To say that 2020 was a challenging year would be the mother of all understatements. Thankfully, it is almost over and surely 2021 won’t be worse. But 2020 was good for at least one thing, and that is, writing grants. I do not have official statistics at hand, but anecdotal evidence would suggest that many grant hackers used their lockdowns to up their game. In my case, I was inundated with review requests from the usual UKRI bodies (EPSRC, BBSRC, etc.) but also from research agencies abroad (Chile, Argentina, Israel, etc.): there was a clear spike in the numbers of reviews that I did.
For what I do have some concrete numbers is for my grant submissions and their successes and failures. All in all, since the beginning of 2020 to the end of 2020 I submitted 2 EPSRC grants (both failed), 2 H2020 FET Open grants (one failed, one succeeded), 1 UKRI Innovate UK grant (granted). So 5 grants, 3 failures, 2 successes. That is not bad but could have been much better still. To understand why I say this, let’s see what I learnt from these submissions by starting with the failed ones:
1 – Violation of the One Idea To Rule Them All rule:
In the three failed grants, let’s call them EPSRC-1, EPSRC-2 and H2020-1, the submitting team failed to follow the “One Idea To Rule Them All” rule, which -in a nutshell- says that a grant should describe one and only one idea. If you try to squeeze too many different ideas into a grant, those ideas start competing with each other for space and you end up disserving one or more ideas. In turn, this leads to lack of clarity and reviewers criticisms. That was true for those three grants.
In the case of H2020-1, it was our second attempt at seeking funding for this project. I was aware of the fact that there was not a single idea in the proposal, but rather two, and I communicated that to the consortium. We worked together to try to improve the grant based on the reviews received the previous time and, to some degree, we alleviated the two ideas problem. However, the problem was still there. Solving it would have meant cutting out a whole section and ditching one partner from the consortium. The later was not prepared to do that. Although in the second attempt we obtained much better scores than in the first round across all the categories evaluated, we still did not make it; we were close but not close enough to the finishing line. Had we stuck with one idea we would have had more page real-estate to better describe the one idea we kept and we would have had more money to distribute to the remaining partners to implement that idea. Impossible to tell but I am willing to bet that we probably would have succeeded. Brexit permitting, we will try again and this time, I hope, we will stick to the golden rule of grant writing.
In the case of EPSRC-1, a relatively small project with just to investigators across two Universities (total ~£1.1M), the situation was different. I took a calculated risk: I wanted -in one scoop- to get a “foot on the door” with a new technique and I inserted some text to that effect. That turned out to be the text the reviewers picked on to kill the proposal!; two of them argued -surprise surprise- that we did not have collective expertise in that area. It was the strategically-sound thing to do to get something going in the lab with the new tech but it was not tactically sound. Again, breaking the One Idea to Rule Them All led to disaster. The way we should have done that is to include an additional investigator with the right expertise in the grant, even if the grant would have been a bit more expensive. Insight is a wonderful thing…
Finally, with EPSRC-2, a relatively large collaborative responsive mode grant across 3 universities (total ~£2.5M) the situation was different. We were convinced that we had one idea running through the grant, with various smaller themes converging into that idea. But again, all the 5 reviewers -unanimously- agreed that there were too many ideas in the proposal and said things like “The team covers many areas, but I don’t see how they will work together.”, “Many ideas are thrown in…“, “the proposed methodology consists in many keywords being thrown together“, and similar other statements. What is interesting in this case is that the breaking of the golden rule went unnoticed to all of us proposers. What we thought were just “themes” contributing to the bigger ideas, in the eyes and minds of the reviewers where entire ideas in an on themselves. The reason behind this kind of misalignment is the so call course of knowledge that I alluded too in an earlier blog and that I will write about in more detail in the future.
2 – If given the opportunity to write a response letter for the reviews you received, take it and write it:
With our proposal EPSRC-1 we got reasonably good reviews, the problem was that two of the reviewers were not enthusiastic enough for the reasons I mentioned above. My collaborator was certain that we will not get the grant and hence argued that perhaps we should not spend time responding to the reviews as the panel would be unlikely to change its mind. I argued instead that we should write a response letter regardless of what the outcome might be. The reasons for doing so were the following:
- you own it to others: However angry one might be with negative reviews, the truth of the matter is that a lot of effort is put in handling a research proposal; programme managers that seek reviewers and put the panels together, the reviewers that read and write the reviews, universities’ administrators that cost and manage the grant submission process, etc. Thus I felt that even with overwhelming odds against us, it was something we needed to do as part of the scientific social contract.
- you might just win: One never knows what the other proposals and their reviews might be that the panel must rank. It may happen that others are still worse than yours! Furthermore, you might actually be able to change hearts and minds at the panel; it is unlikely, but not impossible. I had at least two occasions in my career where that was the case: the reviews were not consistently great and, in the response letter, I managed to convince the panel to err on my side. It worked. So who is to say it might not work for you? Importantly, always remember that the surest way to fail is by not turning up. So put the effort and turn up, you might be surprised at what life throws at you.
- it helps you understand and improve: by trying to form a coherent and convincing counter-argument to the reviewers’ comments, you will need first to understand what they are saying! it is simply not possible to write a compelling counter-narrative without genuinely engaging with the reviewer. In turn, by engaging, you will more likely identify true weaknesses in your proposal or in the way you framed it. You can then harness those weaknesses and use them to improve your next grant. So, if you don’t want to write the response letter for others neither for the of chance that it may pay off, then do it for yourself so you can learn something for the next grant writing process.
And what can be learnt from the successful ones, and more specifically from H2020-2?
3 – Have the right team:
One of the most important changes going from H2020-1 to H2020-2 was that the team was strengthened by a couple of new collaborators. The expertise they brought was mostly, but not entirely, overlapping with what we had already but by having additional hands-on boards with sufficient overlap and complementarity, the team -and hence the project- became more resilient and attractive in the eyes of the reviewers. The cost of this was that the grant budget went up a bit while the budget for some partners (ourselves included) went down. Getting the budget cut -at the time of writing- is always difficult to stomach but it is always better to have a small piece of a funded cake than a large piece of a non-funded cake. The coordinator thus deserves all the credit for that bold decision. Contrast that with my attempt in project EPSRC-1 to “have a foot on the door” on a new technique without bringing in the required expertise: it certainly kept my piece of the cake bigger but the cake never materialised because we made the entire project less credible and more risky; we were lacking expertise. So make sure that every single proposal you write has all the bases covered, has the right team and, if you identify that the team is not right, then either change the team or change the proposal.
4 – Try, try harder and try again:
Like H2020-1, H2020-2 was a resubmission. In H2020-2, we rigorously stuck with the One Idea To Rule Them All and we improved the grant by strengthening the team, making it abundantly clear what the goals where and how the entire organisation of the research programme was geared towards achieving those goals, improve the images and diagrams and -importantly- in the intervening time between the first and second submission we had more publications that backed up our ideas. For both H2020-1 and H2020-2, we iterated and improved, a lot in the later a little in the former, but both proposals were better proposals because we listened to the reviewers’ comments, we learnt from them and make something better. In Success Is Designed I argued for a systematic process of refinement based on experimentation and I believe it is a fundamental component of successful grant writing. If you fail, try harder; and if you fail again then again you try.
Thus, whether your next grant is a team effort or a solo enterprise stick to the golden rule of the granthacker, get the right team in place (even if the grant becomes more expensive), learn from your past failures and don’t be afraid of trying again.