Psst. Wanna know a secret? This one weird trick will let you read other people’s grant applications, even before they are funded. Not only that, you get to decide who gets the money.
And it won’t cost you a cent.
The most effective way to do that is to actually become an assessor for a granting agency. Actually, I recommend that you put your hand up for two – one in your home country and one overseas.
Write better applications
Grant applications are a particular genre of academic writing. They are carefully structured documents that provide detailed plans for the future. They require information that never appears in other sorts of academic writing, such as budgets, CVs, and Gantt charts.
They look forward, when most other academic writing looks back at work that has already been done.
We don’t write them very often and we don’t read them very often. Compare the number of articles that you’ve read recently to the number of grant applications you’ve read ever.
By reading more grant applications, you will learn to write better grant applications. You’ll see what sort of evidence impresses you and what style of writing engages you. You’ll see what enrages you, too, when an otherwise good application contains obvious gaps or someone submits drivel.
Not only that, it will help you to place your own work in context. If you can see how other people position their work, it will help you to position yours.
Strengthen your research
That won’t just help you to write better a grant application, it strengthens your research overall. In the same way that reading a brilliant journal article inspires us to greater heights, reading a brilliant grant application can help us to think about our own research in new ways.
We learn to do research from the people around us – mentors, PhD students, colleagues. This is our ‘research environment’, as the Australian Research Council calls it. We also get comfortable within that environment.
Reviewing excellent grant applications can provide you with a clear challenge – something to compete against, to aspire to – that will improve your own research because it moves you beyond the comfort of a familiar environment.
Help to make the decisions
When you review an application, you are required to read it, then give clear, considered, and balanced feedback (and scores, usually). The process requires you to reflect on the application and write down what is good and what is bad about it.
Reflective writing is an excellent way to learn. You may even use it in your own classes. It’s like someone has designed the perfect way to teach grant application writing. There’s even a rubric.
Demystify the process
Of course, you’ll probably review grant applications the same way that your undergraduate students do their assignments – in a rush, just before the deadline, without as much consideration as you would like.
Even that experience is valuable. Knowing how tired, rushed, and grumpy you are when get your reviews in gives you a clear insight into the context of how your own applications will be (or are being) read.
More than that, being an assessor can help to demystify one of the key elements of granting process. It will give you a much better sense of how the funding agency works and what the competition looks like. That is gold!
Do it overseas
That is one of the reasons that I recommend that people assess for their own country and for another country. You will get a clear view of how funding works in a completely different system. That means that you can start to generalise, and understand the underlying rules and processes. That is, you can start to understand how funding works generally, rather than only how it works for the national funding agency that you usually apply to.
Just as we get comfortable in our own research environments, we get the feel for the level of competition in our own country. We know where the strengths and weaknesses in our field are, and who the major players are. By reviewing applications from another country, you’ll be exposed to a completely different level of competition. That can be a salutary lesson.
For this reason, most government funding agencies welcome international assessors. They bring a different point of view, and are somewhat divorced from the local politics, which can be helpful.
You might choose a country that you’ve spent some time in, or that you hope to go to in the future. You might pick a country that your ancestors came from, or that you have no connection to at all. It doesn’t matter – just pick somewhere and write to their main funding agency. You can usually find the right contact person by searching for [assessor, reviewer, referee, <name of the funding agency>, contact] and then looking for the area that represents your discipline.
Give something back
In addition to all that you learn, you will have the satisfaction of giving something back, of being a part of the larger whole. Single-blind funding review doesn’t work without the efforts of all the assessors. It is a big task that always seems to come when you are frantically busy, and requires a tight turn-around time. Doing it right requires concentration and tact. It isn’t easy.
But it is important. Vitally important. Most granting agencies are receiving more and more applications. People are likening it to the tragedy of the commons. However, the commons were a fixed resource. Grant assessment isn’t. If we can get enough people into the game, then we can continue to spread the load. The centre can hold.
This may help to forestall other options, such as universities being required to limit their number of applications, or more extreme measures.
Update your profile
With most funding bodies, if you have received funding, then you are automatically added to the pool of potential reviewers. However, you still need to do some work to make yourself a useful as an assessor. You need to keep your profile up to date.
Generally, there is a part of your profile on the funding system where you can describe yourself. It might ask for keywords, a short description of your area, or even a CV.
Please fill out this profile and keep it up to date. You may have filled it out when you put in your first application. How long ago was that? Have you ever reviewed it? It might be five to ten years out of date by now. Go and have a look, see what the funding agency thinks you do. It might surprise you.
It might also explain why so many of the applications that you are asked to review don’t fit your research area.
Put a process in place
If you are a lab or centre director, or a university research whisperer, make sure that you know the processes for registering your staff to be assessors.
Conduct regular subscriber drives for your centre, school, department, or university. Have an annual process to encourage people to update their profiles. You want more of your staff involved in the decision-making process, so this makes sense.
The process for registering staff varies across different funding agencies. Most work with universities to ensure that they get good quality assessors. This can often miss international assessors, which is why I’ve suggested that individuals might contact funding agencies in other countries directly.
At the institutional level, don’t forget to invite honorary and emeritus fellows to be assessors. There might be overseas academics who have part-time appointments with your university. There might be industry people who are on advisory boards who would make good assessors. All of these people can help to widen the pool.
Keep in mind that, even if staff are registered as assessors, they may not be picked. The funding agencies have a responsibility to choose the best, most experienced assessors that they can. They take that responsibility very seriously. So, if staff are relatively new to the game, they may be passed over for people with more experience.
However, I can tell you one thing for sure. If you haven’t stuck your hand up, they won’t pick you at all.