Saturday 11 August 2018

More haste less speed in calls for grant proposals

Helpful advice from the World Bank

This blogpost was prompted by a funding call announced this week by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)  , which included the following key dates:
  • Opening date for proposals – 6 August 2018 
  • Closing date for proposals – 18 September 2018 
  • PI response invited – 23 October 2018 
  • PI response due – 29 October 2018 
  • Panel – 3 December 2018 
  • Grants start – 14 February 2019 
As pointed out by Adam Golberg (@cash4questions), Research Development Manager at Nottingham University, on Twitter, this is very short notice to prepare an application for substantial funding:
I make this about 30 working days notice. For a call issued in August. For projects of 36 months, up to £900k - substantial, for social sciences. With only one bid allowed to be led from each institution, so likely requiring an internal sift. 

I thought it worth raising this with ESRC, and they replied promptly, saying:
To access funds for this call we’ve had to adhere to a very tight spending timeframe. We’ve had to balance the call opening time with a robust peer review process and a Feb 2019 project start. We know this is a challenge, but it was a now or never funding opportunity for us.
They suggested I email them for more information, and I’ve done that, so will update this post if I hear more. I’m particularly curious about what is the reason for the tight spending timeframe and the inflexible February 2019 start.

This exchange led to discussion on Twitter which I have gathered together here.

It’s clear that from the responses that this kind of time-frame is not unusual, and I have been sent some other examples. For instance this ESRC Leadership Fellowship (£100,000 for 12 months) had a call for proposals issued on 16th November 2017, with a deadline for submissions of 3 January. When you factor in that most universities shut down from late December until early January, and so this would need to be with administrators before the Christmas break, this gives applicants around 30 days to construct a competitive proposal. But it’s not only ESRC that does this, and I am less interested in pointing the finger at a particular funder – who may well be working under pressures outside their control - than just raising the issue of why this needs a rethink. I see five problems with these short lead times:

1. Poorer quality of proposals 
The most obvious problem is that a hastily written proposal is likely to be weaker than one that is given more detailed consideration. The only good thing you might say about the time pressure is that it is likely to reduce the number of proposals, which reduces the load on the funder’s administration. It’s not clear, however, whether this is an intended consequence.

2. Stress on academic staff 
There is ample evidence that academic staff in the UK have high stress levels, often linked to a sense of increasing demands and high workload. A good academic shows high attention to detail and is at pains to get things right: research is not something that can be done well under tight time pressure. So holding up the offer of a large grant with only a short time period to prepare a proposal is bound to increase stress: do you drop everything else to focus on grant-writing, or pass by the opportunity to enter the competition?

Where the interval between the funding call and the deadline occurs over a holiday period, some might find this beneficial, as other demands such as teaching are lower. But many people plan to take a vacation, and should be able to have a complete escape from work for at least a week or two. Others will have scheduled the time for preparing lectures, doing research, or writing papers. Having to defer those activities in order to meet a tight deadline just induces more sense of overload and guilt at having a growing backlog of work.

3. Equity issues 
These points about vacations are particularly pertinent for those with children at home during the holidays, as pointed out in a series of tweets by Melissa Terras, Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage at Edinburgh University, who said:
I complained once to the AHRC about a call announced in November with a closing date of early January - giving people the chance to work over the Xmas shutdown on it. I wasn't applying to the call myself, but pointed out that it meant people with - say - school age kids - wouldn't have a "clear" Xmas shutdown to work on it, so it was prejudice against that cohort. They listened, apologised, and extended the deadline for a month, which I was thankful for. But we shouldn't have to explain this to them. Have RCUK done their implicit bias training?

