In the Research Funding Toolkit we explain that funding decisions depend on whether the case for support makes four propositions. It has to convince the reader that it is important, that it will be a success, that the team are compentent and that the grant will be value for money. We refer to the four propositions as importance, success, competence, and value for money. In the next few posts I want to deal with the four propositions in turn.
I begin with the importance proposition because it is where funding agencies begin. If a grant application doesn’t make the importance proposition, nothing else matters. It doesn’t get funded. Period. The other propositions will not even be considered.
As with so many writing problems, addressing the propositions is easier if you consider the reader’s perspective. There are three aspects to this.
You can think of the reader as having questions in their head as they read your grant application. In the case of the importance proposition, the main question is “How important is this?”
The reader’s definition of terms like “important” is not necessarily the same as your definition.
The reader will want to formulate their own answer to their questions, rather than to accept your answers. They will not be impressed by an assertion that your proposed research is important, rather they will be looking for evidence.
So let’s consider how the readers of your grant application might define importance and how you answer the questions in their heads.
It’s a question of priorities.
Every funding agency has a distinctive mission, from which they derive a set of priorities. Large agencies often have such a complex mission that they will have a range of different schemes, each with a different set of priorities. The priorites are quite carefully defined and usually very well publicised. It’s helpful to separate those related to direct research outcomes from those related to indirect research outcomes.
Direct Research Outcomes
Most agencies set the highest priority on the kind of knowledge the research will produce. Academics tend to emphasise outcomes that contribute to knowledge and understanding. Most research funding agencies also set a high priority on outcomes that advance our understanding of the world from a particular set of subject perspectives. However, this is rarely the only, or even the highest, priority.
Agencies that get their funding from national governments often set a higher priority on outcomes that contribute to health, the economy and society. All the UK Research Councils now require you to list the non-academic beneficiaries of your research. When Amanda served on the BBSRC Animal Sciences Committee the Chair would often ask “How is this going to contribute to UK plc?”
Research charities can be very narrow in their focus. Many medical charities limit their interest to a single disease. This kind of focus can help charities to raise funds from public donations. Clarity about their priorities makes it easy for them to ask for money, as well as dispense it.
Endowed charities often have a very broad mission that reflects the intentions of their original benefactors, see for example the Leverhulme Trust, which supports research across all academic subjects.
As a rule of thumb, evidence about the importance of direct outcomes goes in the background to the case for support. This is the main purpose of the literature review and you should use it as a criterion for whether or not you cite a piece of literature there. You should cite the literature that makes it clear that the outcomes of your proposed project meet the priorities of the funder. When you do this it always helps if you can refer to the priorities in the funder’s own words by quoting from the guidelines for the scheme that you are targeting.
Indirect Research Outcomes
Many agencies have priorities that relate to consequences of doing research, rather than direct research outcomes. Training and career development are common priorities, which sometimes have their own schemes. See for example my post about the NIH K99/R00 scheme. Fellowship schemes and career development schemes, such as Marie Sklodowska-Curie, often prioritise the career development of individuals above direct research outcomes.
As a general rule, evidence about indirect outcomes is requested explicitly as part of the application. Most fellowship schemes will require statements from the host organisation to reassure them that the prospective Fellow will be supported, mentored and provided with appropriate facilities. The complex application forms for schemes like Horizon 2020 reflect the fact that European research funding has priorities connected with the development of a European research community that brings together international teams that span industry and academia.
In conclusion, if you want to make the importance proposition you should do two things.
First, for every research outcome, ask yourself “Where in the background do I make it clear that this is important and what evidence do I cite?”
Second, no matter how bizarre and irrelevant the requirements of the application form might seem to you, follow them to the letter.
Henry Stanley introduces himself to Dr Livingstone
If you write your grant application in the way that I recommend, you should leave the introduction until last. The reason is that, by the time you start to write the introduction, you will already have written everything you need to say in it. You just need to copy it and paste it into the right place.
Here’s how it works. There are five things that you need to say in the introduction to a grant application,
what you will do,
why it is important,
your research aims,
your research objectives, and
what you will do with the results.
1. What you will do
Your first sentence should say what the outcome of your research project will be. Ideally it will also say something about how you will go about producing this outcome and give a hint of your credentials for doing it. If you followed the advice in my last post then you will already have written the perfect sentence to do this, key sentence 1. You can just copy and paste it to the beginning of the introduction.
