This diagram shows the flow of applications during a recent development round for a major government funding scheme. If you are in the US, think ‘National Science Foundation’. In the Commonwealth, think of a major Research Council funding scheme.
Have a look at Team 23, right down in the bottom right-hand corner of the chart. They started their bid at the very last minute. They didn’t make it to submission. They were late. Really late! “Why are you putting in this application” late.
I hate applications like that. Here’s why.
First of all, I (or my boss) will just say ‘no’ to applicants trying to submit this late in the process. Actually, we will start by saying “How about this other scheme?” or “Perhaps next year.” If you persist, we’ll move to the ‘N’-word.
“No, you are too late.”
“No, you cannot write a competitive application in this time frame.”
“No, we will not support your application going forward.”
We don’t like saying ‘no’. We understand that the application is important to you, but sometimes it is our job to say “No”. We won’t sign off on something that isn’t compliant and competitive. We don’t see how you can develop a competitive, compliant application in the time allowed.
A difficult conversation will ensue (actually, more than one). You need to convince us that the application must go ahead. Given that we’ve already said “not this year”, you need to convince us that it needs to go ahead right now, in this funding round. That probably means that you need to bring some pressure to bear. You will need to convince your Center Director or Department Head to intercede on your behalf. So you don’t just need to convince us, you need to convince your own boss, too.
Those conversations take time. Precious, precious time. They also take a surprising amount of energy. You are doing two things at once – trying to draft an application and trying to convince the university that it should go ahead. You are calling in favours, chewing through good-will. It had better be worth it.
This means that you are already starting on the back-foot. Rather than having me as an ally, I begin as your opponent. You need to convince me that this is a worthwhile endeavor, that you have the resources to do this, and that your reason for being late is actually reasonable. Because there is always a reason. From your point of view, that reason will always be worthwhile. You wouldn’t have come to me if it wasn’t a special case. But something that sounds reasonable to you probably doesn’t sound reasonable to me. Not at this stage of the proceedings.
Sometimes, you will be successful. Even at the eleventh hour, we will sometimes say ‘yes’. Either the opportunity will be so good that we can’t pass it up, or the pressure bought to bear will be irresistible (usually the latter). Either way, we will say “Yes, let’s do this.”
Actually, in my mind, what I am really saying is ‘maybe’. Maybe you can pull this off. Maybe it will be worth it.
I can’t really say ‘yes’ to you because I have already said ‘yes’ to other people. I’ve got a dozen teams racing towards the same deadline. I said ‘yes’ to them months ago, and I’ve been working with them over that time. I’m committed to them, and I want to make sure that they make it to the line, that their applications are competitive as possible. I can’t abandon them. They deserve all my attention.
But I can’t give them that attention anymore. Now I need to totally devote my attention to you, to your application. In very short order, I need to review your drafts. I need to pull your budget together. I need to run around, on your behalf, gathering the paperwork for your team – CVs, signatures, the myriad bits of administriva that go into a major grant application. I need to format your application, to squeeze it down to the allowable limit. In extreme cases, I might even be drafting some bits of the application for you.
I’m don’t want to do this. I don’t have the subject-matter expertise to do it properly. You are the expert, but you are too busy forming your team, planning the project, drafting the methods section. You are too busy actually writing the application.
You only have one task – to get this application over the line. You’ve ruthlessly shoved aside your other work, pruned your family life to the absolute minimum and said goodbye to sleep. You are in a terribly unhealthy place, channeling clarity and single-minded determination. It might be exciting, but it takes its toll.
You might feel like I’m a co-conspirator, that I’m there with you. I’m talking to you daily, sometimes hourly, about different aspects of the project. I’m working hard on your behalf. I’m helping.
But I’m not with you. Not really. Even though I’m devoting enormous energy to your application, I can’t shove my other work aside. My other work is people just like you – people who are desperately trying to get their application across the line. The only difference is that they did the right thing. They started early. I can’t abandon them. They deserve my attention much more than you do. So I’m working on their applications in the evenings and the mornings. I’m getting up early and staying up late. I’m losing sleep, too. But I won’t sacrifice my home life for you. Never!
