Although this is an epic journey for me, in cycling terms it’s pretty modest. Our ride will take 13 days: the record, set last year, is 43 hours 25 minute 13 seconds. Even so, our LEJoG will take me to new heights of endurance. When I started preparing, my longest ever one-day bike ride was 80 kilometres; during our ride we will average over 132 kilometres a day. Fortunately, my ride partner is much more experienced. As LEJoG gets closer it becomes increasingly clear that choosing Jon as a ride partner was a very wise decision.

Fortunately, and unusually for me, after only a few weeks of blundering around on my favourite bicycle, which is not really suitable for LEJoG, I made two more very wise decisions. I asked Jon for advice about buying a suitable bicycle, and I asked Richard Lord, a professional cycling coach, to help me prepare.

Much to my surprise, Jon advised me to get a bike with a steel frame. Apparently steel frames have a springiness that makes them more comfortable on a long ride than aluminium or carbon fibre. Jon knows this because he is an ‘Audax’ cyclist, which means he rides long distances, typically between 200 and 600 kilometres in single outing. On eBay I bought a 20-year old Audax bike, made by Dave Yates, a well-known frame-builder and had it refurbished by my local bike shop. To my surprise, it was much more comfortable than my existing bike even though it does not have suspension.

Reassuringly, Richard approved of my new bicycle, and, since January, he has set me a weekly schedule of training rides, gradually increasing in length. I have really enjoyed the process of training hard and getting fit, something that I haven’t done since I left school. Last Sunday I cycled 170 kilometres without any great difficulty. I am now reasonably confident that I will complete LEJoG and enjoy it.

Foolishly, I didn’t cut back my work commitments to make time for the cycling. This has made my life very tiring and has led to mistakes and omissions as I tried to do more work in less time. Right now I am very tired because I have done eight workshops, which would normally be two months work, in the last fortnight. Three weeks ago I made my first catastrophic diary error since we started the company: I had to cancel two workshops at very short notice because I had double booked them. Finally I haven’t written a blog post this year.

I’m going to fix all this by making time in my life, and space in the blog for all the important things I do. Expect to see more posts about photography and cycling, as well as about writing research grant applications.

Writing a research grant application: the quick way and the easy way.

There are two ways of writing a grant application, the quick way and the easy way.

The Quick Way

The quick way is to start by writing a set of key sentences. Each key sentence states one of the points that you will need to make in the case for support. These points include the main research goal, what makes the goal important, the sub-goals, the lines of research that will deliver the sub-goals, and so on. 

Writing the key sentences is hard work, but it only takes a couple of hours. If you can’t draft a set of key sentences in a couple of hours then you know you are not ready to write a grant application. On the other hand, when you write a set of key sentences you get more than the knowledge that you are ready to write. You get a short-cut to the finished case for support.  The key sentences enable you to write the full case for support in a couple of weeks.

The key sentences give you a short cut because the full case for support is simply an expanded version of the key sentences. It consists of a series of sections, each of which begins with a key sentence. Each of the sections should also have a heading that uses phrases from the key sentence. The remainder of each section consists of a few paragraphs that expand and justify the point made by the key sentence. 

Not only is it easy to write the case for support with the key sentences, it is easy to keep it short. And if it gets too long it is easy to shorten it. Every section starts by saying what is most important. If you write too much in any section you can trim the unimportant stuff from the end.

The Easy Way

It’s only a grant application. Why make it difficult?

Despite these advantages of the key sentence approach, most writers prefer to write a grant the easy way. They just start writing. If you write the easy way you won’t have the key sentences to guide your writing but you will have saved yourself two hours of dull work, so as long as you can work out what to write you will  surely finish sooner if you start the easy way.

It’s obviously best to discuss the most important issues first. Describe your research question and what makes it important to your chosen funder. Pretty soon you will have several pages of text. There’s lots of helpful advice on the web about what you should include. A google search  on writing a good research grant application give 37.6 million hits. Some of the top hits in the google search are written by the funders themselves.  The funders tell you exactly what to do, in detail. This page on content and presentation on ESRC’s website lists 37 points you should include and 5 questions you should answer. Following this advice will make it very easy to write a lot of text very quickly.

Unfortunately, there is no advice about how to write clearly. The most likely outcome is that the document you write will be a misshapen monster, far too long and completely unreadable. Editing a badly structured document of any kind is futile and utterly miserable. The excellent @thesiswhisperer blog likens the process to fighting a jungle war. If you are unlucky, you will have supportive colleagues who will encourage you to persevere in this miserable task. In fact you should quit and start again.

You should quit because because line-by-line edits do not fix the real problem, the poor structure. The more you edit, the worse it gets. You will work for months and when you finish you will know in your heart of hearts that your case for support is a mess.

Foolishly, you will nurture a vain hope that maybe you are being overly critical because you have been working so hard. You will reach out to your supportive colleagues for reassurance. They will know how hard you have worked and will want to support your morale, rather than help you write a good case for support. When you ask them for comments, they will lie, to protect your morale. They will see that the case for support is a mess, but they want to be supportive, so they will tell you to dot a couple of i’s and cross a couple of t’s and you will breathe a sigh of relief and submit your grant application.

The point at which you discover the truth about your grant application is when you get the results of peer review, nine months after submitting. At this point you will probably no longer be pleased that you saved the two hours it would have taken to write the key sentences.

