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’.


  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.

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