Key sentences define the structure of a case for support and ensure that every reader gets the same picture.
A crucial challenge in writing the case for support in a grant application is that the finished document will be discussed by a group of people who have read it at different levels. For example:-
The referees will have read and analysed every last detail, in order to write a report for the grants committee.
The presenters will have read it very carefully and will have created their own summary of it, which they will present orally to the committee.
Most of the committee will only have read the summary but many of them will glance through the case for support when the committee are discussing it.
Members of the committee who find the case for support interesting will also read it in detail.
If the discussion is to be fruitful, all these people should get exactly the same picture. Detailed reading of the case for support should produce exactly the same picture as riffling through it at high speed, which should produce the same picture as reading the first page and stopping when it gets boring, which should produce the same picture as reading the summary and ignoring the case for support completely. All these different ways of reading should produce the same picture. The only difference should be in the level of detail.
To solve this problem, you build the case for support from a skeleton of key sentences. In the full case for support, you flesh out each key statement with a few paragraphs of text to create a subsection. The key statement summarises the subsection that fleshes it out. In this way the case for support consists of a number of subsections, each of which begins with a key statement. If you string the key statements together on their own, without the subsections that flesh them out, you get the same story as the full case for support, but with less detail.
The full case for support fleshes out the key sentences with supporting detail, whereas the summary consists of the key sentences on their own. This ensures that people who read the full case for support get the same story as those who only read the summary. It also means that a reader who attempts to create their own summary from careful reading of the case for support is likely to create a very similar summary to the one you supply.
You can use the first sentences of paragraphs in the same way, to create a summary of a piece of text. This blog post has been written using the key sentence approach at the paragraph level. Each key statement is fleshed out with a few sentences to create a paragraph. You can see how the approach works by taking the first sentence from each paragraph in this section and stringing them together. It should make a good summary. Check the key sentence summary below to see how this works.
A second benefit of this assert-justify approach is that the key sentences act like signposts to tell the referees where to find the information they want. The referees will read the summary before they read the case for support and, as they read the summary, a series of questions and doubts will arise in their minds about whether the summary is backed up by detail. The key sentences in the body of the case for support will show them where to look for the detail.
In sum, the key sentence approach gives a summary that tells the same story as the extended version and makes it very easy for referees to find the information that they want. In the bullet points that follow you can see the summary of this blog post created simply by cutting and pasting the first sentence of every paragraph.
KEY SENTENCE SUMMARY
A crucial challenge in writing the case for support is that the finished document will be discussed by a group of people who have read it at different levels.
If the discussion is to be fruitful, all these people should get exactly the same picture.
To solve this problem, the case for support is built from a skeleton of key sentences.
The full case for support fleshes out the key sentences with supporting detail, whereas the summary consists of the key sentences on their own.
You can use the first sentences of paragraphs in the same way, to create a summary of a piece of text.
A second benefit of this assert-justify approach is that the key sentences act like signposts to tell the referees where to find the information they want.
In sum, the key sentence approach gives a summary that tells the same story as the extended version and makes it very easy for referees to find the information they want.
The front fork of a Birdy folding bicycle has a distinctive structure that smooths out bumps in the road and solves the bicycle’s main problem, how to fold quickly into a compact space.
This post explains how you can structure the case for support in a research grant application in a way that solves its main problem and enables it to do its tasks efficiently.
A case for support has two main tasks. It has to convince the committee that your research project is important. And it has to convince referees that your project will be successful. However, these tasks are not the case for support’s main problem.
The case for support also has to do several minor tasks. It has to make the grants committee think that they understand your project. It has to convince referees that you are competent to carry out the project. And it has to convince them that the resources you will buy with the grant are necessary and sufficient to carry out the project. These tasks are not the case for support’s main problem either.
The case for support’s main problem is this: most members of the grants committee will not read it, and those who do read it will probably not understand it. Despite this, the case for support has to convince them that your research project is important. It has to convince them that your project will be successful. And it has to tell them what your project aims to achieve, and how the project will achieve it and how competent you are.
The committee members will not read the case for support but it still has to convince them that your project is important and will be successful. That is its main problem.
My recommended structure for the case for support solves this problem. All the committee will skim the case for support while your grant application is being discussed, but they will all have read the summary beforehand. So if you give the case for support a structure that gives the right information to someone who skims it, and if you create a perfectly matched summary that ‘primes’ them by giving them the same information in the same words, that solves the problem.
