What Is Your Research Worth?

(The Scholar by Renee Ann Wirick (Away))

Yesterday I sat with 15 other academics as we went through 20 research grant proposals for the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). We spent between seven and eight hours discussing the merits and demerits of the proposals. It was exhausting but worthwhile.

For obvious reasons of confidentiality I can't go into detail about the proposals themselves. I belong to Panel A which covers law, history, theology, and philosophy. It's a wide remit. We are expected to read and decide on all the proposals from our constituent disciplines and then rank order them.

The process is thorough. You, the applicant, write your proposal which your institution approves. Your proposal must cover the research context, the questions, the importance of the research, the methods you will be using, your dissemination plan, and the expected impact of your findings. In addition you must mention who you are and how you will manage the project.

All the research councils limit how much you can actually write in the proposal and this can make the writing more difficult as you have to cut and pare until you have the absolute kernel.

In many ways it's no different from writing an article. It takes as long, requires as much background research to compose, and there's no guarantee you will be rewarded/published. But you have to do it because universities pressure their academics to apply. External funding for them means some relief on internal resources, and it's kudos for you.

So once your baby has been weaned from the page and submitted the funder swings into action. The AHRC selects three reviewers who critique your lovingly composed proposal under similar headings to those you used to write it. When the reviewers are finished, you get a redacted version of their comments to which you respond. In this way, if you are lucky, you get to fill in any gaps and expand beyond that original word limit.

As well as critiquing you the reviewers score you on a scale of 1 (unfundable) to 6 (outstanding). Assuming your proposal has scored well it will go to the panel for moderation.

We, the panel, get to read everything: the proposal, the reviews, your response, and the scores. In preparation for the meeting we prepare introductions for the others. These introductions draw out the distinctions between the reviewers and tell how you have responded to their criticisms.

It's not easy to do. Some reviewers are laudatory while others are highly critical. This can result in a range of scores. One proposal had scores of 3, 4, 6. Our discussion is influenced by how you respond to the reviewers. And it's fair to say that often you will focus on the most critical.

Trying to answer the reviewers does take some balance from you because the others will also have queries they want answering and you must take account of them, not just the critic.

What the panel wants to read from you is a factual response. They don't want to see you take umbrage and get snarky back at the reviewers. It happens. The problem is that academia is composed of small worlds as David Lodge has clearly described. Even though the reviewers are anonymous, you may be able to identify them in their reviews. If you do (or don't), try not take it personally. Just because you think your proposal is stellar and groundbreaking and landmark research, not everyone else will.

We saw all of this yesterday. The other tactic you may employ is that of avoidance or evasion. If the reviewer has spotted something of substance that needs fixing, don't pretend it wasn't mentioned. We look for how you deal with these things. And avoidance doesn't go well with the panel. We want to see what steps you will take or have already taken.

Another aspect of this is if there are a group of you applying for a grant, your research must be coherent and fit together. There's no point in coming up with your favourite topics and trying to bundle them together under a common set of aims and objectives (What do these mean, for god's sake? It's like job and person specifications: you want to say "As long as they breathe...") We see through that.

Surprisingly for the humanities some of the research proposed contains very sophisticated technical issues which have to be properly integrated. The AHRC obtains technical reviews and they can be harsh. And you have to respond to those as well.

As we go through our roster of proposals--we have a very short break for lunch--we start to rank them. We're using the same 1 to 6 scale except we start to refine it by introducing decimals. Yesterday we went to two decimal places to complete our ranking.

At the end we're exhausted, relieved, and satisfied because I believe we tried hard to be fair and reasonable. After all, we know our own research will be on the receiving end soon. But I'm afraid that is not the end because there are financial constraints and so not every good proposal gets funded.

If I were to draw any conclusions they would be simple. The truly outstanding proposals stood out. They were intellectually exciting; they were trying to engage with new ideas. They were coherent and well structured. They gave us the context and the research questions complete with a methodology for how they would answer them.

They made sure that the progress of the research could be tracked and measured. They had milestones and/or advisers who would review progress. They made sure that they were asking for the right amounts of money. Were all these trips to the other side of the world necessary? They made certain that each investigator played a strong role in the project and hadn't been inserted to get some clout.

They thought about how they would publish their results. It could be books, articles, papers, workshops, blogs, websites, seminars for policy makers, newspaper articles and so on. How does your research relate to the world around you?

Research proposals take time and effort and if you are successful your VC will be happy, you will have time to do what you want, and you will make a mark. So don't rush it, get help, make sure your university research office is on top of their brief. If not bug them; they're being paid to help.

And then you can start the next one....


John Flood said…
A colleague of mine, Avis Whyte, said: "Down to decimal points! It really is an intense process." So very true!
John Flood said…
Another colleague, Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, also commented: "thanks John - very helpful - and funny, a la John :-)"
recorta said…
*phew* It's exhausting on all sides, isn't it? This is really interesting to read for someone on the other side of the table, though.
John Flood said…
recorta, we do it because we want to but it doesn't make it any easier...