Rabbit season, duck season, grant season

There are some things that can’t be explained in just a few words. The influence of burn injuries on postjunctional nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Parthenogenesis. Adam Sandler’s continuing movie career.

Then of course there’s the unremitting slog of seeking grant money as a researcher. In the last little bit of time, Australian researchers have been immersed in big competitive grants season. I guess it’s something like the big football season but with slightly less need for ice baths.

I’ve been here before and had help from several monkeys (unfortunately not the requisite 1000 genetically manipulated ones) too. The nature of a relatively stand alone project is that you need to look for money to support it wherever you can. That means lots of grant applications. For one success. So now that I’ve had a few weeks to recover, is there anything different about the experience this year? And are there animals other than monkeys to learn from?

1. Focus on First Impressions

The first time around I spent an awful lot of time on the 9 pages of the grant proposal. I spent less time on the opening synopsis and selecting the particular subgroups for labelling the project. This was probably a bit to do with being overwhelmed by trying to learn the game.

What I hadn’t appreciated is how important that synopsis is in framing how the rest of the project will be considered. Or that from early in the piece the groups that will vet the project are decided on the basis of the groupings you choose. So the opening impressions got a lot more work this time around.

You want to inspire respect, right?

You want to inspire respect, right?

2. Coherence

This was actually something that had featured before but was a really significant bit of the feedback I got again on external review. Every bit of the application has to support key themes. For this project, we don’t struggle to show it’s a new idea. What we do need is to show the aims we’ve got will get us to the bigger goal of the project and how the individuals in the team are vital to delivering those aims so we can get back to that overall goal. Every bit of the application feeds back into the rest of the application. It’s a bit like one of those mind-bending Escher drawings.

It all needs to line up in a way that makes sense.

It all needs to line up in a way that makes sense.

3. Show What You Can Do

One big difference this time around is that we have actually done stuff. We can do it. We can actually take a monitor to accident scenes and get data. So the biggest change in the application this year was to actually show this off. Because now it doesn’t look quite as much as a project based on “we have this crazy idea that we can do new monitoring on people after accidents with a computer and a helicopter”. It’s more like “we DO this crazy thing where we take a computer in a helicopter and monitor people at accidents.” Preliminary data feels like a big addition. It also proves we can work together as a team.

If you've proven you can do stuff, show you can do stuff.

If you’ve proven you can do stuff, show you can do stuff.

4. It’s Still for the Old Timers

I worked at this grant. I worked quite hard at it. And I learned things. But that is probably where the benefit of it will end. The simple truth is that our number 1 investigator (not me, naturally) is considered a newbie under NHMRC rules. That’s got a lot to do with the fact he also does clinical work, and that whole looking after patients bit doesn’t put enough wins in the positive column to make up for less publications.

The estimate emerging from the NHMRC is that the overall success rate will fall to 12% this year. The further projection is that by 2017 there’ll be less than 480 project grants awarded (down from 731 in 2012). The age of the investigators given the grants keeps going up. The number of applicants is also rising.

Our chances weren’t helped by rules limiting applications from one of the members of the team who is truly world class as a researcher. And I might understand the logic in limiting, but it’ll probably kill our submission.

The system still rewards those with ancient research DNA in them.

They lurk, waiting. With their scale-encased eye of Sauron surveying the scene. (OK, that's a little unfair.)

They lurk, waiting. With their scale-encased eye of Sauron surveying the scene. (OK, that’s a little unfair.)

5. Find Someone Who Thinks a Bit Like You, But Better

Deep inside a project it can be pretty easy to see many glorious details of the trees but not the forest. Or the hills surrounding the forest. Or the roads to get there.

This time I had the benefit of a pro reader and checker who kept helping all the way to the deadline. Having someone (in my case the excellent @gillianscott07) with an understanding of research professionally reviewing what you’ve done and spotting all the structural issues obscured by the bloodshot red of your eyes is invaluable.

That anyone would spend their time sharing the pain of an application that isn’t their own is baffling and amazing. Really.

Someone who can look at things a bit like you, but who is not you.

Someone who can look at things a bit like you, but who is not you.


So 3 weeks later I am almost free of facial tics and I’ve stopped turning door handles 5 times before I walk through a door. The application is better this time. I even made it to the list of real investigators in the paperwork.

But it probably won’t get up.

And next week I’ll start my next application. Because there’s no order in “Rabbit season, duck season, grant season”. It’s just always grant season. And the researchers are mostly in the firing line.


A note about the images in this post:

It occurred to me I let this post out before I’d sorted the attributions for the images. All of these images were available on flickr via their creative commons section and are covered under variants CC 2.0. None of the images have been altered in any way.

The original sharers were:

The Lion with a Bad Hair Day – Dawn Ellner

Zebra Up Close – svenwerk

The Panther Chameleon – ponte1112

Crocodile Eye – Dennis

Mirror Squirrels – Marko Kivelä


4 thoughts on “Rabbit season, duck season, grant season

  1. Love it! Feeling much the same this year with my ECF. To spin all the hard work positively, at least our grant writing skills are improving, and it wasn’t as scary this year! Good luck!

  2. Pingback: The Number | The Flying PhD

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