So what kind of structure allows someone who only skims the case for support to pick up all the right information?
A three-layered structure.
As I said, the case for support has two main tasks. First it has to convince the reader that your project is important. Then it has to convince them it will be successful. The ideal structure has three layers, a main structure, a local structure and a fine structure.
Main Structure: Introduction, Background and Methodology.
The most efficient way to convince the reader your project is important and will be successful is to divide the case for support into three main sections.
Two of the sections do the main tasks:
the background section convinces readers that the intended outcomes of the project are important, and
the methodology section describes the project and convinces the reader that it will achieve its intended outcomes.
The third section, the introduction, increases the effectiveness of the background and methodology sections by telling the reader the points that will be made in those sections. You write the introduction last but the reader reads it first.
The names that I have given to the three main sections are not fixed. They will vary, depending on the funders’ instructions for the case for support. Whatever those instructions, it is always possible to write the case for support so that it has a background section that describes the state of the art in such a way that it is completely clear that the intended outcomes of your project will be important to the funder, a methodology section that makes it clear that your project will succeed in delivering its intended outcomes, and an introduction. The local structure of these sections, which we discuss next, gives the reader the bigger picture of what makes your project important.
Local Structure: three aims in background delivered by three objectives in methodology.
A good way to help the reader to assess the value of your project is to describe it as consisting of three components, each of which will deliver a clear outcome. If it suits you, or if the funder asks you to state aims and objectives, you can call these three outcomes the aims, and the sub-projects that will deliver them, the objectives.
Breaking the overall research outcome into components like this makes it much easier for the committee to discuss it and analyse it, and it also makes it much easier for you to write the background in a way that makes it clear that your project is really important. If the background convinces the reader that the aims are really important then the project will automatically become important if your description of it convinces them that it will achieve the aims.
Three aims and three objectives is the perfect number. If you have too few aims or objectives it becomes hard to describe them concisely. If you have too many, it becomes hard to remember them. And if you have different numbers of aims and objectives then the aims and objectives will not give the reader a clear picture of what the project will achieve and why it is important.
Because each objective delivers exactly one aim it is easy to write the background so that it convinces the reader that each aim is really important. It also makes it easy for the reader to remember the list of aims and to see that by carrying out the objectives you will achieve the aims.
The background and methodology sections have five subsections each. Three of each set of five are used to link the two sections together, so that the background convinces the reader that every component of the project is important. The remaining subsections have different jobs, enticing the reader to read the case for support, explaining the overall importance of the project, introducing the project and describing what will happen after the project is done.
The three pairs of subsections that link the background to the methodology section work very simply.
The background has three subsections, each of which explains the importance of one of the aims. Usually this is where literature is cited to support the case that the project will achieve important aims.
Each of the subsections in the background is paired with one in the methodology section, which describes the sub-project (the part of the project) that delivers the corresponding aim.
The background starts with two subsections that entice the reader to read the case for support, and explain the overall importance of the project.
The first subsection states the overall project outcome and explains it. If not much explanation is needed, this subsection can be expanded into an introduction for the whole project (see below). For that reason I would always write this subsection last.
The second subsection gives the evidence that the project outcome is important. These two subsections are essential preparation for the core subsections that explain how important the aims are. The aims are usually important mainly because they deliver the overall project outcome.
The methodology section starts with a subsection that introduces the project. It also leads into the three subsections that describe the objectives. The methodology section finishes with a fifth subsection that describes what will happen after the project is done. This could be be dissemination, impact, or even a new project.
Fine Structure: Key sentence followed by justification.
Each of the ten subsections described above has the same structure. It begins with a single sentence that summarises the subsection. These are the ‘key sentences’ that are the skeleton of the case for support. The rest of the subsection fleshes out the key sentence, supporting it and increasing its impact. For key sentences in the background, the ‘flesh’ will consist mainly of evidence from the literature. For key sentences in the methodology section the ‘flesh’ consists mainly of details about what will be done in the project.
Within each of these sections, the punch-line of each paragraph is on the first line, and the remainder of the paragraph explains or justifies the punchline. This post explains the advantages of this assert-justifystructure. The most important advantage is that if you leave space between your paragraphs, someone who skims your text will read the first line of every paragraph.
