We have a problem: writing the second part of the case for support.

This post is about writing the section of the case for support that convinces the reader that the research project you propose to do is really important and deserves to be supported with a grant. In the book, we call this the ‘We have a problem’ section because its task is to define and to establish the importance of the problem that will be solved by your proposed research project.  It is the second most important part of the case for support and it should be no more than 30% of the total length of the case for support.

Almost every funding agency gives the ‘We have a Problem’ section a different name. Some specify more than one section that should contain components of this section. Here are the  section-numbers and names specified by several of the UK research councils:-

  • 1 Importance (MRC)
  • 2 Research questions (ESRC)
  • 1 Research Questions / 2 Research Context (AHRC)
  • 2.1 Topic and context / 2.2 Past and current work on Topic (BBSRC)
  • 2 Background / 3 Academic Impact / 3 Research Hypotheses and Objectives (EPSRC)
  • 2.1 Rationale / 2.2 Objectives (NERC)

The most important point to remember is this. The function of the ‘we have a problem’ section is to prime the reader so that when they read the description of the research project they will think that it needs to be done because we need to know what it will discover. Thus, although this section will be read before the description of the research project, its content and structure  are completely dictated by the research project.

In my last post I  recommended that, while writing the description of the research project, you should compile a list of the discoveries you will make in the research project and a list of the research competences that you and your team will need in order to carry out the research project. If you haven’t already compiled these two lists you should compile them now because you will need to use them in order to write the ‘we have a problem’ section.

The ‘we have a problem’ section will typically consist of five subsections. Four of them are ‘we need to know’ subsections. Their task is to convince the reader that we need to make each of the discoveries that will be made by the sub-projects in your research project. Typically there will be four discoveries in the list you compiled while writing the description of the project. For each discovery you need to write a ‘we need to know’ subsection, a few paragraphs that define the sub-problem that will be solved by that discovery and justify its importance.

In writing each of these sub-sections you should cite literature to make the point that the sub-problem needs to be solved. You should not cite literature just to impress the reader with your erudition. They don’t care. The only thing they care about is whether your research project needs to be done.

You should also cite, and carefully refute, any literature that appears to contradict your position. You cannot ignore it. The expert referees will probably have read it.

It’s also worth citing your own work on the issue, even if it is merely confirmatory. This allows you to demonstrate that you can use the research techniques needed for the project. You should be honest about the status of your work. It is much better to say “we have confirmed X’s finding using the techniques we shall use in the research project” than to  suggest that you made the finding. Consider the possibility that X might referee your application.

If, for any of the discoveries you expect to make, you cannot write a convincing ‘we need to know’ subsection this means that one of your sub-projects is going to discover something that we don’t need to know.  Nobody will fund research that discovers things we don’t need to know, so you have to get rid of that sub-project. You need to edit the description of the research project. Delete that sub-project. Replace it with a sub-project that will make a discovery that you can justify.

Once you have written sub-sections that convince the reader that all the discoveries that will be made by your research project are things that we need to know, you can write the final sub-section. This is the introductory subsection. It starts by stating the overall research problem. You need to express the research problem in such a way that it incorporates all the sub-problems that you have justified. Then you need to justify your project by saying why it is important to solve the research problem.

Typically there are two kinds of justification for solving a research problem. I call them the ‘giant leap forward’, and the ‘bad stuff is happening’.

The ‘giant leap forward’ justification argues that solving the research problem will take your research field forward. It has the advantage that in order to support it all you need is a comprehensive understanding of your field and how it is developing. It has the disadvantage that researchers from outside your field may disagree with you about how important it is to take that leap forward.

The ‘bad stuff is happening’ justification is common in the medical and social sciences. The argument is that something bad is happening – such as people suffering from a disease, or lives being blighted by a social problem – and solving the research problem will give information that will make it possible to prevent the disease or solve the social problem. It has the advantage that the evidence to justify your research is the stories about the bad stuff, which are in the real world. It has the disadvantage that people may not believe that you will get the information needed to cure the disease or solve the social problem.

It is also important to bear in mind that the ‘bad stuff is happening’ justification has the implication that you will need to show in your description of your research project that you will disseminate the information you gather in a way that will lead to the real-world problem being solved. The ‘giant leap forward’ justification has no such implication: publication in journals will be deemed to be sufficient to ensure that the project achieves its maximum benefit.

In my next post I shall explain how you can ensure that the two sections of the case for support you have written will allow you to write the last section of the case for support just by cutting and pasting.

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