Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Things I’ve learnt from being on a funding board

Posted by Jean Adams

A few years ago I was invited to join a research funding board. I said yes, because: I was flattered to be joining the esteemed ranks of ‘important’ people on such committees; I thought it would look good on my CV; and everyone says you learn a lot about writing grant applications from being on a funding board.

So, in the best tradition of reflexive practice, I thought it might be time to try and work out exactly what it is I have learnt from the experience. These are just some initial reflections and I think they’re probably fairly specific to the committee that I am on. Whatever else you think, do not think that this is a set of rules for winning research funding. I am nowhere near confident enough in my own grant winning ability to start offering anyone else advice.

First, an outline of the process. There are 17 members of the committee, including three ‘lay’ members. All applications go through an initial screening process where a sub-committee of three members confirm the application is in scope. At the full board, each application (which contains around 50-60 pages of application form, references, reviewers’ comments, budgets etc) is assigned a lead and second academic assessor, and a lay assessor. The lead academic assessor summarises the application to the rest of the committee, summing up both strengths and weaknesses. The second and lay assessors are then invited to add any additional comments before opening up the discussion to the full membership. Each application gets 15 minutes and once the lead, second and lay assessors have done their bits, this means around 5-7mins of actual discussion. We deal with anything between four and 16 applications per meeting.

Being a member of this board takes up a lot of time. I started out trying to read all applications in detail prior to each meeting. Then I noticed that other committee members didn’t seem to be doing this, and that it was taking me up to two days per meeting. Increasingly, I find that I don’t have time to read each application fully, so I concentrate on the applications I’m lead or second for and skim the others. This means that perhaps only four people (lead, second and lay assessors, and chair) have a really good knowledge of each application. It seems inevitable that some good applications will get rejected, and some not so good ones funded, just because of how these four individuals respond to them.

I find the meetings pretty scary. To begin with I found it absolutely terrifying having to present my critique of applications to a room full of my elders and betters. Now I’m used to that, but am still not immune to the late nights, Sunday afternoons, commitment, and life-compromise that has gone into preparing every application. Often I find it scary how quickly we deal with them. I worry that we don’t treat the applications we receive as we would want our applications to be treated. But, realistically, how could we do it better? The process has to be manageable. We can’t let each meeting turn into a three-day critical appraisal marathon.

The committee know the guidance that applies to our funding scheme pretty well. I am always surprised that applicants don’t read, don’t act on, or somehow don't think this guidance applies to them. It is all fairly standard stuff on the difference between a pilot study and a full trial; the sort of inter-disciplinary working we expect; and the level of patient and public involvement required. Why would people think that it somehow isn’t relevant to them?

Reviewers’ comments rarely make or break an application. I was pretty surprised by this, because when you’re writing, and re-writing, a grant “what the reviewers will think” seems to be a key determinant of what goes in. Maybe I mis-interpreted “reviewers” too literally and what is meant is just “the people who will make the decision”. But, really, we read the applications and make our own decisions then see if the reviewers picked up anything important that we missed. The reviews are often pretty superficial, so we don’t always expect to find much additional information there. The confusion might be that the applicants are fed back the reviews in full, but just a bullet-point summary of the committee's thoughts. So I guess it might feel that these are what matter the most.

And that might be it for what I've learnt. Does any of this surprise you? I’m not sure it will change the way I approach grant writing in the future. But it’s certainly an interesting experience and the hotel the meetings are held in does good cake.

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