Avoiding First Impressions

When you write stuff to put out in the broader world of the net everyone knows you don’t read the comments. For that way madness lies.

The same rules don’t entirely apply to the rest of life. If your doctor has constructive feedback on your health, you might want to listen. When your lawyer has timely comments, you should probably take it on board. Presenting at work? You probably shouldn’t finish by putting on the headphones and listening to sick beats.

Researchers get the same reality dealt out every time a grant comes around. Don’t read the comments? What a shining dream.

The one thing you can do is not go with your first impressions. The thing with first impressions is that they are frequently unkind. And if you’ve decided to go down the grant route (and with local success rates heading to 10% or so, some have given up) you have to get past that.

Still, there’s at least a little bit of you that needs to take a few minutes to vent the things you’d really say, before you do the editing. Because the comments always seem the same on first impression.

Sample Comment 1: “Why did you not choose to do your methodology in all of the following ways that if I had read your proposal in any detail I would have realised you have already included in your methodology?”

Really? You read it? [By Orzel and via www.birds-club.deviantart.com]

Really? You read it, right? [By Orzel and via http://www.birds-club.deviantart.com]

First response:

“Do you like that Escher guy? You know that genius who made all those artworks specially designed for the front of fridges where things go around and around in circles and you don’t know where it begins and ends or where the fish become birds? I don’t know why but your comment made my brain hurt just like that.”

The edited response:

“Assessor 1 has some suggestions for methodology suitable to address the key aims. We agree that many of these are highly suitable and point to our similar methodology on proposal pages …”

Sample Comment 2: This project addresses an entirely novel and innovative concept. Do the researchers have preliminary data establishing the role of this technique?

You know my ears used to stand up before I started reading this. [via www.socialphy.com]

You know my ears used to stand up before I started reading this question. [via http://www.socialphy.com]

First response:

“To be honest you’ve hit on the real project we’re working on in the shed out the back. What we’re actually working on is the DeLorean from Back to the Future. That way, once we sort the flux capacitor, it would make sense to suggest that it would be easier to get this grant money to develop preliminary data if we had already procured the preliminary data for which we’re seeking the grant money.”

Edited response:

“This project will deliver the initial data to enable future high value research as outlined in the proposal on page 9, paragraph 4.”

Sample Comment 3: This technology is unproven in the clinical context as it is unknown if it correlates with underlying pathology in a reliable manner. The proposal is for prospective blinded research. Wouldn’t it be better to just let clinicians treat using this technology?

Imagine this is a photo of me in a vast wasteland representing your insight. I am exactly this impressed. [via www.thefw.com]

Imagine this is a photo of me in a vast wasteland representing your insight. I am exactly this impressed. [via http://www.thefw.com]

First response:

“You had me at ‘the technology isn’t proven yet’. But then you suggested we should send this device out as some sort of random number generator out to clinicians and just let them have a swing at treating patients in the absence of any guidance as to what those numbers might actually mean or what changing them might do. And at that point I was distracted by the sound of an ethics fairy sawing off its own wings with piano wire and now I don’t know what to say.”

Edited response:

“This project will establish reliable associations between the information provided by this technology and the clinical condition of patients. While this will facilitate future research to directly influence treatments, it is too early to take this step.”

Sample Comment 4: This team has a range of clinicians mixed in with the team which is valuable to the project. It is noted that those members of the team do not have significant publication profiles.

Don't underestimate how much I want to use this flipper claws on you. [via www.cbc.ca]

Don’t underestimate how much I want to use these flipper claws on you. [via http://www.cbc.ca]

First response:

“I have this dream where I’m riding a magnificent uni-turtle (I call it a uni-turtle because it’s sort of like a turtle but it has a single horn) and the weird bit is that I’ve never seen the uni-turtle before but it has my Mum’s name tattooed on its little tail. Do you have dreams? Wait, I know you have dreams because you’re obviously thinking of a magical land where people can work full-time looking after patients to get to the point where they usefully contribute practical knowledge to stuff like this, while also churning out the same number of publications as a full-time researcher.”

Edited response:

“Each member of the team contributes unique skills to ensure this project can be completed.”


Time and Reality

The thing is you don’t want to say any of these for another reason. Once you get past the first impression, the assessors usually have a point. My (very) limited experience is that the quality of the comments usually reflects the proposal. The assessors mostly seem to take their work pretty seriously. There’s a point to the review and they have to report.

And at times when we put more and more time in with less hope of success, you do your best to answer the comments in the 2 pages you get.

But at least for one day you can enjoy the idea of all the things you wish you could say.



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 Gentle Art of Talking Back

In the researcher’s understanding of the classics, it is evident that Dante must have written ‘The Divine Comedy’ as an allegory for grantfest. Including the bit with the guy eating another guy’s head. It is a long and arduous road with its own stories of fear, famine and pestilence. I am told that occasionally one glimpses the promised land of Monopoly money funding. Unfortunately for many this sighting is too late in the piece.

The value of a grant is made even higher by the drawn out courtship. After that initial application comes the opportunity to respond to the reviewers you are hoping understand all your brilliance in a way you yourself would question. Each grant obviously has a particular method of incorporating feedback and rebuttals which you need to understand carefully but some of the elements are pretty common. Rebuttals also require a particular approach to the writing, in much the same way as you adjust your writing for any other particular niche.