The first draft of the introduction can be done by copying and pasting the key sentences. You may find it necessary to add some linking and signposting, so that they form a coherent narrative. When you write the main sections of the case for support you will edit the key sentences so that they link smoothly with the sections they introduce, so it will be better to leave the introduction until after you have written the background and methodology sections. This post describes the introduction.
The perfectly matched summary
The summary should be perfectly matched to the case for support. This will cause anyone who reads the summary and then skims the case for support (most of the committee) to feel that they understand the case for support completely. If you use the key sentences as a skeleton for the case for support in the way that I recommend, they will make a perfectly matched summary. This post discusses the summary.
I hope this post convinces you that my recommended structure equips the case for support to solve its main problem. In a future post I will discuss my recipe for producing a case for support that has this structure.
I have a number of clients who are applying for European Research Council grants, mostly starter grants. Those who have reached the interview stage this year have been notified and are now getting ready. The interview is short, typically 25-30 minutes, and begins with a talk of about ten minutes. The exact timing of interview and talk varies and candidates have yet to be notified of the exact timetable of their interviews.
Most people give pretty bad short talks, so this seems like a good time to give you a recipe for a good one. This recipe works for any research-based short talk.
Choose a Suitable Message
The recipe is based on a very simple principle. You must decide on a suitable message that you want the audience to remember at the end of your talk, and you must structure the talk so that they remember that message.
The message must be short. A sentence, or possibly three or four short bullet points is ideal. If the message is too long the audience will not remember it.
Before you decide on your message, think about your audience, the interview committee. The committee will include one or two specialists in your subject but most of them will be specialists in something else. You want the whole committee to understand your message so make it broad, and don’t use overly specialised language.
The ideal message for an ERC interview talk would say what the project will deliver and what makes this deliverable important. If there is time you might try and say something about the research approach and something about your qualifications to use the approach. Even if the research approach and your qualifications aren’t part of your main message you should certainly touch on them during the talk. It is no coincidence that my recommended message matches pretty closely the first two key sentences of the case for support, as described in this blog post.
Structure of the talk.
My recipe prescribes a very simple structure for the talk.
Start by stating the message.
Break the message down into components.
Explain each of the components.
Resynthesize the the original message to close.
I would use the 3 components of the project as the 3 components of the talk. I recommend the same structure for the case for support, as you can see, here, here and here.
It is easy to get hung up about slides and to trap yourself with rules that don’t always work – such as ‘no writing on slides’. But I do have some recommendations:-
Don’t have too many slides. I will usually have no more than 6 for a 15 minute talk.
Use each slide to make a point. Know what point you want to make with it. Design the slide so that it makes its point. Sometimes I will write the point as the slide title and I will always state the point of the slide when I first show it.
Make everything on your slide legible. You should be able to read everything when the slide is displayed on a standard size phone screen and held at arms length.
Make the slides self-explanatory: if you show data you must label the axes and have a key. When I listen to a talk I usually flip between listening to the speaker and reading and analysing the slides to check whether I agree with their interpretation.
When I show a data slide I start by saying what point the data make, which will usually be a question of interpretation. Then I explain how the data are plotted, the axes and so on, then I then interpret the slide by explaining which features of the plotted data make the point.
Don’t have so much text on the slides that your talk consists of just reading the slides.
Practising, notes and scripts.
You should practise your talk several times so that you know that it fits within the time limit. Try to practise with an audience. Most people speed up when they get nervous, so when you get to the interview, remind yourself to slow down so that you remain intelligible.
I would never read a talk from a script, nor would I learn a script word for word. If I am very nervous I will learn the first sentence of the talk, and repeat it many many times, so that when I start the talk that sentence comes out automatically. That gets me started and usually settles my nerves.
I may also learn the sentences that state the points from each slide, although I usually write the point in short form as the slide title and I use the list of slide titles as notes.
Finally I will learn the last sentence of the talk, so that I can ‘bale out’ if I have to end the talk in a hurry because I have run out of time
Don’t Create Hostages
Some people think you should plant obvious questions in the talk by making some of your explanations incomplete, or that you should use the talk to repair any weaknesses that you can see in your application. I think both these strategies are risky.
Planting questions is risky because although the committee may ask you the questions that you have planted, if you make it obvious that you are hoping for them to do so, they might feel that you are manipulating them. Equally, you may make it too subtle and they might not ask the question you have planted and simply decide that you aren’t very good at explaining.
Using the talk to repair weaknesses in the application is risky because by doing it, you draw attention to the weaknesses. Your application was good enough to get you to interview, so they may not have noticed any weaknesses.
