Recently I’ve been involved in some fascinating exercises in allocating large dollops of institutional funds for research (can’t give any more details, sorry). This has involved reviewing and discussing dozens of applications from different academics. Here’s a quick download of what I learned about the art of writing winning applications:
Mixed methods rock: Quants and quals seem to have a really hard time talking to each other, but proposals that manage to integrate the two (genuinely, rather than have entirely separate processes) go down well.
You need serious impact plans: a surprising number of proposals still seem to think that once the research is done, you publish in a couple of journals, organize a seminar or two, and it’s job done. If you want research to actually have an impact, you need to try a bit harder – think about who you are trying to influence, when they might be most interested in listening to you, perhaps involve them in the governance of the project (see ODI’s RAPID programme for more on this).
A bit of innovation really helps: Yes, using mobiles either in data gathering or dissemination still gets brownie points, but not all innovation has to be tech-based – I have seen a roomful of profs and luminaries gurgling with delight because a proposal has included street theatre among its dissemination plans.
Make sure the Principal Investigator is not just a figurehead: The PI leads the project, but an alarming number of proposals reckon he/she can do that on a couple of hours a week. Not usually very convincing.
Have a clear research question or hypothesis to test: seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly rare to get a really clear crisp hypothesis with a good explanation of how the research proposes to test it.
Don’t be greedy: If the application range is £100,000 to £300,000, don’t automatically stick in for £300,000 – it’s more credible if the budget gets to £275,000. But if you do, think about value for money (as funders increasingly do). If the day rate for your researchers is at the top of the range, then reviewers start to get irritated.
Don’t be tokenistic about involving southern researchers: reviewers notice if the ‘capacity building’ element is not much more than employing a lot of African PhDs to do data collection at bargain basement rates. You need clear evidence of ownership by local universities in both research design, and dissemination.
The topic matters as well as the research: panels like research on new/sexy issues, as well as well-designed research processes.
How you respond to referees matters: most proposals are sent out for review and the anonymised comments sent to the applicants. Take the comments seriously – if you just dismiss them, or question the reviewer’s credibility, it makes you look brittle and unconvincing. But yes, they can be very annoying, so if you suffer from ‘reviewer rage’, read the referee’s comments, then walk away for a day or so before replying……..
Finally, remember you are writing for a mixed audience: you may have specialist referees who like nothing better than a pointy-headed exchange, but there will also be generalists like me in the room, so make sure you tell us important stuff like what’s new in your proposal and why it matters, preferably in a language approaching English.
Any other do’s and don’ts from reviewers our there?