2. Why it is important
Your next sentence should say why the outcome is important. It will do this with reference to an important research question. My last post described how to write this sentence, key sentence 2, introducing one of the sub-sections of the background section. You should copy it and paste it into the introduction.
3. Your research aims
Next you need to state how the outcome of the project depends on about three things that we need to know. My last post explained how to state this in 3 sentences (key sentences 3, 4 and 5). You should copy and paste these from their positions in the background section of the case for support into the introduction. At this point you may wish to edit the sentences so that you can run them together as a list of aims. Whatever editing you do you should avoid changing any of the technical phrases for reasons I will explain below.
4. Your research objectives
Then you need to say that the research project will tell us each of the three things that we need to know. If you followed the advice I gave a couple of weeks ago or earlier, you will have put four sentences that do precisely this at strategic points in the description of your research project. They are key sentences 6, 7, 8 and 9; copy them and paste them into the introduction.
5. What you will do with the results
Finally you need to say what you will do with the results. You will already have written key sentence 10, which says exactly this and introduces the last part of the description of the project. Copy it and paste it into the introduction.
Exact repetition of the key sentences increases your chances of getting funded
When you copy and paste the key sentences you should keep the phrases that refer to your research activities exactly the same. It’s OK to change the structure, as long as you keep the parts that refer to research activities exactly the same. For example you might change three sentences saying “We need to know X.”; “We need to understand Y”; and “We need to characterise Z” to a list of aims, such as “Our aims are:- to discover X; to understand Y; and to characterise Z”. But you should not change the phrases X, Y and Z or the verbs discover, understand and characterise.
One reason that you should not change phrases when you repeat is that to do so would be a stylistic error known as elegant variation. However, there is an important practical reason that exact repetition is good.
The value of exact repetition comes from the way that a grants committee deals with applications. One or two members of the committee have to read each application and explain it to the rest of the committee. Usually they do this by stating what you will do, why it is important, your research aims, your research objectives, and what you will do with the results. This is quite a difficult thing to do because they will not have had much time to read the proposal and they will have to present several other grant applications the same day: I once had to present 10 applications in a single meeting.
Anything that you can do to make the job of presenting your grant to the committee easier will be welcome. If you write the introduction the way I have suggested, it will be the perfect set of notes for the presentation. What could be better than that?
I frequently encounter academics who feel that you should change the words when you repeat a message even though the meaning is exactly the same. I encounter two arguments for this.
The first argument is that the reader will get bored if they see the same phrase twice. This is not so. For the most important readers the repetition is a useful and reassuring signal. The members of the committee that decides whether to fund your grant are unlikely to be familiar with the details of your research area and may not completely understand the phrases. Repeating the phrases exactly helps them to see that you are saying the same thing again. To say the same thing with different words is very risky indeed. The most likely outcome is that they will think you are saying two different things.
The second argument – which usually follows immediately I give the explanation in the previous paragraph – is that by using different ways of saying the same thing, you increase the chance that the reader will understand at least once. Even if it’s true, it’s no help for the reader to understand once because they will still think that when you repeat the sentence with different words that you are saying something different. It is far better to use exactly the same words because you increase the chance that the reader will remember the phrase, and even if they don’t understand it they may think that they do.
This post is about an easy way to work out what to write the 10 key sentences that define a grant application. There are two reasons I think it’s worth writing even though I have written about the key sentences several times recently.
A good set of key sentences is half-way to a case for support. A really good case for support consists of nothing more than the 10 key sentences and the text that fills in the detail and convinces the reader that the key sentences are true. Of course this extra text is much more than filler, but it is a great help to have the key sentences because they define the task of the rest of the the text.
I have been working with a couple of clients who, even though they are clever people and they get the idea of key sentences, find it really hard to write them. So I have been on the lookout for a good way of making it easy to write a good set of key sentences.
Skeleton sentences, which Pat Thomson’s excellent blog recommends as a way of handling difficult but often repeated writing tasks such as framing a thesis introduction, or introducing a theoretical framework, look perfect. You take a key sentence that works; you separate it into its component parts and identify the parts that are specific to its current use and the parts that are generic. Then you turn the generic parts into a skeleton and replace the parts that are specific to its current use with equivalent parts that are specific for your use, and you have your own equivalent sentence.