4. Stress on administrative staff 
One person who contacted me via email pointed out that many funders, including ESRC, ask institutions to filter out uncompetitive proposals through internal review. That could mean senior research administrators organising exploratory workshops, soliciting input from potential PIs, having people present their ideas, and considering collaborations with other institutions. None of that will be possible in a 30-day time frame. And for the administrators who do the routine work of checking grants for accuracy of funding bids and compliance with university and funder requirements, I suspect it’s not unusual to be dealing with a stressed researcher who expects them to do all of this with rapid turnaround, but where the funding scheme virtually guarantees everything is done in a rush, this just gets worse.

5. Perception of unfairness 
Adding in to this toxic mix, we have the possibility of diminished trust in the funding process. My own interest in this issues stems from a time a few years ago when there was a funding call for a rather specific project in my area. The call came just before Christmas, with a deadline in mid January. I had a postdoc who was interested in applying, but after discussing it, we decided not to put in a bid. Part of the reason was that we had both planned a bit of time off over Christmas, but in addition I was suspicious about the combination of short time-scale and specific topic. This made me wonder whether a decision had already been made about who to award the funds to, and the exercise was just to fulfil requirements and give an illusion of fairness and transparency.

Responses on Twitter again indicate that others have had similar concerns. For instance, Jon May, Professor in Psychology at the University of Plymouth, wrote:
I suspect these short deadline calls follow ‘sandboxes’ where a favoured person has invited their (i.e his) friends to pitch ideas for the call. Favoured person cannot bid but friends can and have written the call.
And an anonymous correspondent on email noted:
I think unfairness (or the perception of unfairness) is really dangerous – a lot of people I talk to either suspect a stitch-up in terms of who gets the money, or an uneven playing field in terms of who knew this was coming.

So what’s the solution? One option would be to insist that, at least for those dispensing public money, there should be a minimum time between a call for proposals and the submission date: about 3 months would seem reasonable to me.

Comments will be open on this post for a limited time (2 months, since we are in holiday season!) so please add your thoughts.

P.S. Just as I was about to upload this blogpost, I was alerted on Twitter to this call from the World Bank, which is a beautiful illustration of point 5 - if you weren't already well aware this was coming, there would be no hope of applying. Apparently, this is not a 'grant' but a 'contract', but the same problems noted above would apply. The website is dated 2nd August, the closing date is 15th August. There is reference to a webinar for applicants dated 9th July, so presumably some information has been previously circulated, but still with a remarkably short time lag, given that there need to be at least two collaborating institutions (including middle- and low-income countries)
, with letters of support from all collaborators and all end users. Oh, and you are advised ‘Please do not wait until the last minute to submit your proposal’.

Update: 17th August 2018
An ESRC spokesperson sent this reply to my query:

Thank you for getting in touch with us with your concerns about the short call opening time for the recently announced Management Practices and Employee Engagement call, and the fact that it has opened in August.

We welcome feedback from our community on the administration of funding programmes, and we will think carefully about how to respond to these concerns as we design and plan future programmes.

To provide some background to this call. It builds on an open-invite scoping workshop we held in February 2018, at which we sought input from the academic, policy and third-sector communities on the shape of a (then) potential research investment on management practices and employee engagement. We subsequently flagged the likelihood of a funding call around the topic area this summer, both at the scoping workshop itself, as well as in our ongoing engagements with the academic community.

We do our best to make sure that calls are open for as long as possible. We have to balance call opening times with a robust and appropriately timetabled peer review process, feasible project start dates, the right safeguards and compliances, and, in certain cases such as this one, a requirement to spend funds within the financial year. 

We take the concerns that you raise in your email and in your blog post of 11 August 2018 extremely seriously. The high standard of the UK's research is a result of the work of our academic community, and we are committed to delivering a system that respects and responds to their needs. As part of this, we are actively looking into ways to build in longer call lead times and/or pre-announcements of funding opportunities for potential future managed calls in this and other areas.

I would also like to stress that applicants can still submit proposals on the topic of management practices and employee engagement through our standard research grant process, which is open all year round. The peer review system and the Grant Assessment Panel does not take into account the fact that a managed call is open on a topic when awarding funding: decisions are taken based on the excellence of the proposal.

