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

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.


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. 

Take the Money in the Bag

An all too regular research dog show is coming up to the technical rehearsals right about now. Academics all over the place are checking final outfits, getting a pooch pedicure and making sure their particular project canine looks good from every angle, even the not so palatable ones. It’s competitive grant season and everyone is hoping to be best in show (or just in the show).

An extraordinary amount of time and effort goes into it and there’s much at stake (careers, for example). There’s plenty at stake for universities too. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone pitched up with a big oversized sports bag stuffed with money? No strings attached. Just because they like the look of you. Of course, maybe sometime you’d like to catch up for coffee.  Talk about things that interest you both. People that look like their pets, maybe. Shaving your stomach just the right way to avoid belly button lint. Or maybe some research on vitamins.

“You’ll Feel Better”

How independent is your independence? That’s at the heart of the story relating to La Trobe University’s deal to partner up with Swisse Wellness, purveyors of quality vitamin supplements for all your placebo needs. The announcement of a deal whereby Swisse would hand over $15 million to La Trobe so they can set up a Complementary Medicine Evidence Centre caused quite a stir, particularly as the highly principled Associate Professor Ken Harvey promptly handed in his resignation.

La Trobe insists independence is part of the deal. As it would seem the idea is that they will exclusively research products from the chief funder, that is an interesting perspective (using ‘interesting’ in the same sense that I would if confronted with a child named Bizarre Honeyclucks Achocha on an operating list). The mess of this is covered well by Michael Vagg here.

It seems a particularly poor choice in this setting, with Swisse Wellness being particularly notable for its tangles with the TGA and excellent labelling tricks as covered by ‘The Checkout’ (that’s a vid). Perhaps if Swisse were looking to fund a media and marketing studies centre, people would feel that was a more appropriate relationship. They could share tips from their experience (‘Did you know that “You’ll feel better on Swisse” sells better than “Your cognitive dissonance will be supported by the placebo effect of our largely ineffectual supplements that mostly contain stuff already in your diet”?’) Perhaps they could do research exploring examples of correlation vs causation when it comes to sporting performance and signing on as a Swisse ambassador (Lleyton Hewitt, anyone? Ricky Ponting? Oh wait, James O’Connor! Oh, I see).

However, as much as that agreement appears to smell like fish sauce left to percolate in the sun with bat guano, a real discussion about engagement with industry is needed in research circles.

Will La Trobe engineering now be entering funded research to check if boxes of crystals in cars really do realign the molecules in the vehicle? [via beaterblog.com]

Will La Trobe engineering now be starting funded research to check if boxes of crystals in cars really do realign the molecules in the vehicle? [via beaterblog.com]

Oz Research and Industry

Accepting money from industry to fund research can have consequences. As covered in a post here, research funded by a company is immediately given a quality downgrade in medical fields. For the PhD project, the company we’re purchasing the monitoring system from initially asked if we were looking for support (the answer being no, we’re paying for everything outright and retaining independence was part of that).

At the same time, lack of engagement with industry is an issue that has been identified by the Chief Scientist and the Business Council of Australia. For a country that has a reputation for good research, getting that work translated into something that industry will run with appears to be the jump in the steeplechase that makes the runners crash. How to get around this? I could only come up with a couple of seeds to throw into the wind:

1. Engage During Training

If a PhD or Masters is part of a process of learning how to research, shouldn’t that involve learning how to engage with industry? People working in different but potentially related fields are still going to speak different languages, or at least different dialects. How do young researchers get a sense of what industry is after without exposure being part of the learning process?

2. Embedding Researchers in Industry

In a discussion kicked off while Sam Askin was running the @realscientists account, comments were passed about the fact that people with a PhD background aren’t necessarily prized by businesses. A combination of perceived cost, perceived nerdiness of those types and general misunderstanding between the two “camps” was the theme. Surely a PhD indicates that you’re capable of taking on a big project and working away at it consistently while learning?

Promoting the value of those with a research background to business should be core business for universities. In a landscape where there aren’t necessarily enough academic jobs, surely Unis should promote the value of PhDs to business so that those considering going down that path can see it may pay off in a variety of ways in the long term. More people from a research background within businesses would then help both sides understand what needs and skills exist at both ends of the schoolyard.

3. Incentives for Engagement with Industry

The current funding systems within Uni grants aren’t all well geared to supporting engagement with industry. This is covered in a bit more detail here. It seems obvious that having systems which don’t encourage academics to spend more time working with industry are a bit counterproductive.

Most researchers would probably like to see their work get out there to influence the lives of people. Industry will often be needed for that. There is no value in accepting dirty money. There is no need for a bongo circle under a full moon to promote bonding. But there is a need for a bit of thinking.

