Rock-solid way to sweeten proposal

Session at ESRC festival to reveal secrets of a successful grant application. Paul Jump reports

June 28, 2012

Good research proposals are "like sticks of Brighton rock" that allow grant panels to "get the point" whichever page of the application they alight upon.

This is the view of David Shemmings, professor of social work at the University of Kent, who will be delivering a session on developing effective research proposals at the Economic and Social Research Council's annual Research Methods Festival, held in Oxford next week.

He said that many applications failed to attract funding because of a lack of precision about their proposal - a problem exacerbated by the jargon-heavy nature of many of them. This was appropriate for peer reviewers who were specialists in the area, but the panels that took funding decisions often lacked members with such specific expertise, Professor Shemmings argued.

"It is not that academics can't write, but they aren't targeting what they are saying to their audience," he told Times Higher Education.

He said the problem extended across most subject areas and levels of seniority, although anthropologists were often "very clear about what they are trying to research and how they will do it".

Professor Shemmings advised researchers against sending entire applications to their "best friends" for comments, since this was unlikely to yield detailed, critical feedback.

"I might give someone my overall summary and ask them to send back a 50-word summary of it so I can see whether they have understood it. Or I might ask a colleague who is an expert on X whether a certain bit I have written is in line with current thinking," he said.

It also made sense to talk to university research administration staff, who were "the experts on what funder X really looks for".Academics should avoid being funders' "poodles", but should try to reference their priorities, Professor Shemmings added.

"But these tend to be amorphous, so I can fit what I want to do into them: I just need to use some of the funders' language to attract their attention," he said.

His recommendations are based on a book called The Research Funding Toolkit: How to Plan and Write Successful Grant Applications. One of its co-authors, Andrew Derrington, used to run courses on grant proposals at Kent before he left to become executive pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Liverpool.

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