Will I get the grant?

“Dear research whisperer,

Before I start thinking about my next grant, I just wanted to get your gut feeling for what you think is going to happen with the application that I put in this year. Any thoughts?”

Dear applicant

Counting stacks of chinese currency
‘After the Heist’ by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

That is the hardest question that I face in my job, and one that I always resist answering. It comes in many forms: researchers want to know whether they will win the grant; administrators want to know whether they will meet targets; and bosses want to put hard numbers into workplans.

I know that some other research whisperers like to predict who will be successful and who won’t, but I don’t play that game. I like your application. I think that it is really strong. However, as Mark Bisby (former VP Research for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) puts it, “It’s not a test, it’s a contest” (we love that quote). It doesn’t matter how strong your application is if the opposition is stronger.  We have no control over the relative strength of the opposition.

More than that, I don’t believe that I have enough data to make a confident prediction. If I can’t make a confident prediction, then I am guessing.  Personally, I don’t believe that guessing is a valid planning tool.

I don’t have enough data because there are so many external factors influencing the competition that I can’t predict or influence.

You’ve applied for the ARC Linkage scheme. [This is an Australian research funding scheme that requires matching funds from external partners – Ed.] Here are some of the external factors that might influence that scheme this year. This should give you some idea why I don’t like to guess.

  • Changes in the university landscape: The overall number of applications should continue to rise as universities put more pressure on academics to write more applications. More applications means more competition.
  • Changes in the economy: The overall number of applications may be down because the economy is in a bad way and so partner organisations are less willing to ‘risk’ money on research projects.  In Australia’s case, however, we seem to have escaped the worst of the effects worldwide, so that may not apply here.
  • Local political changes: The overall number of applications may be slightly down because Victoria and Queensland had a change of State governments just before the closing date, so anyone relying on those governments to be partners would have had a hard time getting signatures.
  • Changes in the scheme itself: The overall number of applications may be slightly down because the Australian Research Council (ARC) introduced a new requirement that every external organisation needed a Partner Investigator as well, and some people may have had trouble signing up their partners. I don’t believe this, though. Our university was able to get all of our partners organised, so I don’t see why everybody else couldn’t, too.
  • Changes within the funding body: The ARC may have ripped a bunch of money out of this particular scheme to fund the new Industrial Transformation Research Program (ITRP), or there could have been other internal pressures on the overall funding envelope.
  • Changes within the funding landscape: The ARC doesn’t expect to get any new money into the system in the current funding climate. The head of the ARC said as much in November 2012. That means that, no matter how many excellent applications they receive, they cannot increase the funding envelope.
  • National political events: There will be an election in Australia this year. This won’t change the overall chances of success, but it will almost certainly mean that the announcement of results will be delayed. The ARC cannot announce results until they are signed off by the Minister. The government doesn’t make any major decisions once an election is called. So, if the Minister hasn’t signed off before the election is called, the ARC are stuck in limbo until the election is finished and they have a Minister who can sign off.
  • National political changes: There may be a change of government. This shouldn’t really effect things too much, except to add delay while the new government sorts out its ministry.  People are always a bit nervous that the new government might make sweeping changes and, even though I don’t think this will happen, it makes everybody a bit jittery. The minister does technically have the right to refuse to sign of on one or all of the grants put forward for funding.

If I were to make a prediction about your application, I wouldn’t know what I was talking about.  That wouldn’t be fair on you, or on me.

Sorry that I couldn’t be of assistance this time.

Research Whisperer


  1. I got an invitation to review two ARC Discoveries tonight, one of which I had to reject because I have a current discovery app in with one of the applicants (who clearly has 2 applications in). Hmmm, think that might qualify as a conflict of interest….


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