The Ghost In My Own Project

I do not really know that much about Buddhism. Despite it seeming really popular as a cultural touchstone through my teenage years, perhaps the thought that a religion could recognise high level spiritual qualities in Steven Seagal put me off learning more. So I’ve ended up thinking of Buddhism as a series of banal self-help quotes that probably owe little to that particular version of spirituality at all. Things like “the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step”. Or “it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey”.

Right now on the inspirational wall calendar of my PhD I’m deep in grant writing mode. As whatever is lower than novice researcher on the scale (amoebic researcher?) I am very much having to adopt an attitude of appreciating the experience, as the reward is likely to be distant. The success rates are dauntingly low, particularly for new kids on the block (previously touched on here).

Taken from the writing tips provided by Sydney Uni, this graph shows both the low success rates and the numbers of awesome things that get no money.

Taken from the writing tips provided by Sydney Uni, this graph shows both the low success rates and the numbers of awesome things that get no money.

So while attempting to produce success despite the odds being the same as my childhood attempt to  staple scrambled eggs to the wall I have had much time to contemplate all the things that bring out my inner Sideshow Bob grumble. Here they are, not referenced in any particular style …

1. Get with the times

I like tradition as much as the next closet fan of lederhosen. I also get that it’s easier to rank things against each other when they’re in almost identical formats. At the same time, why exclude all media other than writing for all elements of an application? If you’re trying to demonstrate that you’ve checked the feasibility of your project if you had strong evidence, like video footage, of your plan in action why should that be entirely forbidden? Of course, there’d be some issues with how to equitably introduce it, but will we really be still excluding that sort of stuff in 10 years? If not, change it now. You might get some bonus as people think of better ways to present what they do (engagement, anyone?).

2. Stop changing the rules

You have a year to plan a grant round. You put out a bunch of new guidelines, including referencing rules. They predictably draw complaints because they add significantly to space consumed. So you revise with a weird hybrid. People still complain. So you return to good old numbers as an option. Consult before or employ common sense. Changing guidelines mid-round – 1 star.

3. Embrace diversity

This sort of applies more to the whole shebang, not within a grant sub-type. A lot of the competitive grants on offer seem to be broad enough that everyone goes for them, including the old warhorses and the young gangly foals. There’s evidence that lots of smaller grants may be a more fruitful pattern than big grants to single areas, or to big groups. For as long as little groups are in the same pool as behemoths, where does that come in? Obviously there’s a role for grants to the big people, but we need more spaces for smaller lifeforms to claim their niche. Is there an industry where we tout the benefits of less diversity?

4. Stages, please

If there’s a proportion who have no hope, couldn’t we at least do an initial cull with lower input required? The US runs several programs where you submit just an initial pre-proposal and get invited for a full submission if they like the way you trim your sails. 2, 3 pages max and then an invite to the party after a first glance. Even better, de-identified. No big names, ring-ins or celebrity guest stars. Which brings me to …

5. An End to Spin and Deception

In a ruthlessly competitive system, you need to maximise all areas. Track record counts (25% is on the team for NHMRC project grants, and some ARC schemes rate the track record stuff at 40% of the value of the total assessment). As brilliantly described here, those doing the manual labour aren’t necessarily the ones getting the credit. All through the research rainforest, undergrowth dwellers are putting in the hard yards while the big trees suck up the sunshine. Quite often this isn’t because the professor types are intent on running a Dickensian orphanage that produces research. They may be just as unimpressed by the way it works out, but equally pragmatic that this is how things go so you just have to play the game.

What bollocks. Make the assessment an actual team assessment. The Chief Investigator should be the one who is going to do the actual work. The hot tip is that if it’s their project, they are absolutely the one who cares the most. Assessors should still look at the team, not just because they’re going to help deliver the goods, but because they are actually the first review. If a relatively junior investigator has convinced a bunch of clever people the project is worth backing, that has to say something, right? Maybe that’s me being starry-eyed. The point remains that the whole thing perpetuates a system in atrophy, where the high and mighty feed on the biggest resource we have for future innovation – young researchers. In the meantime like many of those younger types, I am the ghost writer for the grant application on my own project.

Worker bees. Another group making the sacrifice for a hive mind. [via fistfuloftalent.com]

Worker bees. Another group making the sacrifice for a hive mind. [via fistfuloftalent.com]

6. Please Sir, I’d like some more …

More money, please. I appreciate that’s a bigger topic, but if 55% of NHMRC Project Grants are worthy of funding but get access to nothing, that’s a lot of quality research left to rot. The major competitive systems can’t be the only answer. There is a dearth of lateral thinking in the area. Is there space to build more extensively on philanthropy? Isn’t there a role for social impact investments or research bonds? Is there a way to make investing in research worthwhile through tax incentives? We need to put more on the table than what’s presently on the table.

Any other pet peeves or brilliant ideas? No doubt I’ll keep up with the grumbling as I go back to rolling a large boulder up an annoying hill. And if it doesn’t work out, I can always take some time out to find inner peace. If Steven Seagal can do it, surely I don’t need a track record for that.

Acknowledgements:

A lot of my thinking in this area has been heavily influenced by cleverer people on social media, particularly Dr Darren Saunders (@whereisdaz), Dr Krystal (@dr_krystal), Dr Jon Brock (@drbrocktagon) and @researchwhisper (the combined effort of @jod999 and @tseenster). I learn many things from these people. 

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