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Monsters and zombies

Beware the frightening creatures that can fell major bids

A funder issues a call for applications, and not just any call. It offers serious sums of money to address major research challenges and requires an integrated interdisciplinary approach. It is likely that there are other requirements such as partnerships with developing countries, co-funding and capacity development.

Research development staff scramble to assess their university’s capacity to respond. Academics work out how they can crowbar old ideas in, or explore new agendas. Someone will utter the words: “We ought to be responding to this.” Hopefully, that someone has detailed knowledge of their institution’s strengths in this area, although sometimes that level of confidence is in inverse proportion to their relevant knowledge.

Everyone in the room should now be on high alert, lest one of two kinds of freakish creatures emerges from the shadows…

Frankenstein’s monsters

In Mary Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein’s creation is assembled from human body parts; it is proportioned like a human and has human skin, and muscles. It has human hair and teeth—like a Hollywood leading actor. But this creature describes its own form as “a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance”.

That is the danger with major project proposals; they end up ill-formed, with bits of other projects thrown in and sewn together. They might technically tick all the boxes in addressing the core remit and outcomes of the call, but will still never convince assessors. The pearly teeth and lustrous hair may attract favourable mention from the reviewers, but overall, we have something that is less than the sum of its parts.

It is easy to look at any call for proposals and realise that you could in principle assemble a bid that superficially does everything that the call asks. What’s harder is to admit that that application will rarely be enough to secure funding. Think—how often will a desirable job go to someone who only meets the essential criteria?

This is the Frankenstein error in grant writing and research development—assembling a project that functionally resembles what is needed, but with bits and pieces that do not quite work properly (or at all). Such a project proposal is not a convincing whole.

Night of the living dead

“Do we have a credible principal investigator?” is a good first question when one of these calls comes up. If the answer is yes, do they have the time, energy and support to build and lead a consortium to apply for this opportunity? Is there a credible core management or leadership team?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no” you may have a zombie project. These lack brains. Either there is no credible principal investigator or there is no agreement about who the PI should be. Sometimes a zombie project will stagger on aimlessly without intellectual leadership before falling over, and sometimes they can even stagger as far as the submission of an application.

That is not to say that securing a powerhouse PI is the only or even the best form of research leadership. But a major grant application needs to be coordinated by a core team with sufficient experience of running major projects. It needs a fully functioning brain.

A project, programme or centre is only as good as its likely chances of succeeding in its objectives, and reviewers and panel members must be confident in management and governance arrangements as well as intellectual leadership before signing over public money.

Slaying the demons

How can we stop these monsters and zombies from taking over bids? One way is to be aware and honest about what it takes to be successful. There are plenty of sources from which to learn about best practice, from colleagues to the very article you are reading now.

Second, make sure you have honest discussions with colleagues about likely rival bidders and whether, realistically, you can be competitive. If so, great. Or is joining a bid led from elsewhere a better option? Remember, having few researchers on a viable project is better than many in an unviable one.

Third, do not despair when you spot a monster or a zombie. While even the best version of such bids might not be competitive, pulling it together might still have value. The construction of a monster shows what is lacking, and that can lead to an agenda of development work to be done for next time. For example, if you do not have a credible PI, maybe it is time to develop a promising researcher towards that role.

We need to be willing to put projects out of their misery if need be. And that takes courage.  

Adam Golberg is research development manager in the faculty of social sciences at the University of Nottingham

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight