How I assess a funding application: Part 2 – feasibility

Sea of Wisdom temple (Beijing) by Jonathan O’Donnell (on Flickr)

The previous post in this series addressed the issue of how I assess track-records on grant applications. It talked about a range of X-factors that I look for when assessing applications with (typically) excellent research CVs.

This post focuses on project feasibility and whether the project sounds like it’s going to work.

On one level, it’s a dead obvious question: Can the project be done?

It is, however, an aspect that depends entirely on the evidence presented in the application that:

  1. The team (or individual) is good and experienced;
  2. The budget’s credible and appropriately linked to a methodology that has integrity; and
  3. The project itself has significant intellectual rigour and vigour.

One of the trickiest balancing acts that I find with grant applications is demonstrating innovation and creativity in your research without sacrificing feasibility.

This can sometimes boil down to a question of ‘do you have a Plan A and Plan B?’. If we’re talking about the honest face of research, we’d have to admit that things don’t always work. The project direction that’s so assiduously planned may go awry in the first six months when the research team implodes or the data doesn’t do what you’d like it to. Research is often exploratory, which introduces doubt about what its real final outcomes might be.

If you were being completely honest, you’d have to say that the project may not work.

What you have to do with a grant application, though, is assuage readers’ concerns on that front. You need to present a tight, smooth, exciting project. Not something that has the potential to derail your GANTT chart or timeline.

Below are the particulars of how I assess the feasibility of a grant application:

1. The people

Yes, it’s very much about the quality of the team. Presume everyone’s track-record is as good as it needs to be, and on top of that, the team needs to demonstrate:

  • Project management experience,
  • An ideal skill/experience combination, and
  • Ideal institutional locations and access to project resources/equipment/samples.

If your team is really hot right now, the various researchers may already have grants and projects on their plates. Do they have the time to devote to this new one? Can they lead on three major projects at once?

Even though you’re telling me so in the application, I would be doubtful that you would be able to fit a lead role in a major project into one day a week with a small team, and definitely not if you’re a sole investigator.

Increasingly, assessors may drop by your institutional webpage or professional website so ensure these essential elements of your digital identity are up-to-date and accurate (if there’s a mismatch between your grant application CV and what you’re saying you’ve done on your webpage, it would give me pause).

2. The budget

Judging the feasibility of a budget is straightforward – have you accounted for all project costs appropriately? It needs to be closely and clearly aligned with the steps of your project methodology. Readers shouldn’t find costings for 100 interviews in the budget and wonder why they’re there. They should see it and connect it to Phase 3/Year 2 of the fieldwork (from which the data gets analysed in the next phase, generally, and presentations and publications to flow from there).

There’s a logic to budgets that readers expect to see. This is not where you get innovative! The budget is one of those things what won’t earn you X-factor points, but you can be sure it’ll lose you points if it’s not done well.

3. The project

I have to say that I usually make my decision about whether I want a project to be funded within the first five minutes with an application. The ‘feel’ of the document – momentum, clarity of framework and process, confidence with conveying the concepts and their relevance – comes through very quickly. A clumsy, waffly or arrogant style in the project description can kill an application.

One of my key triggers for wanting to nix an application is over-selling the team or project. For example: Leave the press’ name as a stand-alone. If it’s a classy publisher in academia, chances are that your assessor will know that. Don’t feel compelled to dress it up with a lead-in like “renowned international publisher”, “first-class” or “extremely prestigious”. I see those kinds of phrases and I’m annoyed because you’re either trying to sell me something that isn’t true, or you’re stating the obvious. It’s fine to give information about new or niche journals and presses that are doing interesting things, but leave the hyperbole out of it!

I automatically consider the outlined project plan AND timeline that’s allocated. Can you spend a weekend at the archives and come away with enough material for the mooted project? Can those in-depth interviews be done in 1.5 hours, back-to-back, in those separate cities with these timeframes? It’s not like I’m getting on the Internet to map the feasibility; instead, I’d be drawing on my own experiences with research and getting a feel for what looks right. You can probably glean from this that much of the grant application process is presenting the best face possible. Nowhere is this more evident than in the project timeline and budget, where the work must be neatly set out and smooth progression between stages is implied.

What to do when your timeline (or GANTT chart) misbehaves is another post altogether. For the purposes of this one: make sure there are no fuzzy or messy phases of research. You’re instilling confidence and persuading people to give you money, not inviting a critical discussion about what you intend to do.

Assessors will read your application critically, but they shouldn’t be coming away with major questions about how it will be carried out.

For me, feasibility is necessarily a fusion of all these elements. A stellar track-record and collaborative team effort will not overcome a weak and confused project outline. Similarly, an exciting and convincing project cannot win with a mediocre team with no history of working together, or a dodgy budget.

Remember, to quote Mark Bisby again, grant applications aren’t a test, they’re a contest.

At the ‘fund-able’ end of the scale, there are a pack of fantastic projects and teams. You’ve got an in if you can demonstrate excellence on all fronts. But I’m only one assessor, and others may prioritise different things and bring their own research biases to the process.

Have you assessed grant applications? Do you have make or break elements that you look for?

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