When grants were handwritten

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role.

I couldn’t actually be in Edinburgh, so my main contributions was a personal reflection on the last 30 years of research administration, and how the technology has changed. This is an expanded version of that talk.

1987: Thirty years ago

A grant application form from 1987, for the Australian Research Grants Scheme
1987: note the ‘Office use only’ boxes, where we could hand write the file number.

Thirty years ago, I began my career in research administration working for one of Australia’s national funding agencies, the Australian Research Grants Committee. I spent a lot of time on the telephone, talking to universities because, at that time, there was no effective email between government departments and the universities. I also spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the photocopier, as everything was delivered on paper.

Here is an exercise for you: imagine all the major grant applications that you submitted this year, printed out eight times each (I think we asked for eight copies of each application). Then think about the logistics involved in getting them physically transported to the funding agency on time. Today? We just push a button.

The year that I worked there was the last year of the Australian Research Grants Committee. In the next year, Don Aitken transformed it into the funding organisation that Australian researchers know today, the Australian Research Council. It was part of wider democratisation of the Australian university system

1992: Twenty-five years ago

Fast-forward five years and I’m working for the central research office at RMIT University, a university that I’ve worked at, on and off, ever since. On my first day, my first boss Lorraine Bridger pointed to a big black cable and said, “See that cable? That’s the Internet. Learn what it does and tell us all about it.” I feel like I’m still learning.

This was the period when the World Wide Web was invented. I rode that wave, learning as much as I could. I was fascinated. The idea that we could talk to anyone in the world for free (if you ignore trillions of dollars worth of telecommunications infrastructure) was revolutionary. The main effect on our research administration work, though, was really to slow things down. It wasn’t actually useful for anything at that stage – some academics didn’t know how to use email, for example, and there were no reliable search engines as we understand them today. It was just amazing! Any new staff member would disappear down the Internet rabbit hole for a month or more, and (as far as I was concerned) that was fine. Given that the whole of the research office consisted of six or seven people (now it has that many Directors, each with a staff of their own), it meant that we didn’t get as much done as we could have.

1998: Twenty years ago

Sunrise Research Laboratory logo: a smiling yellow sun on a blue sky

Twenty years ago, I was working for the Sunrise Research Laboratory. Sunrise was bought to the university to run a ‘laptops at university’ program. It gave laptops to staff, to see what university life would be like if you carried your computer with you all the time. I guess now we know.

Front page of an ARC progress report, with neat handwritten entries.
Handwritten progress report, and postal address.

Twenty years ago, it seems it was acceptable to handwrite the progress report for your grant. We would never do that now. Actually, we CAN’T because there is no paper form to fill out. Note that this form also has the postal address, so that the university (or the researcher) could submit the report by post. We were still deeply committed to paper.

Around this time, mobile phones are becoming socially acceptable. I wouldn’t get one for another year or two; I was a late adopter.

2008: Ten years ago

Front page of an ARC grant application, with 77 pages handwritten on the front.
Seventy seven pages, all carefully counted and noted on the front cover.

Ten years ago, we are still carefully counting all the physical pages, and handwriting the number on the front of the application. So much paper!

By this time, I’m completely comfortable with my mobile phone. I’ve discovered just how much work I can get done between meetings, when I’m walking across campus. I’m still wasn’t using a smart phone, though. That wouldn’t come until later. The iPhone was released in the USA in 2007, in Australian in 2008. I remember thinking, when I played with it for the first time, “This changes everything”. And it did. But, again, I wasn’t an early adopter.

2011: Seven years ago

Seven years ago, my colleague Tseen Khoo and I started the Research Whisperer blog, Twitter account and Facebook page. We started to put our research administration practices out to the public, via social media. This has been enormously beneficial to us – we’ve learnt so much. Nowadays, if I have a question, I go straight to Twitter.

Over the last seven years, we’ve built up a decent community. We generally get over 20,000 views a month on the blog, we have over 35,000 followers on Twitter and over 8,000 followers on Facebook. We can do that because social media and smart phones have provided a perfect way to reach new audiences.

2018: Now

Now, I’m doing a PhD on research crowdfunding. Crowdfunding provides great support opportunities, particularly for research communicators with strong audiences on social media, through podcasting or YouTube.

However, it seems to be a bit of a challenge for research administrators, given the relatively small number of universities who are providing crowdfunding support for their staff. We’re all crying poor about the lack of research funding available (that hasn’t changed in 30 years), but we don’t seem to be very good at grabbing hold of a brand new mechanism for funding our researchers.

Thanks to Ipshita and Adam for giving me this chance to romp down memory lane. I’m keen to see what the next thirty years will bring.

PS: The title is a bit of a misnomer, I’m afraid. I’ve never actually seen a handwritten grant get submitted. Government funding, as we understand it, evolved during and after World War Two, well after the development of the typewriter. I’ve seen a bunch of typed grants, but no handwritten ones.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.