Writing strategic grant proposals

I am in the middle of trying to bid for a large pot of cash to enable something special at Imperial. There are several steps involved in the process, and we haven’t really managed it through gate one (yet!). This means I suspect I will post a few more items on this in due course. With a view to formulating a few thoughts aloud and getting them out in the open, here’s some pondering.

Landscape

The landscape is complex, and busy. Where do you want to build your house and why? (photo from UnSplash)

The awarding of grants is a strategic process. A grant is a gift from one party to another, e.g. the taxpayer, and this gift comes with strings. It must be used wisely and support the values of the society who are giving it.

In this vein, it is important to understand and complement the existing landscape. This is especially critical when you are dealing with the changing ebb and flow within a managed call.

In my proposal, I am hoping that we can create something that enables the core ‘new thing’ that we think is important (creating a strategic cluster of excellence which is sustainable), while managing the political landscape. This means I have to adjust some text and tone, especially as new political winds come to light, but I want to maintain the integrity of my proposal. Ultimately this integrity is born from, selfishly, the fact that I have something specific in mind that I want to get funded.

Getting the landscape right is a tricky mess, and it takes longer than you think. I’ve spent about two days in meetings trying to get this sorted, and I think we still have a way to go! The two days of politicking, coffees, phone calls and the like, compare with about five days (spread over many more) of writing and re-writing.

People

Grant writing enables core science, but in a great proposal it’s the people that really matter. (Photo from Unsplash)

In a fairy tale land, I’d write proposals to enable the best science to be done. I’d give you my ideas, I’d pretend everything can be done effectively, and that you would just review my proposal based upon an understanding that the I’m going to deliver on the science.

We don’t live in this fairy tale. Sorry.

We live in a land where we have to work with other people, and collaborate, to deliver great things. We also have to work with other people who have different motivations, expectations, points of view, and understanding of the landscape. This means we have to learn how to work effectively with other people.

Writing a grant proposal is a lonely experience. In most cases (80%+ of submitted proposals) it is unrewarding. I am exposed in putting my ideas forward, in this clumsy written hand of mind, and thinking upon very blank canvas. I don’t know how my reader will take my ideas, and it’s difficult to separate what ‘my brain thinks’ from what ‘my document says’.

As with any academic writing, the first draft will contain kernels of good ideas, but experience indicates that it will have huge swathes that are incorrect, deserve red-pen, and need re-writing.

In writing a proposal, which says what ‘we will be doing in this long time frame’ I need to remember that I am writing this to enable others to do things that fit with my vision. This means that my vision is only part of the story, and so I must draw people into my narrative and persuade people to get on board. This is easier to do if you involve them in the writing process, and help co-shape your ideas together.

Delivery

The take-away from your proposal is more than just an idea, it’s a vision that draws together a narrative and a journey. (Photo from Unsplash)

There’s a temptation, especially early on in proposal writing, that a proposal will enact one major change: we’ll discover X.

Unfortunately, while we write a proposal to discover X, we are also trying to persuade people that X is valuable, and the journey we have outlined is sensible, encouraging, and reasonable.

I feel that a research proposal will make-or-break itself upon the strategic vision to deliver on the core vision, and to enact social, scientific, industrial, and academic change along the way.

I find this difficult to capture well within a text, especially when the call is managed and therefore the narrative framework is fixed.

In writing, I find myself flavouring this process pithy statements such as the “celebration of marriage of concept X and concept Y” or the moment where you “enact a paradigm shift”. My co-investigators find these amusing (especially over beers several years later…) as these statements can add linguistic flourish, and a sprinkle of these when written well can be uplifting within a dry proposal. However, these phrases can be distracting and vacuous. Therefore, I try to ground these with core examples that illustrate my journey & vision, e.g. with examples of how I will enable co-creation with partners (academic, end-user, the funder, and the wider public) and how my partnership will enact lasting change.

Critically in this proposal, the delivery of my work remains an art of enacting lasting change, i.e. the legacy of my impact.

Asking for help

Grant writing may feel lonely, but you will be amazed at how supportive you colleagues can be. Don’t forget to pass it forward. (Photo from unsplash)

As an early career researcher, I am often afraid of asking for help. There’s a moment of vulnerability when I have to admit that I have little clue of what I am trying to do, and how to best do it.

I am learning to get past that moment and ask my colleagues for help. I’ve found this rewarding, and frustrating (in different measures). My experience tells me to structure my requests in asking for help, and understanding that these requests may not be delivered upon.

In making requests from others, I am finding the most reward when I am specific, direct and curt in my requests for help. I also allow, and account, for their potential to say no. Importantly, I also realise that some of these changes maybe ego-crushing (e.g. a pithy margin comment), but their comments do not have to be acted upon. Though I find that most of the ego-crushing comments crush my ego exactly because my colleagues have had a better idea, or at least a better way of phrasing my point. In that moment, it feels like I am not good enough. Yet, in the cold light of writing this blog-post, I am realising that this is because they can do this because they are editing a draft and building upon my foundations.

I try to pick the right people, whose values I trust, and this means I can use their experience, critical eyes, and knowledge to make my proposal stronger and the time I have spent creating it more valuable. It’s a bit more work, but it’s important. My colleagues are my best friends and supporters in this process. Now, I am aware that not all my colleagues will be helpful, or on team (welcome to Academia!) I try my best to be strategic on who I ask for what help. Importantly, I try to reward my colleagues when they give help, though a simple thank you, or sharing how they have enacted change, and I try to engage them with the process.

Building up a network of people who I can trust to deliver on short timescales with specific needs is a critical aspect of successful academic careers. No academic is an island & remember this when you are asked for help from others.

If you have found this interesting, you might find these related posts useful:

Adventures with Grant Proposals — containing tips of what you need to include in the proposal, including the big 6.

Grant writing tips-a view from the other side- containing comments from when I was recently reviewing a stack of proposals.

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You can head over to Twitter to follow Dr Ben Britton as @BMatB, or keep up to date with the group’s work via @ExpMicroMech. We can also be found over at http://www.expmicromech.com.

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Dr Ben Britton

Dr Ben Britton

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Atomic sorcerer, based at UBC (Canada). Plays with metals. Discusses academic life. Swooshes down ski slopes. Pegs it round parks. (Views my own)