Of course, if the committee have noticed weaknesses in your application then they will ask you about them in the interview. Consequently, analysing your application for weaknesses is an important part of your preparation for the interview. I will write about preparing for the interview in a future post.
It is almost exactly 2 years since Parker Derrington Ltd opened for business and over a year since I changed career definitively and gave up my university job to become a full-time businessman.
The change of career was a leap in the dark but 3 key facts convince me that I have landed on my feet:-
I enjoy my work more.
I do less work.
I earn more money.
Of course, things could be even better and I want to use this blog to improve them. This post is a review of my career change and an outline of what I want to do better. It follows one of the good practices I developed as an academic manager – annual planning and target setting.
When I changed career, the target I set myself was to develop enough paid work to replace my salary before the end of 2015. I had a 3-point strategy:-
Start a blog;
Build a website;
Offer free workshops to people I knew and generous discounts to people that I didn’t.
My plan was that the blog would bring people to the website; the website would bring clients; and free workshops would turn friends into clients. I thought that any client that had a free or half-price workshop would very quickly order a full-price workshop once they knew how good they are.
I was wrong both about free work and about discounts. Clients act as if workshops are only worth what they pay. They act as if my workshops are worth nothing. The workshops are very good but the attendees seem to expect them to be bad. And, they don’t lead to more work: clients act as if they are reluctant to pay full price for something they have had free or half-price. So now I charge the full price and I offer new clients a BOGOF (buy one get one free – two days for the price of one). For many clients the BOGOF clinches the deal. I am careful to make sure that my invoice states the full price and applies the discount so that the client sees the full price even if they don’t pay it. Since I changed my approach, a good proportion of clients have asked for follow-on work at full price.
The website and blog, which I promote through Twitter, have also been very useful. Of the 30 different clients or organisations that have hired me, about 20 found me through the web site or through Twitter.
I met the target I set myself with a healthy safety margin. I earned more last year through the company than I would have done if I had stayed in my job. However, although my income is higher than it was when I was an academic, it is a lot less predictable. I never know when I will get offered work and the delays between working and getting paid are variable and huge. The fastest payer so far was the University of Exeter, which paid within 3 days of my invoice. I won’t name the slowest payer because, even though they took over 4 months to pay, they will probably be replaced by someone even slower quite soon. Almost all my business is with universities and almost all universities are apallingly slow to pay their bills.
My next target is to change the mix of work. At present it is about 60% teaching people how to write, 25% writing and editing, 10% consultancy and 5% coaching. I’d like to do more writing because that’s what I enjoy most. It’s probably also where I add most value. Very few clients trust me to co-write their grant applications and papers but those few are delighted with the results: better papers and grant-applications with less effort.
My target for 2016 is to shift the balance of business towards writing and consultancy. My strategy will be to use the blog, the website and direct contacts to promote writing and consultancy.
So do get in touch if you don’t know what to write, if you don’t know how to write it, or if you know what to write and how, but don’t have time.
A couple of weeks ago I described deadly sins that grant-writers commit deliberately. This week I am dealing with sins that are just as deadly but much harder to avoid. The sins of omission just creep into your writing without you noticing and you have to make special efforts to remove them.
The sins I want to deal with are Complex Sentences, Long Paragraphs, Poor Flow and failing to match the background to the project. They all meet the definition of sin that I coined last week: “Anything that makes it hard for a committee member to pick up a clear understanding of the rationale of your research project, what it will discover and why that is important, is a sin. So is anything that makes it hard for a referee to get a clear picture of the detailed reasoning in your argument and the detailed description of your intended research activities. Referees and committee both work under time pressure, so anything that slows them down is also a sin.”
Complex sentences are really difficult to avoid. They appear spontaneously in your draft. Most people can’t avoid writing them whenever they are trying to write something difficult – like a grant application.
That’s OK. Writing complex sentences isn’t the end of the world. Not unless your first draft is the end of your writing process. You must expect your first draft to be full of sins and you need to cast them out. You need to hunt through your draft and convert all the long, complex sentences into short, clear simple sentences. As a rule of thumb, you should redraft any sentence longer than 30 words or containing more than 1 verb or beginning with a digression – a phrase that is introduced by a word like “although”. And if it’s the first sentence of a paragraph you also need to make sure that the main message of the sentence fits on the first line.