Update: 23rd August 2018
A spokesperson for the World Bank has written to note that the grant scheme alluded to in my postscript did in fact have a 2 month period between the call and submission date. I have apologised to them for suggesting it was shorter than this, and also apologise to readers for providing misleading information. The duration still seems short to me for a call of this nature, but my case is clearly not helped by providing wrong information, and I should have taken greater care to check details. Text of the response from the World Bank is below:
We noticed with some concern that in your Aug. 11 blog post, you had singled out a World Bank call for proposals as a “beautiful illustration” of a type of funding call that appears designed to favor an inside candidate. This characterization is entirely inaccurate and appears based on a misperception of the time lag between the announcement of the proposal and the deadline.
Your reference to the 2018 Call for Proposals for Collaborative Data Innovations for Sustainable Development by the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data as undermining faith in the funding process seems based on the mistaken assumption that the call was issued on or about August 2. It was not.
The call was announced June 19 on the websites of the World Bank and the GPSDD. This was two months before the closing date, a period we have deemed fair to applicants but also appropriate given our own time constraints. An online seminar was offered to assist prospective applicants, as you note, on July 9.
The seminar drew 127 attendees for whom we provided answers to 147 questions. We are still reviewing submissions for the most recent call for proposals for this project, but our call for the 2017 version elicited 228 proposals, of which 195 met criteria for external review.
As the response to the seminar and the record of submissions indicate, this funding call has been widely seen and provided numerous applicants the opportunity to respond.  To suggest that this has not been an open and fair process does not do it justice.

Here are the links with the announcement dates of June 19th


  1. Thanks for posting this. I work for the NEH in the US. Of course, our funding situation is quite different from the UK (we don't tend to have the same tight funding timeframes). Nevertheless, I think all your points are very important and I agree with them. I'd even add a 6th category: funders (like us) are often calling for collaborative projects involving scholars from other institutions or other countries. Putting such a collaboration together takes additional time. Calls should recognize this. I think any kind of collaborative call should give you many months lead time (I'd like to see at least 5 or 6 months.) My organization is by no means perfect in this regard -- but we are working to improve lead times. I would encourage scholars to give such feedback to their funders (as Melissa did with AHRC). That REALLY helps, as we need to get that feedback internally to make change happen.

    1. Well, you also do not admonish the applicant by not letting them resubmit with changes even if the reviewers comments often are poor judgements.
      We are often expected to achieve the same standards as you all in the US or even EU while gaining sums in awards that are just enough to support a postdoc for 3 years.
      A challenge on its own.

  2. I recently experienced an EPSRC-led EoI submission with a first-come, first-served selection mechanism. There was a midnight(!) opening of the submission through a website. A few hours before midnight we checked if the site was open - it was, so we submitted and went to bed, only to have our submissions disqualified for being too early. This is unfair to people with young children who are desperate for sleep, and clearly a system that disqualifies submissions to a website for being too early, despite the submission system being open is silly.

  3. Only just seen your post, Dorothy, as I was madly working on a grant application submission for yesterday :-)
    Notice the similar tight deadline, for a bilateral funding call (and UK-Japan currently has an 8-hour time difference hindering rapid communication between colleagues).
    Is it coincidence that the funding has to start on 14 Feb 2019 as well (and they are clear there is no permitted delay)? Is there something about money released to research councils?

    1. Hi, do you know when the UKRI-JSPS call was first announced?

  4. The same lack of consideration for academics’ time flows over into requests for reviews of grants. I recently had an email out of the blue from the Netherlands asking me to review a grant proposal, with a deadline of 5 working days. I declined. I explained that this was not a reasonable request and asked them to pass this to the committee which organizes the timetable for the scheme.

    Much better was a grant giving body, from New Zealand, which invited me two months out whether I would be able to review a proposal in a month’s time with a deadline one month later. I said yes.