When I participated in a live chat about grant-writing a few weeks ago, I was surprised at the widespread – and forcefully expressed – view that HE managers want academics to write reams of pointless grant applications which face inevitable rejection. So I was delighted last week to encounter a presentation by Phil Ward, Research Funding Manager at the University of Kent, that shows what we really want.
The presentation (the slides are available here) describes how the Grants Factory at Kent has produced a perfect storm of goodness. The numbers of RCUK grant awards won by Kent are rising while application numbers fall because success rates are going through the roof. They have more than doubled in the four years since the first Grants Factory was organised by Jacqueline Aldridge, who is now research manager at Kent Business School.
The basic principle of the Grants Factory is that experienced academics share their insights with junior colleagues in workshops, master-classes and mock panels. In the inaugural event in 2009, Jacqueline and I developed an approach to writing research grants that was designed to exploit the specific conditions under which funding decisions are made. We describe it in the book, The Research Funding Toolkit, published last year by Sage. More of how it works below.
Grants Factory masterclasses and workshops are designed to improve grant-writing skills but the effect they have on morale is probably just as important. Attendees learn how to respond to referees, write a ‘pathways to impact’ statement, or calculate a budget. They discover the intricacies of European funding or applying for fellowships. Attendees value what they learn but, more than that, they value the sense that they are being supported by their senior, more experienced colleagues.
The Grants Factory events with the biggest impact on attendees are mock panels. The mock panel teaches you that a research grant application is completely unlike any other piece of academic writing. Its task is to give a committee of people who are expert about, and interested in, other areas of research the confidence that your research is worth the money it will cost to do it. No matter how many times you tell somebody that fact, they don’t really get it. However, when they participate in a mock panel, they get it straight away.
A mock panel mimics the events of a grants’ committee at high speed. Panel members evaluate draft proposals written by each other. A senior academic, experienced in grants’ committee work, chairs the panel. Panellists discover how difficult it is to give a coherent explanation of what research an applicant will do, why it is important and what will be done with the results, on the basis of 30 minutes spent reading their proposal. The realisation that it is even more difficult for a colleague to explain what research you will do after reading your proposal is truly a lightbulb moment.
Once the lightbulb goes on and people realise how hard it is to write a good grant proposal they become eager for the research funding toolkit. Tools in the toolkit help them to write a document that can be speed-read, that is easy to read completely, that is memorable and easy to reconstruct. There are also tools that will convince a grants’ committee of the four propositions: importance (of the research problem), success (of the proposed research project), value (of the project) and competence (of the research team). Phil Ward’s presentation contains a brilliantly witty pictorial exposition of the main tools and is worth viewing for that alone.
For me though, the best is kept till last. Success rates for RCUK grant applications at Kent have increased from 15% to 35%. Fewer grant applications are being submitted and more grants are being won. That was my dream when I started the first grants factory and that is what HE managers really want!