It’s OK for complex sentences to appear in your first draft because that is usually the easiest way for you to write it. But it’s not OK to leave them there. You have to replace them with simple sentences. This may involve breaking them up, or turning them round and it will take time, but you will get quicker with practice. Your final draft must be easy to read, and to speed read. Most of the people voting on your grant application will speed-read, or skim it. So if what you send them is full of complex sentences that have to be decoded carefully then they will not get your message, and you will have less chance of getting funded.
Long paragraphs are bad for two reasons.
I pointed out in my last post that most of the people scoring your grant will speed-read your case for support. Speed-readers read the first line of every paragraph provided there is white space between them. The longer your paragraphs, the less you communicate with speed readers.
Long paragraphs are usually very hard to digest. They are usually a sign that what you are writing is either very complex, or just a bit disorganised. The few readers who really want to read the detail in your case for support will find it hard.
If your paragraphs are longer than about 5 lines, try to break them up. If they are not too disorganised it will be fairly straightforward but if they are disorganised it may be easier to attend to the flow first.
Flow refers to the sequence of ideas that you present, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. Within paragraphs, good flow occurs when each sentence connects naturally to its successor. There are several ways of achieving this. If you have never thought hard about it (and I hadn’t until a few months ago), Google will find you countless sources of advice. I recommend that you read the Using English for Academic Purposes Blog, which has a section on paragraphs and flow. The basic approach is that you should always start the paragraph with the topic sentence, the one sentence that sums up the paragraph. Then, to get good flow within the paragraph you make sure that the first sentence leads naturally to the start of the second sentence, which leads naturally to the subject of the third sentence and so on. This makes it easy for the reader to read through the paragraph without having to pause and analyse the wording to work out what you mean, or having to keep several ideas in mind in order to follow what you are saying.
Flow between paragraphs is also important and again Google throws up hundreds of ways to help you make it smoother. I think that the best approach here is to reverse outline, as suggested on the Explorations of Style blog, which is full of good advice on how to make your writing more readable.
Failing to match the background to the project is a sin against Derrington’s first commandment. You won’t go to hell for the sin but you may enter the purgatory of grant rejection. The commandment requires that before you describe your project and the outcomes it will produce, you use the background section to make the case that we need exactly those outcomes. It’s a pretty basic selling technique. It persuades the customer that they want what you are selling before you describe what you are selling. I have explained before how you use key sentences to create a structure that implements the technique by creating a background section that deals with the outcomes in the same order as the description of the project, and that explains, outcome by outcome, why we need them.
If you read a few successful grant applications you will realise that the sins are not fatal: most successful grant-writers commit them. However, the sins all make it less likely that you will get funded because they make it harder for time-pressed committee members and referees to do their job. Of course you may be lucky enough that the committee sees the merit in your application despite you making it difficult. But why take the chance?
The first rule of writing is that you must think about the effect you want to have on your intended reader. From this perspective, a research grant is one of the easiest writing tasks imaginable: the effect you want to have is very simple and the readership is well-defined. This makes it very easy to work out that there are some things you should never ever do. Almost all grant-writers do them. These are the deadly sins of grant-writing.
To help you understand how bad these sins are, I will describe the effect you want to have and the readership before I list the sins.
The effect you want to have and the readership.
Obviously the effect you want to have is to get funded. For this to happen, your main readership, the grants committee, must understand your aims and believe that they are important and that your project will fulfill them. Then they must rank your application high enough to fund it. Typically the committee will read your application in parallel with about 80 others and to get funded you need them to rank it the top 15 or so.
Few if any of the committee will be familiar with your research area. Mostly they will be struggling to understand what you are going to do and why it might be important to do it. They won’t spend long reading your application. A couple of them may spend as much as an hour on it because they will be tasked with explaining your application to the rest of the committee. Most of the others will probably just read the summary and ‘speed read’ (glance through) the case for support during the discussion. At the end of the discussion they will all vote on your score.
Your application will also be read by referees, who tend to be more knowledgeable about your research area and who will probably spend a couple of hours on it but they will not contribute directly to the decision. They will read your application in detail and write an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses for the committee to consider. They probably will not read any of the applications you are competing against.
Anything that makes it hard for a committee member to pick up a clear understanding of the rationale of your research project, what it will discover and why that is important, is a sin. So is anything that makes it hard for a referee to get a clear picture of the detailed reasoning in your argument and the detailed description of your intended research activities. Referees and committee both work under time pressure, so anything that slows them down is also a sin.