Monkey Grant Writing Tips

It becomes apparent not far into research that there are an awful lot of other researchers on the metaphorical street corner with a very eloquent sandwich board trying to raise money for their excellent idea. The jostling for the best position to catch the generous plutocrat is most intense in the lead up to grant deadlines, particularly big competitive grants (typically those funded by government or very large trusts).

The super novice PhD student may find themselves squaring up to the grant system bully (described as a bully because of the issues with success rates and failure covered here and here). That time has come for this project. There are probably many ways to approach this problem. However as I do not have the resources, access to living things or animal ethics clearance to set 1000 monkeys working on typewriters for an adequate period of time to produce the greatest grant application ever, I went and sought help.

For no other reasons than it has been a while since I gratuitously included photos of animals that amuse me, and because I’ve made the segue already, I share the grant writing tips I have now gleaned with the assistance of photogenic primates.

1. Ask for Help

Obviously I did. As a total novice previously working mostly clinically, I needed the input from someone who knew how to present a grant application. In this case, the university offered the assistance of a writer who specialises in helping people do this. I’m guessing this is available wherever you are.

Now part of me expected that the interaction might just be me turning up to provide said expert the chance to point and laugh at me for an insanely long period of time (cue mental image of Homer’s TV laughing at him). It did not turn out like that. He was very encouraging and saved me an awful lot of wasted time by redirecting me on some key formatting and presentation points.

There are friendly types ready to help. [via new scientist.com]

There are friendly types ready to help. [via new scientist.com]

2. Don’t Make Reviewers Work

This falls into the category of “I don’t even take my own advice”. Every time I’m helping with exam preparations for training doctors,  one of the first things I mention is that your job is to try and make the examiner work as little as possible. The less they have to struggle and strain to see if you are actually going to give the answer they’re looking for, the better for the exam candidate. Viewed from the examiner’s point of view, they have lots and lots of candidates to assess and the harder they’re working to understand what you’re on about, the less they get to focus on all the excellent bits. And I didn’t even translate that to doing a grant application. Idiot.

Take away inspirational desktop calendar quote for this one – “Communication takes work. If you don’t do it, they have to. Nobody wants to do your work for you.”

You want to avoid a reviewer feeling like this. [via andrew-hook.blogspot.com]

You want to avoid a reviewer feeling like this. [via andrew-hook.blogspot.com]

3. Make It Pretty Right From The Start

Following on from this point, you want to lay out all the reasons your project is excellent extremely quickly. The ideal introduction should mean that a first-time reader knows exactly what the problem that needs to be explored is (the problem), what this project does to set out on that expedition (the aims) and what fantastic stuff might come out of it (the vision). The reviewer needs to finish those first few lines saying “well this is worth reading”. All previous grant applications I’ve done have suffered from not being direct enough.

This tip also highlights how useful it is to have someone read it who has never heard of the project (even better if they don’t work in the field directly). All my other grant attempts have been aided by the other guys in the team. This is good, but because we all know the project we have probably missed bits that lack clarity for the first-time reader. It’s too easy for us to join the abstract dots because we know what the picture ends up looking like.

At least look you tried with your hair. [via Wikipedia] [What? Don't look at me like that]

First impressions count. [via bingfotos.blogspot.com]

4. Get the Team Listing Right

The way the team is presented has to achieve a couple of aims:

* Demonstrate you can do it.

* Demonstrate why everyone is essential (and why they fit together).

For my particular project this is the biggest challenge. As much as it’s a project I have to drive, my total absence of research cred means any application proposing me as the most central person is doomed to fail. The project is very much clinical, but the most experienced clinically hasn’t done their publishing and research in the university space. So those in the team who have extensive research experience and have obviously overseen big ,valuable research will be featured right up there too. People like me might well be listed only as “associates” or have lots of caveats about junior status inserted. 

Following on from this, to the casual reader it wasn’t clear enough from my draft how each individual fitted in to achieve the goals. This is of course easier to explain when you’ve made the aims of the project clear up front, along with what is required to achieve those aims.

Unlike here, the smallest member of the team isn't necessarily the cutest for the outside observer. [via thesun.co.uk]

Unlike here, the smallest member of the team isn’t necessarily the cutest for the outside observer. [via thesun.co.uk]

5. There Will Be Work

I went in recalling that there was talk of such a grant application needing 5 weeks of work for the full-time researcher.

My guide today tells me it’s about 42 days of work.

I am sure there is some appropriate philosophical point about the virtues of hard work and suffering but there is too much of me trying to deny the size of this particular task to reach too hard for it.