I should perhaps warn you at this stage that although this post really does simplify the process of writing key sentences, it is quite detailed and it doesn’t do anything else. So if you aren’t trying to write a grant application you should probably just bookmark the page and return when you start writing your next grant.
Finally, before I get down to the nitty gritty, I have two strong recommendations.
It is very risky to start writing key sentences before you have worked out the details of your research project. As soon as you have done that you should divide it into three or four sub-projects, each of which will find something out, establish something, or develop something. This post tells you how to do that.
Although it makes most sense to read about the key sentences in numerical order, it’s pretty hard to write them in that order. I’ll make some suggestions about writing order as I explain the recipes.
So, what would skeletons for the 10 key sentences in a grant application look like? I think I can tell you in 9 of the 10 cases. I will describe them in numerical order, which is the order in which the reader will encounter them.
Key sentence 1, the Summary sentence
The first sentence of the proposal, key sentence 1, is probably the most complex and variable of the key sentences. It gives a simple overall statement of what the project will achieve, ideally it will relate that achievement to a big important problem and will also include something distinctive about how the project will achieve it in a way that will make it clear that you are a suitable person to do the project.
A minor variation of a sentence I suggested in an earlier post about key sentences, does all this. It has four parts, which are numbered.
This project will develop a new potential treatment for stroke
by identifying, synthesising and testing suitable molecules
from a family of novel synthetic metabolic inhibitors
that we have discovered.
A skeleton representation of the four parts would be:
This project will [your own description of how it will make partial progress towards solving a huge, important problem – in the example it’s “develop a potential solution”]
by [ your own much more specific description of what it will actually do]
[your own assertion that the project is novel or timely – e.g.”novel synthetic metabolic inhibitors”]
[your own claim to “ownership” of the project – e.g.”that we have discovered”].
I would suggest that you leave the first key sentence until near the end. I would also suggest that you content yourself with a rough draft initially. You will have plenty of time to refine it as you flesh out the detail int he case for support.
Key sentence 2, the Importance sentence
The second key sentence states the importance of the specific outcomes promised by the project. The following sentence does this in two ways. The first clause gives some evidence that the big problem is really important. The second clause asserts that the specific problem that will be solved by the project is an important aspect of the big problem.
Stroke is one of the commonest causes of death and disability in the working population;
one of the most promising new avenues of treatment is to shut down brain function reversibly using a metabolic inhibitor, we have yet to identify a suitable molecule.”
Its skeleton is
The [huge important problem] is[your own statement that demonstrates with evidence that the problem is very important for one or more of health, society, the economy and the advance of knowledge and understanding];
[your own statement that the project outcome will contribute to solving the huge important problem].
I think that the second key sentence is definitely the last one to write.
Key Sentences 3-5, the Aims sentences
Sentences 3-5 would be the first and the easiest sentences for you to draft. They are what I used to call the “we need to know” sentences. There is one for each sub-project. An example from our hypothetical stroke project would be:- We need to identify which molecules in this family are most effective as reversible inactivators of brain tissue. The skeleton for an aims sentence would be something like this.
We need to [know or establish or develop]+[your own statement of whatever the sub-project is going to discover or establish or develop].
Each of the aims sentences introduces a section of the background to the project (the bit where you justify the need for your research) in which you convince the reader, by citing relevant evidence, that the key sentence is absolutely, starkly and compellingly true. You would also re-use the same sentence in the introduction to the case for support and in the summary.
Some funders – notably NIH and the UK research councils, like you to talk about aims, or even specific aims. For this you create a compound of all 3 aims sentences of the following form.
We have three (specific) aims:- 1) to [discover, develop or establish] [your statement of whatever the first sub-project is going to discover, develop or establish] 2) to [discover, develop or establish] [your statement of whatever the second sub-project is going to discover, develop or establish] 3) to [discover, develop or establish] [your statement of whatever the third sub-project is going to discover, develop or establish]
Key Sentence 6, the Project Overview sentence
This sentence introduces the description of the research project by saying what kind of research it will involve, something about the facilities it will use – especially if these are distinctive in some way, and what it will discover. It may say something about the resources it will use. It is very similar to sentence 1 but it might have a bit more information about the kind of research and the specific outcome.
