Who will win?

Four colourful dragon boats on a lake in Nanjing.
Dragon boats, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In the last week, academics around Australia have been receiving referee reports from the Australian Research Council. Yesterday, I read just over 50 of these reports. Today I spoke to my boss about them. I said that, in general, I was happy with them. We talked about some specific applications and some specific comments in the assessments. Then, right at the end of the call, he asked me the question that I’d been dreading.

So, who do you think will win? What do you think our chances are?

Don’t ask me that. Please, don’t ask me that. In the same way that I can’t tell an academic if they’ll get the grant or not, I can’t tell my boss, out of all our applications, who will win. I can tell who got positive comments and who didn’t, which might allow you to make your own educated guess. I can tell you who, in my opinion, deserves to win. But I don’t pick winners. Here’s five good reasons why.

1. It’s just a guess

While I may appear to have data to work on, I don’t really. Yes, I have read all the applications. I knew them intimately back in March when they were submitted. Now, not so much. Yes, I have just read all the reports on those applications. I’ve gone through each one and carefully highlighted the negative points, the points that might kill an application. While that might seem like a lot of useful data, there are three very important things missing:

  • I don’t know what scores each application has received. In Australia, we get to see the assessor comments, but we don’t get to see their scores. Both scores and comments are taken into account.
  • I don’t know what the College of Experts thinks of the applications. Since their opinion counts for 50% of the overall score, that’s a fairly important consideration.
  • I don’t know what the competition is like. That is, I haven’t read all the other applications that are vying for funding. Given that our applications are, by definition, a skewed sample, that seems to be a big hole in the data.

So, in fact, I have precious little data to go on. If I picked winners, I would just be guessing. You wouldn’t want me to guess, would you?

2. It serves no purpose

While it may seem to be a fun little exercise, it actually serves no purpose. I’m happy to work out who should apply. I’d be glad to talk about who is at what stage of their research career, who needs mentoring, and who should be the Lead CI. All of those things are useful topics of conversation. All of them are useful things to discuss and plan. We can have some effect in all of those areas. We have no power over pending applications. Pending applications are out of our control. It doesn’t matter what we say – it will make no difference to the final outcome. We can’t plan in a space we don’t control. Whatever you do, don’t use my personal opinions as planning data. Don’t say, “So, we might get three or four then.” That sets up an expectation. It is too easy for that phrase to slip into an email, which someone else then adds to a document, which makes its way into a plan. Before you know it, we have a target of “3-4 successful grants in the Blah-blah Scheme”. That’s not planning. That’s professional suicide.

3. It is a secret

You are asking me to have a conversation with you that I would never have with the applicants. While sometimes it is necessary to keep secrets, for the most part they just skew relationships and lead to disappointment. I want to talk to you about things that I can talk to other staff about. Even when, for reasons of professional confidentiality, I can’t talk to others, I still want to feel that they would be happy with the topic of conversation. I want to be proud of what I do, and part of that is feeling that I am working in an open and honest way. I don’t think anyone would be happy to know that I was guessing who might win, for no good purpose.

4. I don’t care

This may sound strange, but I don’t really care who will win. OK, that’s not quite true. I have my favourites, and I know who I think deserves to win, but I try to maintain a sense of professional detachment. I have to give every applicant the best advice and assistance that I can. So, I try hard not to play favourites. I don’t care if you were an arrogant applicant who didn’t listen to a word I said when you wrote your application. The rejoinders are in and now it is time to work together again, to do the best we can. Whether I like you personally or I would never want to have a drink with you outside work, I don’t care. Or more accurately, I care equally. Which leads me to my final point.

5. It is a betrayal

Most importantly, it feels like a betrayal. While we don’t have enough information to predict who might win, we can make an educated guess of who will lose. While a good rejoinder can do a lot to push an application over the line, it can’t do everything. If the assessments are bad enough, then there probably isn’t much that the rejoinder can do to help. So, really, you are asking me:

Who will lose?

I don’t want to go there. I really don’t. Over the next two weeks, I’m going to work hard with these applicants. It will be close, concentrated work helping them to write and rewrite their rejoinders. I’ll provide them with support and encouragement, give them advice, and it’ll be honest advice. To do that, I need to believe that they can win. And I do. I believe that all my applications can win. Despite all evidence. Despite experience. Don’t ask me to betray that belief. Don’t ask me who can win. For me, right now, they all can.

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