Yes, red eyes are part of the future. [via Wikipedia] [What? Don't look at me like that]

Yes, red eyes are part of the future. [via Wikipedia] [What? Don’t look at me like that]

 So within the eyes of monkeys lies the way forward. Though not exhaustive as a list (and open to improvement by anyone else), it will guide my next attempts with the typewriter before I return to the grant zoo.

The Fred Flintstone Future

The Australian Research Council announced a fresh round of funding today and there’d be a few researchers having a drink or two. Or more. It’s probably not a barnstorming viking-inspired reboot of Valhalla’s greatest carousing though because many good researchers missed out. As a novice researcher looking on from the sidelines for this round, it’s depressing.

Today’s announcements (with a success rate of about 15% for Future Fellowships) come hot on the heels of the NHMRC announcements with project grant success rate dropping to 16.9% (7% for the newbies). Things look pretty grim for those looking to submit to the NHMRC for the first time next year (me, amongst others).

Still, the new government is saying lots of pretty words about supporting research. So things are looking up, right?

Judgment Day

The new government in Australia didn’t set up a free love party for scientists in the fire pit upon taking office (covered here). Since then there’s been reassuring noises about extending the terms of grants from 3 to 5 years (more on that below) and an exhortation from the PM to forget about the absence of  a Science Minister and “judge us by our performance, not by our titles“.

OK, let’s do that. During the election campaign, announcements were made that peer reviewed grants of “ridiculous” projects would be rejected to potentially save more than $100 million and that $42 million would be cut from NICTA (they only do minor things like help build the bionic eye).

The overall funding of NHMRC project grants dropped in value. Announcements for the ARC Future Fellowships were delayed for so long that researchers who could have otherwise got on with actual research needed to devote hundreds more hours applying for next years’ rounds to avoid unemployment.

There’s the wholehearted support for climate change science. The sort of support you can only demonstrate by disbanding independent authorities reporting and exploring it, denying the decades of research done by climate scientists linking the change in the environment to increased background risk of bush fires, failing to bother modelling your proposed approach to tackle the problem and taking the science so seriously that no ministers are going to tackle the issue in the latest international talks.

Then today the announcement that public service hiring freezes will threaten up to 1400 jobs at the CSIRO (more than 10% of the total planned cuts to the public service). Of course, the CSIRO doesn’t do much, right? Oh, except the stuff listed here:

It's not even a full list. [via @ketanjoshi and @dr_krystal]

It’s not even a full list. [via @ArghJoshi and @dr_krystal]

I think it’s fair to say that if this is the government providing all the support to make science the vehicle of a bright and innovative future then it could best be likened to this super car…

Who is Fred and who is Barney? [via content.time.com]

Who is Fred and who is Barney? [via content.time.com]

… with termites added.

But The Good Stuff Gets Funded…

Well yes, good stuff does get funded. Excellent stuff doesn’t get funded though. In the NHMRC round, 55% of the project grant submissions were felt worthy of funding on peer review, but were awarded zero money.

Need an example? Here’s one excellent bit of work published recently in PLOSOne (wow, Dr Rachel Dunlop) showing how algal toxins might be associated with motor neurone disease. This work is amazing in so many ways. It’s a genuinely new step along the way in decades of work. It is the result of international collaboration. It might show the path to producing treatments for this debilitating disease.

They are struggling to get funding. Where’s the room for funding of blue sky stuff that might lead to amazing innovations when teams like this will be forced to sell cookies to strangers to try and raise funds?


Obviously there’d be lots of solutions on offer, right? Well I’m not certain but surely a few responses to ensure funding for big items are needed:

1. Better Government Funding

Announcing 5 year grants instead of 3 year grants doesn’t cut it. In fact, unless it’s backed up with more funding it’s going to shred future research. Adding 5 year terms without significantly enhancing funding levels and particularly programs for early career researchers just means more money will be tied up with people who’ve been doing it for years, while junior researchers are used to write papers (or sew leather elbow patches on Professor’s jackets or something) and eventually spat out by a system with no future (HT @MVEG001 and @whereisdaz for the Profzi link).

So increase the cycle for some grants, but only if you’re going to build a road that early researchers can actually tread.

2. Improve the Current Allocations

A review by the NHMRC is due next year. They are apparently considering a variety of options including permanently open submissions. It’s a watch this space situation but you can only hope they shake things up substantially.

Other suggestions are floating about and bear at least some thinking about. Take, for example the suggestion that it should all be left to a formula. Worth interrogation, although maybe adding modifications to encourage newer researchers and anyone, anywhere who might choose to research somewhere other than a big university would be a way of opening up new avenues.

3. Novel Options

While philanthropy could do with a boost in Australia, more interesting would be investment vehicles that allow direct engagement of the public with research funding (covered here) such as social investment bonds. Where’s the Australian examples of places like this, providing opportunities for innovators to find investors?

4. Some Leadership Please

You know what happens when the Australian car industry feels threatened in a manner similar to an 8 year old receiving a gentle suggestion they might stop breast feeding? They come out swinging.

What happens when research funding is under threat? The head of the NHMRC tells junior researchers they should give up and look elsewhere.


If research is going to be constantly under threat of being eaten, maybe we should aim to not roll over and take it, but be a little more like this porcupine.

The time has probably come to take the government’s words of support as an oasis teasing thirsty researchers wandering deliriously in the funding desert. As a baby researcher, the only real option is to start looking for a different camel to ride into civilisation.

The Flying PhD Guide to Grant Failure

If the life lessons learned from reality TV mean anything, and they’d better given how many use these shows as life guides, then through the fire of failure comes redemption and meaningful success. The narrative of the hero being tortured by a poorly risen soufflé or undersheened macaroon only to earn their place in successful society with a superior pannacotta comes from a dog-eared script. Even this reality TV star failed last time around.

In the attempt to gain grant funding for this research, I’ve put together 6 grant applications so far. 3 have been decided and we’re a perfect 0 for 3. I guess that means I am approaching reality TV promised land. Given this good fortune, I feel a certain sense of duty to share my secrets of glorious grant failure so that all may enjoy the experience. Of course, none of the funding groups has provided feedback, so all I can share is what I’ve done. Here are the tips that seem to have worked for me in this personal crusade to reach the discard pile.

The model sun = the total funding pool. The planets = the chance of  success for a researcher. The planet at the left would be someone with more chance than the writer. [via bobs-spaces-net]

The model sun = the total funding pool. The planets = the chance of success for a researcher. The planet at the left would be someone with more chance than the writer. [via bobs-spaces-net]

1. Be the Work Experience Kid

The last thing you want to be if you’re going to fail is experienced at research. Researchers who are successful with grant applications tend to be beyond the early researcher stage. In fact, the average age of first success in schemes like the NIH have been climbing for a while now. So first step, apply when you have pretty much zero games in the league. The more you’re like the annoying research work experience kid still fetching misplaced lunch orders the better.

2. Do Other Stuff For A While

It probably looks really good when you’ve demonstrated steady progress through a field of scientific endeavour. That might jeopardise your chance of failure, so what you really want to do is spend about a decade getting other qualifications for non-research related work. Doing a medical specialty for example. It’s probably just as much of an issue for those who take time out to have kids or look after other people. It may be just one of the challenges that has led to success rates for women making applications being lower (which warrants a much larger discussion). While processes are there to allow mitigation for gaps, it’s unclear to me how well they’re working.

3. Work in a Little Field

Everyone wants to fund the cure for cancer. Trying for a grant in a relatively niche area, like prehospital health care, involving things that sound not that serious, like helicopters, might just bump up your chance of failure. Or maybe choose an obscure genetic disease with a vanishingly low incidence to focus on. That would probably do it too. The more the field is in a niche, the less likely the reviewer will be able to understand the full scope of what you’re doing.

4. Be a Novice

Along the same lines as point 2, you don’t want to come with a track record. Early career researchers have success rates of less than 20% (take the ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards as an example). You can drive this lower. Having other grants already in play and lots of related publications is the stuff of pros and might jeopardise your chances of cathartic failure. From personal experience, a total of 5 publications and no grants is a good starting point.

5. Be a Bit Left Field Too

Being in a little field might not be enough. Trying to look at something that doesn’t have lots of preceding literature, like noninvasive prehospital brain monitoring, might just give the impression that it’s an area no one else wants to look at. Extra implausibility points always help.

6. Work Outside the Established System

Obviously you’re probably going to have some sort of linkage to a Uni or established research group. If you can nest your research within an organisation that doesn’t fit that description, your lack of reputation is only reinforced. If you can make it a charity where previous research has been funded successfully through alternate means leading to no grant history, this is an extra bonus. That way, not only is your chance of failure enhanced, you get to feel that you risk bankrupting the charity*. The self-flagellation adds to the bitterness. Excellent.

7. Be a Part-Timer

Knowing that a researcher is going to work full time on the project you’re funding must make it easier to back them. Being a part-timer plants the useful idea in the reviewers’ head that you’re actually some sort of uncommitted wheatgrass-chugging hippie with other agendas that may distract. It’s an obvious differentiation point.