The following sentence, in italics, is an example related to our example of sentence 1. The proposed project will be a mixture of synthetic chemistry to produce candidate molecules and in vitro physiology to test their efficacy in producing reversible inactivation of brain slices in order to identify a potential treatment for stroke. The skeleton sentence, is The proposed project will [general description of research activity] to [specific description of research outcome] in order to [weak statement indicating partial progress towards solution of huge important problem].
I think that the project overview sentence should be written after the sub-project overview sentences.
Key Sentences 7-9: Sub-project Overview sentences
Each sub-project has a “this will tell us” sentence that matches the “we need to know” sentence but is a little bit more complex. It begins with a clause that summarises what you will do in the sub-project and continues with a main clause that says what it will tell us. For example:- We will use voltage sensitive dyes to assess the activity and responsiveness of brain slices in order to measure the effectiveness of different molecules as reversible inactivators of neural activity.
The skeleton would be:- We will [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence].
If your funder asks you to list research objectives as part of the grant application, or if it suits your writing style you can phrase (or rephrase) your “this will tell us” sentences as statements of objectives. They would read like this.
The research objectives are as follows:- 1) to [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence]. 2) to [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence]. 3) to [do the relevant research activity] in order to discover [the thing that we said we needed to know in the corresponding Aims sentence].
Key sentences 7-9 can be written as soon as you like. You should have everything you need to write them right at the start. However, they are a bit more tricky than key sentences 3-5, which is why I recommend that you start with those.
Key sentence 10, the Dissemination sentence.
The dissemination sentence should introduce a description of the projects dissemination phase. It may say something about what you will do with the results to create a platform for future research – by you or by others. The range of possible dissemination strategies is too great for me to construct a skeleton, however I will comment on the relative importance of dissemination versus building a platform for future research. The relative importance depends somewhat on key sentence 2.
Dissemination beyond the research community is important if key sentence 2 claims that the importance of your project is related to some practical problem or opportunity (curing a disease, making a technological breakthrough). Your dissemination plan will need to include steps you will take to make sure that the results are put to use and your project. You may also be requesting funds for dissemination activities.
On the other hand, if the importance of your project is purely to do with its potential to advance your subject, you probably do not need to say much about dissemination activities although it might be important to talk about communicating the results to your research community by publication and conference activity.
Aims and objectives provide an excellent framework for the case for support in a research grant application.
A well-written case for support states an overarching aim based on a big research question. It shows how this big question gives rise to three or four smaller questions and then describes a research project that will answer those questions. The compelling logic for the reader is that the project deserves to be funded because it has been intricately designed to answer the big question. The truth may be that the intricacy lies more in the writing than in the project’s design. Matching sets of aims and objectives can be crafted to link a pre-designed project to a pre-existing big question.
Before we consider how to do this, let’s be absolutely clear about the difference between aims and objectives. There’s an excellent discussion of the difference in the context of a PhD project, by Pat Thomson. She defines the aim as “…what you want to know…” and the objectives as “…the specific steps you will take to achieve your aim..” This definition works perfectly for our purposes.
We can apply this distinction more or less directly in a grant application as follows.
Aims are the knowledge and understanding that you need in order to answer your research question. Well-designed aims create clear links between your research project and the big, important question that motivates it.
Objectives are specific research actions that you plan to carry out in your research project. The objectives define the structure of the research project. This means that if you design your project carefully, it will be clear that your research objectives will fulfil the aims defined by your research question.
The easy way to link up the aims and objectives is to start by describing the research that you want to do and what it will find out. You should divide your research project into (or assemble it from) three or four sub-projects. Each sub-project will lead to a clear discovery or outcome. Each outcome generates an exactly corresponding aim. If you want to do a sub-project that will discover how neurones in the cerebral cortex respond to lights of different colours, you have to have the aim “We need to know how neurones in the cerebral cortex respond to lights of different colours”. Working backwards from the objectives in this way means that aims and objectives match perfectly. No skill is required
The place where skill is required is in tying together the three or four aims and making the case that meeting each of them will make a significant contribution to solving a larger research problem that is important to your target funder. That is where the real skill of writing grant applications lies.
For completeness, in addition to this set of three or four aims with precisely matching objectives, I would recommend another four sentences which are a more complex mix of aim and objective and which would be used to set the context in any full statement of the aims and objectives. So a full statement of the aims and objectives would be as follows.