Which brings me to the main difference between you and those other applicants. I’m not angry with them – they did the right thing. I’m incandescent with rage at you. You’ve made my life hell. You’ll never know it – I’m too professional for that, and I’m excellent at sublimating my anger, too. But it is there, burning.
Just in time
In the end, we will get your application across the line. Just. You’ll have harassed your colleagues to death. I’ll have called in favours from the central research office, on your behalf. They won’t be happy either. Everybody will be exhausted. And it will show.
Your application might be complete and complaint. With a bit of luck, it might even be competitive. But it won’t be polished. There will a lurking fear that we uploaded the wrong version, didn’t check the budget properly, or missed a glaring typo in the first paragraph.
Your application will be submitted; it will be ‘in’. But it won’t shine – it will be a dull thing. And that will show. When your assessments come back, there will be comments like “This application seems rushed” or “These mistakes indicate a lack of care on the part of the researchers”. You can’t really respond to comments like that. They sit there, eating away at your probability of success, and there is nothing you can really say. Because they will be true.
Behind the scenes
When you do this – when you bring an application to me at the last minute – keep this in mind. I run two or three of these development programs at once. So it isn’t just the other teams in your scheme that suffer. There are other people who are right in the middle of developing their applications for a different scheme, and others who are just starting out for a third. They suffer, too.
So when I say to you, “I don’t think that you should do this”, please listen. Listen for the good of your application. Listen for the good of your colleagues who are writing other applications. And listen for me. Listen to what I’m really saying – “Not again!”
Also note the number of groups who submit an EOI early (30 week lead-in? Really?! Wow.), but switch to NFA quite late in the game. If 8 weeks is still a reasonable time frame for planning, then as many Teams submit as don’t. Which means there are 50% of grants that no longer need to get across the line. What factors control that? What happens to change their minds? Is this drop-out rate factored into resourcing? (PS. I’m NOT advocating a late decision to submit – that’s nutso).
I run a six to nine month development program when we can, depending on the importance of the scheme. However, a lot of the early work is just about getting people started, clarifying their idea and getting
This chart doesn’t tell the whole story – I’ve simplified it a bit. From memory, the batch of EoIs that came in week 13 were a response to: (a) the results coming out and people finding that they had not been successful (the resubmissions); and (b) the scheme being in the news.
The EoIs that are coming in the last eight weeks are a real concern to me. I’m happy to entertain a good idea from an experienced researcher at that stage, but it is a lot of work for everybody to get it over the line. Sometimes people have been working on something and haven’t told me, but more often than not they have just decided to have a go.
The No Further Actions (NFAs) often disappear much earlier than indicated, but don’t get recorded as such because they don’t talk to me. I tend to keep them on the list, and then purge them once they start missing internal draft submission deadlines. It is always nice when someone is up-front and says “I’ve decided not to go ahead with this,” but most don’t.
This round, we put some extra resources into supporting the applicants. This meant that they were under more scrutiny, too. Sometimes the best support that you can give someone is to say, “You aren’t going to win this”. So some people withdrew when they realised that they weren’t as strong as they hoped that they were. Others just got busy with stuff, and couldn’t give the application the time that it deserved. There are lots of different reasons why people stop working on an application.
Generally they don’t just drop it entirely (although some do). Ideally, most people are putting it aside for next round, or looking at a different funding scheme. However, they don’t always come back to it. Next year becomes forever. The new funding source doesn’t eventuate. Or the idea mutates into something quite different.
Resourcing is based on helping as many people as we can. Add more resources and we can help more people. Take resources away and we do less. Simple as that.
Great post! My office’s policy with regards to proposals we hear about at the last minute is to always hit “submit.” Sometimes, that means sending in things we aren’t proud of (and the PI isn’t really proud of, frankly), but if the PI wants it submitted, we will do our best. I was told my first day that the “only fire-able offense in this office is refusing to submit a proposal for any reason.”
But, of course, I agree with you about never sacrificing home life or sanity for the sake of someone who sends me something at the last moment – I will devote more time and energy to those who informed me of their proposal in advance. You are so right, that is only fair.
I’m always concerned that ‘submit everything’ will eventually result in a backlash from the funding agencies – introducing quotas or limits that mean that we have to rank applications before they are submitted, or limiting the number we can submit.
