Most of the research grant applications that I read make me think that the writer is trying to solve the wrong problem. I’m referring specifically to the problem they are trying to solve by writing the case for support. Usually, but not always, the problem is about what they think the case for support should communicate, and to whom.
There are two ways that writers try and solve the wrong problem.
- In the worst case, writers use the writing process to try and solve the problem of what to write. What is the story they want to tell in the case for support? This is a problem that they should have solved before beginning. Trying to work out the story of the case for support by writing it produces a hopeless mess.
- Many writers work the story of the case for support before they start writing but they design their case for support to communicate with the wrong audience in the wrong way. This approach usually produces an application that is fundable in principle – indeed the vast majority of funded applications are like this – but which would have a better chance of funding if it were designed for the readers who will make the funding decision.
Some writers, particularly early career researchers, use the writing process to refine their research topic and then to work out the design of a project that addresses the topic. They are hoping that the writing process will enable them to create a well-defined and well-justified project. It never does. There are two reasons:-
- Refining the research topic has no natural end point and most people continue until they have raised more questions than could conceivably be answered by a single project. Worse, the detailed development of the research topic takes so much space that they don’t have enough space left to describe a project.
- A detailed set of research questions is a bad starting point for the design of a project because it is likely to be impossible to design a project that answers them. Remember, the research questions in a grant application are really just a sales device, so it is much better to design the project first and then work out what research questions will create the best sales pitch.
Other writers, including most experienced researchers, start with a well designed project and try to solve the problem of cramming as much technical detail as possible into the case for support. They reason that the expert referees who read the case for support will penalise them if they omit any relevant details. They compound matters by seeking advice from close colleagues who suggest further details. The case for support becomes such a mass of detail that they need to reduce page margins and font size and devise ingenious abbreviations so that the mass of detail fits within the page limit.
Cramming in detail does not produce an effective case for support. To be effective, the case for support must make a clear argument that the research topic is important and the project is likely to be successful. And that argument must be accessible to every person that participates in the funding decision. Of course detail is necessary to convince referees of the merits of the argument, but detail on its own is not enough, and even if it were, the referees do not make the decision. They make a recommendation that accompanies the application to the grants committee, which decides whether or not to fund it. A negative recommendation from the referees is likely to kill an application, but a positive recommendation does not guarantee success. An application that fails to communicate its argument to the committee – most of whom do not have time to read the detail and would not understand it if they did – is likely to fail.
To be most effective, the case for support must convince readers with different levels of understanding, who will read it in different ways, that the research topic is important and the project is likely to make good progress. There are three groups of readers who participate in the decision:-
- Referees are experts on the topic and will analyse the case for support in detail.
- A small number of committee members will have a fairly good understanding of the topic and will read the case for support carefully.
- Most of the committee will have only a hazy understanding of the topic and will spend very little time reading the case for support.
Designing a convincing argument, and then setting it out in a way that works for all three types of reader, is the most important problem to solve in writing a case for support. Many academics think the problem cannot be solved, except possibly by a magic formula. In my next post I will explain how my approach to writing the case for support solves the problem.