Who is Your Target Reader?

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

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

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


The referee only has to read one application

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

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

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

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

Presenting Members

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

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

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

The Rest of the Committee

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

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

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

Which of these readers should you write for?

So what should you do?

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

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

I’ll tell you more in my next post.