In Australia, we are already seeing that with the philanthropic funding agencies. Many of them have a ‘one application per organisation’ rule. From there point of view, this means a smaller number of more focused applications. From our point of view, it means having to run a mini-grant round within the university to decide who gets to apply. Internal politics comes into play and the pre-submission timelines get longer and longer. I don’t like it.
I’d prefer to cull weak applications before submission though choice, rather than have a ranking or culling system enforced from above.
Then again, I think that you are from the US, and I know that different countries work very differently.
Hi Jonathan –
We do, certainly, work differently – though we are definitely seeing an uptick in private foundations requesting that only one application be submitted per institution. (And yes, internal competitions are a total pain!!)
I also know the research offices of the institution I formerly worked for kept track of proposals submitted/funded ratios, compared them with other universities, and presented them to faculty as part of a general recommendation to not submit weak proposals. But still, the attitude that reigns is: “Might as well submit.” I think as federal funding declines here in the US (which is already has dramatically, given the current political climate), that attitude might change. We will see…
This is a really great post, articulates the challenges faced by research office staff. I do think it is important to say ‘no’ sometimes although it happens only rarely. Generally I have only said no when you know the funder requires that we ‘demand manage’ proposals so if the quality isn’t good enough or the proposal comes too late I may reject it and suggest putting it forward to other funding streams. The other reason for rejection I have used is when the PI clearly isn’t a credible project lead for the funder/call concerned. I have always suggested other routes to funding in these cases though.
Thanks for articulating what we all think sometimes!
Yes, a weak project leader or a weak team is always a concern. I find it very hard to judge, sometimes.
I always try to suggest other funding possibilities, but that doesn’t always work. I think I’m not as good with my follow-up as I’d like to be. If I’m going to push someone towards another funding scheme, I should give them just as much support as they would have got to develop their original application. But usually I have my plate full with a particular scheme, and it doesn’t happen as well as I would like.
Moving to a case-based support structure, rather than a scheme-based support structure, might help. But then you lose some efficiency that come with walking everybody through the same scheme at the same time. It isn’t something that I’ve solved yet.
Yes, judging whether a project leader is weak or not can be challenging, and can lead to a difficult conversation. Thankfully this has normally happened earlier in the grant development process though. Agreed that finding other opportunities is not always easy and if I can’t then I tend to push the project back, ask them to develop the proposal further (even if only generically) or focus on other areas of their profile first (networks, publications etc.). This usually is a beneficial discussion but can be problematic.
The scheme based support structure is interesting and not something I have done much (perhaps more so when I was at Warwick, a larger institution). I tend to work more on a case-based support structure but I now work with three smaller institutions and applications to schemes tend to only result in one or two applications so the pressure is not as great.
Given the scheme based approach you take how do the one off grants that might be very specific for a particular individual fit in to the work plan? Perhaps it is just a matter of juggling?
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For all the PI’s out there, please do keep this in mind, it can only strengthen the chances of success. There are always exceptions to any rule but springing applications upon support staff late i the day does nobody any favours. 🙂
The submitted / funded ratio annoys me because it is such a weak measure. Unfortunately, it is the only one we’ve got for comparisons between institutions. Within my College, I’ve started to move to a $ requested / $ funded ratio. Mostly, this is because 5 grants worth $10,000 each aren’t as valuable as 1 grant worth $75,000. Measuring raw numbers of applications and grants doesn’t show that.
I was also hoping that the percentage granted could be an indicator of quality of the application, on the basis that highly ranked grants don’t get their budgets cut as much as those that just squeak over the line. Unfortunately, it turns out that isn’t true. A very highly ranked grant can get 40% of its budget cut.
In the end, for each grant, I guess the only measure of quality is ‘did it get funded’. It isn’t a scale, it is a switch.
We pick up ad-hoc or one-off applications as they come in. Scheme-based rounds are really only for those schemes where we know we will get more than a handful of applications, year after year.
I don’t think that we have the balance right yet. We tend to concentrate on the big schemes, which favour established researchers, at the expense of less-experienced academics who could pick up valuable funds, and experience, from less conventional sources.