If you are lucky, when you find yourself with a misshapen monster grant application, you will engage a consultant like me who will tell you some really good news. Your misshapen monster of a grant application can be salvaged. There is an easy way to restructure the case for support that only takes a day or so. You start by writing a set of key sentences……..

My £30 DIY Computer

My Raspberry Pi on the kitchen table. The computer is in the small clear plastic box on the right of the picture.

I am writing this post on a computer that I built from parts that cost less than £100. I haven’t tried to take a computer apart or put one together since I gave up research about 10 years ago but my eight-year old grandson, recently expressed a desire to do some coding. I decided that I should build him a machine of his own to avoid the risk of him damaging the machine on which I make my living. I still remember one of my early coding mistakes. It destroyed months of work by several of the  researchers who used the computer on which I was learning.

The computer I built is a Raspberry Pi, product of a project that started at Cambridge University, to develop a computer that would be easy to program and modify. The aim was to get a hundred or so computers to use at university open-days so that students could get some pre-university experience of programming. By the time the first units were shipped in 2012 it was clear that the producers had underestimated demand. By 2016 over 10 million Raspberry Pis had been sold. I bought two, one for my grandson and one for me.

The cheapest Pi, the Pi zero, costs less than £5 for the main board. Ours are top of the range model 3Bs, which cost  £28 each. They have a 64 bit processor, a gigabyte of memory, WiFi, 4 USB ports and a HDMI display port. The main file-store is a 64Gb micro-SD card. I salvaged  two cards from disused mobile devices. I bought a couple of cheap colour displays but we could have used a digital or analog tv. I bought my grandson a combined keyboard and touch-pad for £17:50 and I am using a disused bluetooth keyboard and a USB touch pad. The Pi can use a phone-charger as a power source but I have bought a powered USB hub to make switching it off a bit easier.

The performance of the Pi compares favourably with the desktop computers I used during most of my career, although it is no match for my £2000 iMac. The operating system is Linux, which shares many features with the Apple Mac’s unix-based operating system. The memory and file storage are vastly greater than I had early in my career.

The computer on which I wrote my PhD thesis had less than a tenth the amount of memory (28K) and less than a thousandth as much filestore (256K). It was also the size of a wardrobe and it cost nearly twice as much as the first house I bought. If you compare prices then and now, the Pi system I built is an amazing bargain. For the current price of my old house you could buy more than five thousand of them.

What’s the Point?

I want to explain why I think it’s better to produce a well-written grant application than a poorly written one. Obviously, given the nature of my business, I have to make this case, but it is not as simple as you might think, not least because most successful grant applications are very poorly written. In fact, if you think carefully about the quality of grant applications, it becomes clear that, in this particular domain, quality is completely subjective. So I will start by saying what I think makes a good grant application.

The quality of a grant application is not the same as the quality of the research project it describes. A grant application is essentially a marketing document for a research project and you can have a first-rate application that markets a tenth-rate project. And vice versa. Indeed  poorly-written grant applications are very often successful precisely because grants committees are trying to judge the quality of the project, not the quality of the application. Judging the quality of a project can be very difficult if the application is poorly written. So what makes a good grant application?

The essence of a good grant application is that it makes it easy to judge the project. The application contains all the detail that an expert will look for. The detail should be set out so that it can be read at very high speed and understood by a non-expert. As a rule of thumb, it should take less than two minutes to understand the main points of what you will do and why it is worth doing.

Those main points should be expressed and justified in such a way that a non-expert ‘gets’ what you are going to do and why. An expert should also be able to drill down and find the detail that they need in order to judge whether your project is likely to succeed and achieve those main points. I have already explained how the ‘key sentence’ structure enables a grant application to fulfil these requirements.

Despite the fact that most successful grant applications are poorly written, there are three reasons that it is worth taking trouble to produce a well-written grant application:-

  1. If your project is good, a well-written application will improve your chance of success.
  2. If your project is bad, a well-written application will help you to see that it needs to be improved.
  3. A well-written application can be easier and quicker to write than a badly-written application.

I’ll deal with the first two reasons in this post and I will deal with the third in another post.

Well written applications are more likely to be successful.

Well-written applications generate an enthusiasm among committee members that makes them give higher scores. For reasons I’ll explain in a future post, the person leading the discussion is likely to recommend a relatively conservative score, no matter how much they like the application. But if the committee are enthusiastic, they are quite likely to argue that the recommendation should be raised, and to exceed the recommendation when they score.

Poorly written applications can also get high scores, particularly if the referees have given very strong recommendations, but when committee members don’t understand an application they will not argue for a higher score and they may even score slightly below the recommendation. The consequence is that the scores of poorly written applications tend to drift downwards. The effect is small, but if the score is close to the borderline, which is likely to be the case, given the tendency for conservative recommendations, a tiny drift can make the difference between success and failure.

A well written application helps you see that you need to improve your project.

A well-written application explains your project very clearly at two levels.

  • First it explains what makes the project important to the funder.
  • Then it explains what the project consists of, and why each part of the project is important.

If your project needs to be improved, you are likely to find one or both of these explanations unconvincing as you write them. If you do find yourself writing arguments that you find unconvincing, then you need to reexamine your project and work out how to make it more convincing. If your application does not convince you, it is unlikely to convince a committee.