The competitive grants landscape is fraught for Australian researchers. We’ve had a look at notes and advice from across the internet—from government information and ARC reports to university information and blogs on the topic.
Here are our five key takeaways:
1. Prepare for rejection. Research funding bodies have to contend with scarce funds and the opportunity cost of funding any single project. Like with any application, it has to be written with confidence—but, emotionally, it’s best to be braced for rejection. For example, for Discovery projects, the ARC’s selection outcome report indicates that the success rate was 19% last year.
2. Nail your NIT. Last year Dr Wade Kelly wrote some excellent advice about tackling an impact statement—such as the National Interest Test, required for ARC grants since its introduction for the 2020 Discovery Projects round. We know the NIT is causing significant problems in its current form, but it’s something applicants presently have to contend with, no matter how banal or infuriating they reportedly find it. In Dr Kelly’s advice, published at The Research Whisperer blog, he breaks such statements down into core components: “problem, solution, beneficiaries, outputs, and impact.”
3. Seek support. Universities typically have support available for researchers seeking grants: this might be dedicated costing and pricing software to determine the real cost of a research project, formalised mentoring opportunities with late career researchers, records of successful applications to review, help guides and proof reading services, or the wealth of information the research office staff can provide.
4. Collaborate early. Research is often collaborative. Our team’s own project management experience teaches us to make sure everyone involved is on exactly the same page. If there are organisations or individuals who will be involved with a project, get them involved at the earliest possible opportunity and confirm you all have a clear understanding of everyone’s roles and expectations. Articulating these in writing early on will help both your internal understanding of the project’s moving parts and reduce confusion.
5. Have a plan to strip down your project if you absolutely have to. I know, it sounds horrible. But even if successful, it’s worth assuming the project won’t be fully funded. Grants are given to as many worthy recipients as possible, so they’ll cut your budget down as far as possible to do it. This principle is well-illustrated by the information supplied by the ARC this August in Round 3 of 2021 Linkage projects. The applications approved were for $36,477,703, all up. The funds approved were for $29,657,243—meaning that, on average, approved applications received about 80% of the funding they asked for.
In Australia, applications for competitive grants are fraught with acknowledged and unresolved issues of complexity that make it a very difficult process to even comprehend, let alone undertake. With the recent overhaul of the ARC’s processes announced by current Education Minister Jason Claire, perhaps we can hope for a less fraught competitive grants landscape in the future—but as with grants applications themselves, it seems better to hope for the best, but prepare for more of the same.
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