Thursday, March 13, 2014

Applying for grants: a view from the coal face

About twenty years ago I applied for my first grant. The science section was about 10 pages and that took me a couple of months to write since I was a novice. The admin. stuff and CV was probably an extra 10 pages. Before I submitted it the Director of the university "Research office", a career administrator, looked it over and suggested a couple of cosmetic changes. In todays dollars, the grant was about $120K per year for 5 years. That did not include overhead, which seemed to be a secret between the university and the government.

A couple of years later I applied for another grant to hire a postdoc for 3 years. A month after I submitted the application I realised that in the rush I had forgotten to include my publication list in the application. I wandered over to the Research Office, which was located in a house just off campus. I apologised for my mistake and asked them if they could do anything. They contacted the funding agency who said "no problem. just send the missing pages and we will add them to the application." The grant got funded. I was very thankful I survived my mistake.

How things have changed! It is striking to me that the above experiences were in the 90's not the 60's!

Today "Research offices" or "Grant administration units" occupy whole floors of buildings on campus and employ multitudes of people to go over applications with a fine tooth comb. This seems to be a painful necessity.

My last application was more than 60 pages. The science is now reduced to about 6 pages when you subtract out  "timelines, national relevance, management of data, role of personnel, publication strategy..." from the Project Description. You have to submit the application to the Research office one month before the final deadline. They then sent me an email with all their suggested changes. Many dealt with compliance issues, internal consistency, font sizes, section headings, ....
I printed out the email. It was 8 pages of 10 point font!


  1. As Oscar Wilde said, “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.”

  2. And - your 8 pages of 10 point font were likely mostly cut and paste from somewhere else.

    The research office would do themselves a favour if they published a "tips for pros" document. But then - perhaps that document would get into the hands of another university - and eliminate UQs comparative advantage.