The research grant system is competitive, and always has been, but you actually have more control and chance for success than you think, according to grant-writing expert Robert Porter.
Porter explained to researchers attending a recent grant-writing workshop that, overall, funding proposals have roughly a 20 to 30 per cent chance of being funded.
But when you look closely at the numbers, he says, some 60 per cent of applications are rejected on first reading because the proposal did not match the program’s goals and objectives or the person applying did not follow application instructions.
“It’s easy to be discouraged, but when you think about this particular data set, are you less discouraged?” he asked the crowd. “These things are easy to avoid.”
Porter, who is director of Research Development at the University of Tennessee, conducted a workshop at Brock last month focusing on strategies on how to create winning research proposals.
He began by contrasting academic writing - the “world of ideas” - with grant writing, which places a high emphasis on language that is easily understood by non-experts, talks about future actions, and uses persuasive, personal prose to “sell” ideas and convey excitement.
“The writing style and habits that make you successful as an academic are not quite the same set of writing skills that will make you successful as a grant writer,” he told workshop participants. “We have to break our writing habits and adopt a new set of writing skills.”
Using examples of comments made by actual reviewers and samples of past grant applications, Porter outlined a “12-step program” for researchers to follow when apply for grants.
Highlights of Porter’s presentation include:
• Before starting the process, flesh out the “problem” - an important need or issue that should be addressed, a gap between where we are now and where we could be, a limitation of current knowledge - and why the problem is important
• Make sure your proposal matches the funding agency’s priorities. “You want the reviewer to see right away that what you want to do is exactly what that sponsor wants to pay for.”
• Use clear, direct language in an “active” voice, avoiding jargon and acronyms. “If reviewers don’t understand what you’ve written, they don’t blame themselves - they get annoyed at you.”
• Allocate more time than you think you need to put your application together, so that you can consult with Brock’s research officers and get others to proofread your work.
Throughout the workshop, Porter stressed the need for a can-do attitude.
“Even the best grant writers are turned down more often than they’re successful,” he said. “When you’re turned down, you will be disappointed. But you can choose not to be discouraged.
“You have to develop a tough, competitive attitude. You have to say to yourself, ‘I’m going to stay in this game until I’m successful’.”
June’s workshop is part of a series of events that the Office of Research Services (ORS) hosts to support researchers with funding applications and other tasks.
In May, ORS held “Research Leadership Day” that opened with an overview of TriCouncil and other external grant application support. Following that, a panel - representing each agency and consisting of Jeffrey Atkinson (NSERC), Wendy Ward (CIHR) and Diane Dupont (SSHRC) - addressed the question “What happens to applications in the committee room?”
Break-out groups then discussed such issues as: how to diplomatically respond to feedback; how to write a winning Impact section; how to write a winning Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP) section; how to write a winning summary; how to write a winning budget and questions and answers about the Common CV (CCV) and Brock Peer Support.
“We have an incredibly talented pool of researchers and faculty,” Associate Vice-President Research Kevin Kee says. “The Office of Research Services and the Office of the Vice-President, Research are committed to easing the administrative burden placed on our faculty so that they can have the time to concentrate on what they do best: pursue cutting-edge research that makes a difference to the world around us.”
ORS also holds a yearly Research Celebration in February that includes posters and presentations highlighting the broad array of Brock University research.