The first sentence, which would be the first sentence of the case for support, would be a one sentence summary of the whole proposal. It would state the overall aim of the project, which is to take us closer to solving the larger research problem, and the overall objective, which is to carry out the research project. This is a very difficult sentence to write but a very important one, for two reasons. First, it gets the reader excited about the project by telling them its aim and its objective. Second, because it tells everything in a single sentence, it can afford to gloss over uncertainties, helping the reader to form a positive view of the project.
Second, there is a sentence that states why the research problem is important and which may also introduce the specific aims.
Immediately after this sentence you would state the three or four specific aims.
Third, after stating the specific aims, you need to set the scene for stating the specific objectives with an introductory sentence that describes the nature of the research project.
The three or four specific objectives, stating research outcomes that exactly match the specific aims, would be stated immediately after it.
After the objectives, there should be a sentence that says what will be done with the research outcomes. In a sense this is an overall objective which should ensure that the overall outcome of the research project contributes to solving the larger research problem that motivates the entire project.
Finally I should make it clear that, although it matters for understanding this post, for the purpose of grant-writing, it doesn’t matter that some authorities, including the Oxford dictionary, do not distinguish between aims and objectives in exactly the same way as I do. What matters in a grant application is how you present the argument that links your project to the important question. Whether you call any individual link an aim or an objective is neither here nor there.
Make sure that your feedback sandwich has plenty of meat.
This is one of a series of posts with advice for people who review grant applications for their friends and colleagues. It is also intended to encourage people writing grant applications to review what you have written before you ask a colleague to read it and tell you something you could have worked out for yourself. My last post argued that a quick and easy way of reviewing a grant application is to check its structure. Good structure makes a grant application easy to read.
Most applications will have very poor structure. If the structure is poor, it is not worth reviewing the detailed content. One reason is that it will take too long. Another is that, even if the content is very good, a funding committee’s enthusiasm for the application will be limited because the poor structure makes it difficult to understand.
At this point I feel honour-bound to confess that I have hesitated a couple of weeks before finishing this post because I know that many people find my feedback a bit too direct. They like to soften criticism by constructing a feedback sandwich that smothers useful comments in copious quantities of praise. My view is that feedback should be clear, it should explain how the proposal can be improved, and it should be delivered as quickly as possible. Feel free to cut and paste from what follows and to wrap it up in whatever form suits you.
The application should have an introduction that states clearly:-
what goal the project will achieve;
why the goal is important;
about three aims, which are things that we need to discover or understand in order to achieve the goal;
the general research approach;
about three research objectives, which are pieces of research that will enable us to achieve the aims; and
what will be done with the results.
These statements are what I call the ‘Key Sentences’. They are a distillation of the argument that the project deserves funding. If the grants committee believe the key sentences, they will almost certainly award a grant. So the rest of the case for support should be designed to make the reader believe the key sentences. It does this by repeating them, and reinforcing them with evidence or explanation.
After the introduction, the case for support has two main sections, each of which repeats six of the key sentences and then justifies or explains them. The background section deals with the goal, the importance and the aims. It should explain, with evidence, why the goal is important and how meeting the aims will achieve the goal. The description of the research project deals with all the rest. It should explain in detail the research approach, the research objectives, and what will be done with the results.
The structure allows a reader to understand the message of the grant in 2 or 3 minutes, by ‘speed-reading’ it. This is very important. The committee that decides whether or not to award the grant will have dozens of other applications to read and discuss. Most members will have a limited understanding of the detailed argument. Some of them will still be reading the application during the final discussion about whether to fund it. All of them will have a say in whether it gets funded. They will be much more enthusiastic to fund an application that they can understand and remember.
The structure also helps the referees who will read the proposal thoroughly and write an evaluation. Each key sentence leads directly to the detailed argument and evidence that justifies and explains it. It is not quite as important to make referees’ task easy because each referee typically only deals with a small number of proposals. Moreover, their enthusiasm will be based on their evaluation of the detailed argument. But it definitely doesn’t hurt to make their task easy.
The opening sentence must whet the reader’s appetite. The best way to do that is to say what the project will achieve, together with something about how it will achieve it, ideally with a clear implication that the research team are well qualified to do the work. For example, the sentence “This project will develop a new potential treatment for stroke based on a family of synthetic metabolic inhibitors that we have discovered, and synthesised” achieves all this. The reference to discovery and synthesis suggests that the project is a continuation of past work. Of course the suggestion that the project continues previous work does not testify to its importance – that will rest on the opening clause, which states that the project will develop a new potential treatment for stroke.
Draft grant applications quite often have a good opening sentence. But it is not usually at the beginning. Usually it is somewhere towards the middle. Skim through the whole case for support to see if there is a suitable opening sentence that can be moved to the opening position.
It is useful to repeat the opening sentence at the start of the background section, which usually follows after the introduction. It is also useful to open the summary with the same sentence. Repetition of this kind is very good: it helps the reader to remember the essential message. Unfortunately most academics don’t like to repeat a message unless they can confuse readers by using completely different words.
It’s useful to have a sentence explaining that what the project will achieve is important and to have it follow the opening sentence, which says what the project will achieve. Health, social, or economic benefits are usually, depending on the remit of the funder, good reasons that something is important. Solving a major theoretical problem may also be a good reason. Being the next logical step from the applicant’s previous research is typically not a reason for importance, although mentioning this kind of progression can be a useful way of supporting the proposition that the applicant has the necessary skills to carry out the research.
The importance sentence should also be repeated in the background section and in the summary.
I suggest that there should be about four aims. I also think that because funding agencies often ask you to state aims and objectives, you should use them as key parts of the structure. A good way to state an aim is to say that “We need to know” something. There are three important things to check about each stated aim.
The aim should be restated, word for word, in the background section, where it should be followed by a few paragraphs that convince the reader that this is an important aim. Usually they do this by citing appropriate literature. Stating and justifying the aims like this is a device to create a direct link between what the project will do, and an important underlying question that the funder will pay to have answered. It’s also a way of papering over the cracks when the link is a bit tenuous.
The aims of the project should also be stated in the summary. Repeating them exactly, using the same sentences, is a good way of helping the reader to remember them.
Project overview sentence
It is useful to have a sentence that says what kind of research project is envisaged and what the likely outcome will be. It’s often necessary to have something that puts the reader in the right frame of mind for the subproject overview sentences. This sentence should be in the introduction and should be repeated at the start of the section of the proposal that describes the research project in detail.
Sub-project overview sentences (Objectives)
The essential difference between aims and objectives is that, aims tend to be abstract and objectives tend to be concrete. Aims are things that we would like to achieve. Objectives are the concrete things that we will do in order to achieve those aims. Thus the four or so sub-projects that comprise a research project are objectives. Matching the objectives to the aims is a good way of convincing the reader that the research needs to be done: the description of each sub-project should begin with a sentence that includes the phrase “this will tell us” whatever the corresponding aim says “we need to know”.
These sentences should be ‘pre used’ in the introduction and in the summary.
The last substantive sentence in the introduction should say something about what will be done with the results. Again, this sentence should be re-used to introduce the last sub-section of the description of the research project, which should explain it in detail.
So, that’s the filling for the feedback sandwich. How do you wrap it up? I think that it’s up to you to use your judgement. All the wrapping does is to set a baseline. In my view it doesn’t much matter where the baseline is, as long as it is absolutely clear how much the structure of the case for support could be improved.
I should point out that some funders, including several UK Research Councils, require applications to contain a section detailing the achievements of the research team. That section, which is an excellent way of supporting the competence proposition, is in addition to those discussed in this post.
This post tells you how to do a five-minute review of a research grant application. If you are asked to comment on a grant application by a friend or colleague, you should begin with this five minute review. In 95% of cases it will be all you need to do. Except create the feedback sandwich of course.
If you are writing a grant application, before you ask anybody else to read it you should spend five minutes reviewing it yourself. Far too many of the grant applications that I get asked to read take me a lot less than five minutes to review. Then it takes several days to construct a palatable feedback sandwich with the filling “rewrite this completely”.
I don’t say you can review the detailed content of a grant application in five minutes. That takes longer and I will write about how to do it quickly in a future post. However, five minutes is plenty of time to review the framework of the case for support and check that it is appropriately used.
The framework is important for two reasons. First, if it is good, it tells the reader the essential story of your grant application very quickly. Remember, most readers only want to know the essential story. Second, the framework guides the reader to the detailed content that supports and justifies the essential story, so that the detail can be reviewed effectively and quickly.