It may be helpful to distinguish sins of commission, things that you do deliberately, from sins of omission, things that you do because you just can’t help it. All seven sins make a long post, so I’ll leave the sins of omission to next week.
Sins of commission
Elegant variation, using synonyms to avoid repeating yourself, is my top sin. It’s not the worst, but it is the easiest to avoid. I have heard many reasons why you should say things in different ways when you repeat them. None of them applies to grant-writing. Elegant variation is bad for two reasons.
First, it cuts down on repetition. Repetition is good in a grant application because it helps the reader to remember what you are writing about long enough to join in the discussion. It also helps them become familiar enough with your technical terms to feel comfortable using them.
Second, synonyms are dangerous because members of the committee may not realise that they are synonyms. They will get hopelessly confused.
People justify elegant variation in a variety of ways. Most of them are wrong and none of them applies to a grant application. Trust me.
Aggressive space-saving is bad in all its forms, shrinking margins, shrinking font size, removing white space between paragraphs, and coining new abbreviations. They all make the reader’s real problem, reading and understanding your text, harder. And the reader will not love you for that. It is better to cut text than to cram it in and make it unreadable. Removing white space and coining abbreviations are particularly bad.
Removing white space makes speed-readers (most of the committee) lose the plot. Completely. Normally a speed reader will read the first line of every paragraph: their eyes automatically land on the edges of the white space at the top of the paragraph. That means that the speed reader understands your proposal and thinks it is very clear because they pick up all the essential messages – you do start every paragraph with the topic sentence don’t you? Without the white space the speed-reader’s eye movements will go all over the place and they will pick up four or five random phrases from each page.
Coining abbreviations can’t do any harm can it? Surely it’s ok if you spell out each abbreviation the first time you use it? Well, no. I mean NO. Imagine reading 80 grant applications, all of them with half a dozen sets of abbreviations. Then imagine trying to re-read the difficult parts to try and understand them. What happens with the abbreviation when you start reading half-way through the grant? I can tell you: searching backwards through the text for the point where the abbreviation is spelled out makes a reader grouchy. Grouchy readers give grants low scores. So my advice is that if you have to spell out an abbreviation you can’t use it.
Over use of the passive voice – or of any convention that breaks up the natural flow just makes it hard to decipher your meaning. Of course sometimes your meaning is made clearer by using the passive. If you would like some helpful ideas about how and when to use the passive have a look at this excellent post, which gives very clear advice on when it’s bad and when it’s good, including a brilliant sentence made shorter and sharper by using the passive voice 5 times.
It should be easy to avoid all these sins of commission because they are things you decide to do. Next week I will deal with the sins of omission, which are much harder to avoid.
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.
Whom should you ask for feedback on your grant application?
The best option is to ask the right kind of expert, if you can. Expertise on grants is much more important than expertise in your subject. The ideal person would be someone who has served several years on the grants committee that will consider your proposal. Failing that, you could ask someone who has wide experience of similar grants committees and a good understanding of the scheme for which you are applying. Unfortunately these people tend to be busy and you may be in a hurry. You can ask Parker Derrington Ltd to read your grant application and give you face-to-face feedback by Zoom, but you would have to pay. What can you do if you don’t have an expert on call and can’t afford to pay one?
If you can’t get an expert, you should choose an ignoramus, or someone who can act the part as far as your project is concerned. You need someone who does not share your views about what is important in your subject but who is open-minded. This mimics the kind of expertise that a grants committee member will have. The ideal person would be someone at your level, in a different but related field. It can be a good idea to exchange feedback with a colleague in a different subject area who is also preparing a grant application. It is a mistake to use someone who knows as much or more than you do about the area of your project, unless they are sufficiently experienced in the way grants committees work that they will be able to discount their knowledge of your subject.
How should you ask for feedback on your grant application?
If you ask a real expert for feedback, it doesn’t matter how you ask, they will give you useful feedback. Otherwise, you need to design your questions carefully if the answers are to be useful. Here are some suggestions.
Write down the main outcome of the project. Mark where it describes it in the text with a (1)
Mark with (2) in the text the section that gives evidence that the main outcome is important. Can you think of anything else that could be said to support the claim that the outcome is important?
Is the importance of the outcome specific to this funder? Mark any references to the funder’s goals with (3).
How many separate components does the research project have?
