Three Wishes

There’s no way round the fact that research grant funding is a machine that requires a huge amount of labour from reviewers, applicants, referees, and committees… and results in a lot of disappointment for a lot of people.

I’ve been doing this long enough to know that rejections are not indictments of the quality of a proposal. Most schemes are so competitive that the only things being funded are both excellent and a bit lucky. And I’ve also been impressed by how funders continue to reflect on how funding should work. The British Academy’s new scheme for additional needs, for instance, is exactly the kind of thing all funders should be routinely doing.

Here are three other wishes that some people will love, some people will hate, and no UK funder will bother doing so, yeah. (And feel free to tell me about the UK funders already doing any or all of the below)

  1. Honourable mentions
    I’m a little surprised more funders don’t offer people who come close to funding… but miss out an option to get an honourable mention for their project. It would have to be opt-in, because there are lots of reasons applicants might not want this to be public knowledge.
    But I do think this would have several advantages. It would make the invisible work of failed grant applications more visible in general.
    Applicants who wanted to could list this on their CVs.
    It would put the funded projects into some context. Sometimes, looking at funded projects, it’s baffling to imagine what sets them apart from other excellent proposals to the same schemes. Honourable mentions would be close to free for funders, and would help everyone involved have a sense of what sets the outstanding apart from the merely excellent.

  2. Runner-up prize
    For really big applications, like the European Research Council, the UKRI Future Leadership Fellowships etc, I would say the next step up from opt-in honourable mentions would be opt-in runner up prizes.
    OK, you didn’t get £1.5 million, but you wouldn’t say no to a £50k seed-funding award to improve the bigger project and reapply for other funding, or to do something more modest without bells and whistles.
    Opt-in, too, as it might be obvious to others that the funding was a runner-up prize.
    They could be linked to honourable mentions, or not.

  3. Traffic light feedback
    The feedback funders give on unsuccessful applications varies wildly.
    For my part, I’m quite a fan of the AHRC process, where you do get to see often really thoughtful peer-review comments if you get through the first stage of many schemes.
    Other funders often give personalised feedback to applications that make it further through the process.
    Not all do. It’s a huge amount of additional work, and for many schemes, I see why funders might say: no feedback.
    But aren’t there way to offer feedback at very low cost? Say you are a funder that prioritises public impact, originality, and value for money, could feedback to unsuccessful applications be as simple as which of these areas let the application down? Or which was excellent? Red, amber, and green, might be a bit infantilising, but something as simple as knowing ‘Well they liked the ideas, but felt the public impact wasn’t as strong’ is the difference between being able to use that application to write a better one… and throwing the project in the bin.


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