I’ve had the chance to do this a few times now, including twice in the last month. While internet tradition would suggest that puts me in a position to claim expertise, I actually think it’s more honest to share thoughts from clever people that I went to in an attempt to get trained in how to do this. The first port of call was the senior researchers I’m working with who  have done this lots of times. The other was the writing guide provided by the university, written by a guy who gets paid to help people with grant applications (and I guess he would be out of a job if no one was having success).

So here are the amalgamated thoughts of clever people. Plus random animals (all via the free options at National Geographic).

The First Thoughts

1. Don’t Jump In

Depending on exactly what is said there is a pretty good chance that at least one reviewer will make you mad. Writing the rebuttal will only take longer if you have to clean up the bloodied spleen you vent on a first draft. Take a while, and come back to reading it objectively when some time has passed. The key thing while doing that reading is to take note of every individual query raised by the reviewers. Take particular note of anything raised by more than one reviewer as those ones will need extra space.

Don’t run at it like this otter.

2. Don’t Embrace Change

Unless explicitly stated, rebuttal is not the best time to choose to make big changes to the protocol or study plan. Change in this context isn’t a transformative moment in self-enlightenment. It’s taken as a sign of a research team not ready to research. Keep the response entirely to the questions asked.

Leave change to caterpillars.

Leave change to caterpillars in Borneo.

3. Make it Count

Most rebuttals allow very little space. The NHMRC Project Grant rebuttal process, as an example, allows 2 pages maximum. So every word has to count. No waffle and don’t try to divert or evade (they can see you). Get straight to the point. Definitely don’t waste space on giving any sort of overview of your research (they have the application for that). The advice is not to waste words saying “thanks, I’m your greatest fan”.

It is also important to make sure you devote as much space responding to a comment as it warrants, but no more. Where a point has been raised by more than one reviewer you will want to address it comprehensively. The same is true if a particular query entirely threatens your chances.  Of course, too much on a point and it may look like you’re overly defensive. Figuring out the balance point might require input from your colleagues (or, even better, some people with an opinion you value who aren’t doing the project but are happy to read). This also means there will be lots of editing so allow plenty of time to write those couple of pages.

You only get one chance to provide your best display, so make it count like this Royal Amazonian Flycatcher.

You only get one chance to provide your best display, so make it count like this Royal Amazonian Flycatcher.

4. Make it Easy

People reviewing grants put a lot of work in. Everything you can do to make it easier to navigate between your rebuttal, the grant application and the reviewer’s comments. So for each answer, make it very clear which particular comment from which particular reviewer you are responding to. If you refer back to your application make sure you include directions to get there (at the minimum a page reference). Quickly paraphrasing the reviewer’s comment may help anyone reading the rebuttal understand the heart of the issue too. The idea seems to be that less work figuring out what you’re actually talking about means more time spent thinking about your witty (yet respectful) riposte .

Aim to be the one doing the pulling, not them.

Aim for you to be the one doing the pulling, not the reviewers.

5. Don’t Bite

You may think one or all of the reviewers display all the intelligence of a lobotomised dung beetle. You may wonder how they safely navigate the challenge of breathing, chewing and standing up all at once. Giving any sense of this would be … a brave tactic. More likely the reviewer is an intelligent life form who happens to have a different perspective on your proposal. So the advice given to me was to genuinely engage with their different view as objectively as possible. This doesn’t mean you can’t challenge an assertion from a reviewer. Just do so without baring teeth.

Lining up for a bite may not be your best angle. Not sure it is for this Cape Fur Seal either.

Lining up for a bite may not show off  your best side. Not sure it does for this Cape Fur Seal either.

6. Don’t Encourage Fights

You may have reviewers with differing opinions. All you can do is address the queries you need to. If you seek to rebut assessor 1 by pointing out words from assessor 2, there are only messy moments ahead.

All you can do is step back and get on with it.

All you can do is step back in the presence of differing opinions and get on with it.

7. The ‘Who Knows’ Basket

There are things no one seems to agree on.  My uni advice was not to quote or paraphrase positive comments at the start. My colleagues (some of whom have had lots of success with grants) thought a couple at the start if you have the space highlights the strong stuff. I went with their advice. Stay tuned for feedback on whether this was brilliant advice or not at a later date.

8. Structure

Coherent structure helps with making the rebuttal easy to read (we’re coming around on point 4 a little here). The two suggestions I was given were:

1. Respond to each matter in turn raised by each assessor (for example, first heading is “Assessor 1” with subheadings of “Scientific Quality”, “Significance and Innovation” etc).

2. Respond to issues raised and include an answer for any or all examiners who commented on that issue.

The former is certainly straight forward. The latter deals a little better with questions raised by more than one reviewer. It also probably provides more space to deal with any questions needing a more expansive response. In the end, I combined elements of both. It seems like the most useful thing is to make sure the structure of the response is clear, rather than a muddy bog anyone else reading it has to schlurp their boots through.

If flamingos can make themselves look organised, I figure I can pull it off.

If flamingos can make themselves look organised, I figure I can pull it off.

So there it is. Understand the questions, demur politely and keep it brief.

Is it the perfect recipe? I don’t really know, but I’d be keen to hear clever suggestions from other people. Ultimately money talks so I’ll get back to you on whether the mix was just right. You’ll know if I’m smiling like this guy.


I assume this parrotfish was happy with his grant success.

I assume this parrotfish was happy with his grant success.


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. 

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.