Mark with (5-1), (5-2) etc, the sections of text that state the outcome of each component of the research project.
Mark with (6-1), (6-2) etc, each section of text that explains how important the outcome is of a component of the research project.
Mark with (7-1), (7-2) etc, the sections of text that give citations that support the explanations in (6-1), (6-2) and so on.
Mark with (8-1), (8-2) etc, the sections of text that describe the research processes that will produce the outcomes (5-1), (5-2) etc.
For each of these sections, can you mark with (?) any processes that are not clear, and can you suggest any extra processes that might be needed in order to produce the research outcome.
Mark in the text with (1) where it states what will be done to make sure that the overall outcome of the project has maximum value to the funder. Can you think of any way that this could be made more valuable to the funder.
You should ask the reader to spend no more than half an hour answering these questions. If they are unable to answer them in that time then you need to do some serious rewriting.
Finally, you should know that the correct answer to question 4 should be three.
It may not be easy to keep your temper when responding to referees’ comments but you must make it seem like the easiest thing in the world. Whether the comments are on a grant application or a paper, you should compose your response with regard to the effect you want it to have on the reader. If you want your response to influence a grants committee to award your grant or a journal editor to publish your paper, anger is unlikely to help.
There are some differences between responding to grant-application referees and paper referees but most of the following recommendations apply to both.
Assume that the referee is trying to be helpful. You will do a better job if you can make the assumption of reasonableness. If you can convince yourself that the referees are doing their best to help you and their comments are genuinely trying to help you improve your research project or your paper, it will be easier to follow most of the recommendations below. It doesn’t matter if the assumption is wrong and the referees are actually trying to sink your grant or turn your paper into tedious gibberish. The important point is that you will do a better job of responding to them if you assume that they are trying to help.
Take responsibility for the reader’s failure to understand. Some writers take pride in the knowledge that very few people understand their work. I have seen responses from grant applicants that berated referees for their stupidity. That is a risky attitude to take in any type of writing and is almost certain to lead to the failure of a grant application.
Express gratitude for referees’ suggestions. Derrington’s first law of responding to referees states “The less you feel gratitude, the more fulsomely you should express it”. This is probably more important in the case of a paper than a grant application because in the case of a paper the referee will usually be consulted about whether your response is satisfactory whereas in the case of a grant application your response will be usually assessed by the grants committee. Of course it may help you to express gratitude if you can explain how the referees insightful suggestions have enabled you to transform the research project or paper.
Make it clear that the responding to the referees’ suggestions has enabled you to improve the research project (or paper). There are two reasons for this.
First, you want to give the impression that the final version of your paper (or grant application) is much better than the version that the referee evaluated and deserves a higher score than the referees gave it.
Second, you may want to distract the referee (or the grants committee) from the fact that you may not have made any changes at all. In this case, Derrington’s second law of responding to referees applies “The less you change, the more emphatically you state how much you have changed and how much this has transformed the paper.”
Derrington’s second law is more important for papers than for grants, because journal editors often regard referees’ recommendations as binding and authors often find them unacceptable. A grants’ committee is much more likely to recognise when a referee’s recommendation is ridiculous and accept a response that politely declines to implement it.
State clearly what you are responding to and how. This is particularly important when referees’ comments and suggestions are vague or ambiguous. It is often helpful to paraphrase the referees’ suggestions and to state what changes you have made in response to each one. This is a good way of dealing with the case when two or more referees suggest almost exactly the same thing. A list of your paraphrasings of the referees’ suggestions and a short statement about how you have responded to each one can make a very helpful executive summary that will reassure the reader that you have responded satisfactorily.
Some journals require you to do this but few funding agencies do. Even so, you should do it because it is likely to increase your chance of getting funded because it reassures the committee that you have responded satisfactorily to the referees’ criticisms.
Keep your overall response as short and simple as possible. This is more important with grant applications than with papers because the committee works under immense time pressure.
Know when to give up. If the referees’ reports on a grant are uniformly lukewarm it is unlikely to get funded whatever you say. Paradoxically, faint praise is more damning than strong condemnation because condemnation can give the impression that the referee is biased.
Of course, if you are overwhelmed by the desire to let the referees know how stupid their comments are, you probably won’t be able to follow any of the advice I have given so far. In that case I suggest that you wait until you can. Responding to referees is like inviting an elderly relative to dinner, better not to do it than to do it with bad grace.