Monday, January 4, 2010

Thinking about research funding

The new year is really bringing home how much farther I have to go in getting accustomed to the changes in season and academic calendars here in the southern hemisphere. It's summertime now, and although classes don't start until March I've got lots to do before then: research funding applications to complete, articles to write and revise, courses to prepare...

Securing external funding is pretty much the holy grail of university research, so I'm shooting for a Royal Society of New Zealand's Marsden Fund Fast-Start Grant. This grant is pretty interesting, actually. Unlike Canada's SSHRC grants - which helped support my doctoral research - the Fast-Start programme specifically "enables emerging researchers to establish research momentum." In practical terms, this means that I don't have to compete with established researchers and although the available funding isn't nearly as much as a standard research grant, I can hardly complain about $100K per year for three years. It would give me the opportunity to establish a new research programme, publish some articles and even support a research assistant or bring in a post-graduate student. Plus, scoring one of these grants increases the likelihood of me securing a standard research grant in the future.

Of course, the competition is stiff; I think only around 10-12% of applicants succeed. The first stage involves submitting a CV and one page abstract of my research proposal. If I succeed at this stage, then I'll be invited to submit a more comprehensive proposal and budget. The reasons for failure at the first stage are pretty typical: there is no real hypothesis or aim, the wording is too vague or too jargon-laden, and/or the proposal does not fit the Fund's mandate. The first and third problems are easy enough to avoid, but the second one is tricky. A one-page summary is necessarily vague in comparison to a full description, and while the full proposal is refereed by specialists in my field, the abstract must be written for a research-literate but general audience. Choosing the "right" words for an unknown audience is tough. (I can't help but recall a journal reviewer who told me that using the French-language terms for ANT's processes of translation was "pretentious and unnecessary." And I've gotten enough negative feedback from designers about my "overly critical" or "irrelevant" comments that I sometimes fear and distrust speaking up at conferences.)

In any case, before the holidays I ran the first draft of my abstract by our faculty's research office and more questions than I anticipated came back to me. After meeting over coffee, I learned that I'm much more adept at plain-language speaking than at plain-language writing. I'm also much more successful at conveying excitement when I speak, even if it sometimes sounds like I'm more than a bit daft ("OMG!! This project is so completely awesome I can't believe it!!") So my task this week is to refine my abstract for simplicity and clarity. I need to be more focussed and systematic about explaining the whats, whys, whens, wheres and hows. I need to strike a better balance between referring to the background literature and emphasising how my work is "different and innovative." And last but not least, I need to come up with a concise statement about how my project is best suited to the Marsden Fund and not some other source. All in one page. (Sigh.)

Then I need to run it by colleagues for feedback and make the necessary revisions. The final version is due in three or so weeks. Wish me luck!


Blogger Dorothy said...

good luck Anne!


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