The most important part of the framework is a summary sentence. This should say what the project will achieve and enough about how it will achieve it to give a bit of distinctiveness and a bit of plausibility. It is essentially the elevator pitch, except that instead of taking 30 seconds to 2 minutes to say it or read it, it should take more like 15 seconds. The summary sentence should be the first sentence of the introduction, so it should take no time to find it, you still have 4 minutes 45 seconds left.
If you read my last post you will recognise that the summary sentence is what I refer to there as the first key sentence. So it will come as no surprise that you should check that the summary sentence is re-used as the first sentence of the part of the case for support that sets out the background to the research project. Let’s allow 15 seconds to do that. 4 minutes 30 seconds left.
Now you should spend 20 seconds checking the second sentence of the introduction. It’s the importance sentence. It should say something about why it is important to achieve whatever the project will achieve. Make a mental note about whether the importance sentence has a practical element. Does it mention a real world problem – childhood cancer, the economy, forgetfulness in old-age, or some such. It’s not essential that there is a practical element to the importance sentence but it has implications for the dissemination sentence, which you will review in a few minutes time.
As soon as you have checked the importance sentence for practical content, jump to the background section and check that the importance sentence is repeated there. This is just a quick glance, so it should only take you 10 seconds. You have 4 minutes left.
Go back to the introduction. Immediately after the importance sentence there should be a set of aims sentences, about four sentences setting out the aims of the project. The aims sentences should state things that we need to know, understand, characterise or in some way discover. The aims sentences could be preceded by a linking or framing sentence and they could easily be formatted as bullet points. Checking that the aims sentences are in the right place should take you 10 seconds. Do not look at the content of the aims sentences yet. Wait 30 seconds until we get to the sub-project overview sentences.
Now you should check the next sentence of the introduction. It should be the ‘project overview sentence’.
Project overview Sentence.
The project overview sentence gives a simple one-sentence overview of the project. It might also be structured as a linking sentence to the four or so sub-project overview sentences, which should immediately follow it and which could appear as bullet points and could be expressed as objectives. It should take you 30 seconds to read the project overview sentence and 20 more to check that it appears again to introduce the part of the case for support that gives the detailed description of the research methods and of the project.
Next you can spend 10 seconds checking that the sub-project overview sentences follow the project overview sentence. Now you are ready to check their content against the content of the corresponding aims sentences.
Sub-project overview sentences; content of aims sentences
Each aims sentence should link logically to the corresponding sub-project overview sentence in the following way. The aims sentence should say “We need to know X”. The sub-project overview sentence should give a very brief description of the research in the sub-project and should end with a clause that says “this will tell us X“.
The aims sentences should be repeated in the background. Each of them should introduce a discussion of the evidence that supports the assertion that this is an important aim.
The sub-project overview sentences should be repeated in the part of the case for support that describes the project in detail. Each of them should introduce the detailed description of the corresponding sub-project.
This checking and matching will probably take nearly a minute to do for the first aim/sub-project overview sentence pair but the others should be much quicker. It’s just a matching exercise after all. Lets assume it takes 2 minutes. You have a minute left, and only the dissemination sentence to check.
The dissemination sentence
The last sentence of the introduction should say what will be done with the results. It is the dissemination sentence. You need to check that it is repeated in the description of the project as the introduction to a section on dissemination. You also need to check that, if the importance sentence has a practical component then the dissemination must have a corresponding practical element. For example, if the project is going to discover a cure for a disease, the dissemination needs to promote the use of the cure in some way. As a general rule there must be a plan to disseminate the results in a way that makes it likely that the claimed practical benefit will be realised.
What to do with the outcome of the review
Only about 5% of grant applications will pass this five minute review. If you are reviewing a grant application for someone else and it passes, it should be pretty easy to review the detailed content. I’ll give some helpful pointers in a future post. It goes without saying that if the grant you are reviewing is yours, it is safe to give it to someone to review.
In the more likely case that the grant application fails the review, then it needs rewriting. If it’s yours, that’s pretty simple. Read my post from last week. Write the 10 key sentences and use them to organise the text you have already written. If you can’t write the 10 key sentences then you shouldn’t be writing a research grant.
If the grant application is not yours, you need to write a feedback sandwich. Basically the grant needs to be rewritten before it’s worth looking at the detailed content. I’ll say something about how to do this in my next post but whatever you do don’t use the phrase “completely rewrite”.