7. Actually,  Just be a Researcher

The brutal truth is none of the above may be the issue. Grant monies have a limit, and really good research teams miss out. When they miss the big national competitive grants, they have to hit the smaller Foundation grants. This only enhances the failure rate of the novice researcher flaunting all the attributes above. Even all the measures taken to try and address any imbalances can’t entirely make up for the high number of applications vs the actual number funded. It’s not that reviewers are trying to thwart good research. They’re just stuck with reality and the need to differentiate. The landscape isn’t likely to change without substantial increases in funding either.

With overall success rates of about 20% for major grant projects, research funding applications are going to involve failure at least some of the time. This is actually one of the things I’ve already learnt from the PhD. Having said that, even saying that you can learn from the failure is a sentiment with more mole whiskers than a hormonal bridge troll. I’ve no doubt there’s some really excellent researchers who get knocked back just enough to necessitate vacating the field of endeavour. The question is how many times can perseverance overcome the setback?

At the moment, it certainly feeds the Impostor Syndrome. Perhaps I should take it as positive feedback on that front – “We write to take the chance to validate your thinking … we also don’t think you belong here.”  At least I’ll be super-resilient if I burn the toast.

* To be clear, my charity has survived for more than 25 years. They’re way too bright to actually let me jeopardise anything and are extremely clever at making things happen. It’s one of the reasons I love working for them.

Failure Fetish and Research

There is  a pernicious evil that takes over at night. It gnaws at the brains of innocent people innocently filling up the witching hours. It is the infomercial. Most annoyingly, the hours now spread out so that at almost any time an infomercial can be found seeking to sell the latest hair removal  product to the nearly hairless.

The version I hate the most is the one peddling a self-help solution. The one with a scripted interview between someone who was almost a journalist at some point and a set of teeth speaking on behalf of a haircut attached to a person. The one where they stitch together various insights gleaned from the fortune cookies at a particularly lavish yum cha and package them into a motivational “life rejuvenation handbook”.

A Confession

Embarrassingly I caught one of these briefly the other night where the interviewer was asking the teeth about failure. The glib lines started spilling forth – “Failure is your greatest opportunity!” “The only failure is in not failing enough!” [Insert appropriate Sideshow Bob grumble-mutter right here].

I’ve seen this a bit when reading around tips and insights for research. Not the really extreme version, but still a healthy amount of “embracing failure” self-help infested advice. My problem is that occasionally this extends to the point where failure is celebrated as the key achievement one can aspire to.  There is a world of difference between accepting that failure is this thing that happens sometimes and teaches a lesson or two and making a fetish of it. And lest it be forgotten, there are occasions where it’s not that clear if the big fail has really driven a key life lesson home.

Not so visible to the wearer that they'd actually get it, of course. [Picked up via Buzzfeed]

Not so visible to the wearer that they’d actually get it, of course. [Picked up via Buzzfeed]

Too often this nuance is lost although this spot gets it, if not the header, around the mark.

Shiny New Failure

The other thing that brought on this failure thinking was my latest personal fail. This time it is on the grant front. I’ve just been through the immense joy of providing responses to some foundation grant reviewers. I’m not necessarily calling the grant response a fail but the tenor of the comments from the reviewers of the original project was not encouraging.

Were I to paraphrase the responses they would look like:

Reviewer 1: This is quite a big project. Do you really think you’re the person for the job?

Reviewer 2: This is an interesting project that should be contemplated, but in that contemplation I would do every single element of it differently.

(Sidenote: I’ve heard the word “interesting” used way too much in hospitals to disguise genuine thoughts to take it at face value – like when prospective parents indicate the name of their child will be “Abserdee” spelt “A-B-C-D-E” and the midwife responds by describing this as “Interesting”.)

At that point, there was a part of me thinking any rebuttal was likely to be a waste of time. Then I sat down and wrote a response. That response then went to my co-investigators. Some of those co-investigators have had serious grant success before, and have the sort of background that makes me wonder why they speak to me at all instead of getting on with revolutionary stuff. Those guys then gave me a 3 day masterclass in actually writing a proper reply. So I might have kept just this side of making failure useful.

At the end of this, I still feel a little like this guy …

This aardvark invites open scrutiny of their latest project [via flickr]

This critter invites open scrutiny of a current project [via flickr]

but I guess I’m hoping that I’ve learnt lessons that will help me out when I get to the national competitive grants and get to take on the formidable odds against success with the NHMRC cycle (see an earlier bit on this here). Or I guess I could get some dental work and hit an infomercial channel.