The grant application – from idea to deadline

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The CauMed team in Bodø, Norway in May 2012. From left: Stephen Mumford, me, Thor Eirik Eriksen, Svein Anders Noer Lie and Roger Kerry.

I don’t think that producing a grant application is easy. What I have plenty of, is ideas. The challenge is to develop an idea into a complete research project and present it in a 10 page document, including largely methodological and administrative points. So here is what I do.

This week I was invited by my university’s research unit to talk about how I work on my grant applications and share some tips with our colleagues. These are the main points from this talk.

Background
Since 2001 my research has largely been funded by the Research Council of Norway (NFR) and their scheme for Independent Projects (FRIPRO). First a 4 year PhD project on the logic of conditionals, followed by a 3 year Postdoc on causation and dispositions. After this, I got a 4 year Researcher grant on causation in science, and 11 days ago I started my 4 year Researcher project on CauseHealth. In total, I have developed and secured 23 million NOK (about 2 million GBP) of funding for 15 years of research. Needless to say, I owe my philosophy career to FRIPRO and NFR.

Motivation: no plan B
Being a philosopher, there are not many available funding options. The big research programs of both EU and Norway are mainly applied, not suitable for methodologies from Arts and Humanities. ERC and FRIPRO are the only schemes that have ever suited my research interests. They are competitive but in return one has complete freedom to pursue blue skies research. In other words: these schemes were my only hope. This has made me put a lot of effort into my applications and it has paid off.

Start: the great Idea
The most important thing is the project idea. For ERC and PRIPRO, I always think big. Independent, radical ideas, preferably paradigm changing. The project should be the most important ever, built on big dreams and ambitions. It is hard to force such ideas. They might pop up unexpectedly or develop slowly over time. My idea for CauseHealth started at a conference in 2011, where I heard two talks that caught my immediate interest. Roger Kerry talked about randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and causation and Thor Eirik Eriksen talked about the medically unexplained, and later he mentioned the notion of medicalisation. Together, these motivated the three pillars of CauseHealth, each representing a shortcoming of the current medical paradigm.

Passion: love thy project
Sometimes I have written a grant application because my funding is running out, but I am still working on my previous project. I have tried to just come up with something, only to get an application into the system. This has never worked for me. My lack of passion and faith in the project shines through. If I don’t think my research idea is exciting, then how can I convince anyone else?

Time: lots of it
There is often pressure from university management to just throw in a proposal to be in the loop. But if you are applying with a competitive scheme like ERC or FRIPRO, it might take quite a lot of work. I never wait for the call to start working on my proposal. Writing the application is not the main job. What takes time is developing the project idea, planning out details and getting to know the new research area. I spend at least 3 months from when I have an idea to the deadline. And since my proposals are usually rejected the first time, I end up spending another 3 months perfecting it. For my two Researcher projects, it took 2 years from I started developing the research idea to the grant got awarded.

Focus: know the call
When the call is out, I print out all the documents. This includes guidelines and evaluation criteria. When writing the application, I am careful to explicitly address all of the scheme’s concerns either in the proposal or in the application form. I try to spend the space available wisely and avoid repeating something. This leaves more time to make sure that I have ticked all the boxes of the call. Earlier, I sometimes wrote “not relevant” under Environmental and Ethical concerns, but this is no longer an option. Now I work really hard to address these issues and, to my surprise, thinking about them has usually allowed me to introduce new arguments that made my bid stronger.

Ask: call the research council
When I work on a grant application, I call the advisers at the research council several times. First, I call them to ask if they have any planned changes in guidelines or criteria. Then, once the call is out, I contact them about all sorts of formalities that are not in the official guidelines. This way, I have managed to get valuable tips and information. If I meet someone who is less helpful, I just call the next person on the list. Once I find a person who is willing to share, I don’t let go of them.

Discuss: bring in collaborators
When I decided to develop the CauseHealth idea into a research proposal, I invited a small group of people to a workshop far up in the North of Norway where we did nothing but discuss for two whole days. This included, of course, Roger Kerry and Thor Eirik Eriksen. We tried to find out how we could join our perspectives together, with the aim to co-author one or more research papers. The result was two published papers, one on causation in evidence based practice, and the other was on the ontological and aetiological challenges of the medically unexplained. I used these two papers as background for my CauseHealth research proposal, and referred to this work as “the successful pilot project performed by the CauMed team”. The CauMed team is of course included on the CauseHealth project.

Share: developing the project
When I have an idea, I never keep it to myself. Even if it’s not properly developed, I present my project idea in seminars, to research groups and to other people in my network. First of all, it helps to get critical feedback, and better to get them before rather than after handing in the application. Secondly, people often have interesting input that give me ideas for developing new sides of the project. But perhaps more important: when I discuss my project with others, I sometimes meet people who gets excited about it and wants to join in. They might also suggest other people I should talk to. So this is how my research network develops while I am still working on the project idea.

Helpers: your best support
It is important to have a professional network, but I only think of some of these as my helpers. I am lucky to have some very good people in my life, from various times in my career. These are my supporters in academia and I know I can trust them to wish me well. I use my helpers for all they are worth, and I feel no shame for doing so. Another time it is me who can help someone. So when the deadline was coming up last year, Stephen Mumford, my closest collaborator, came to Oslo for a week to help me tighten every word of the bid. He forced me to formulate a number of research hypotheses, take out technical details, and in general helped me give the grant a more affirmative spin. When I submitted the application, Stephen said that it was 100 percent perfect and could simply not be rejected. He was right. We got top mark from the reviewers and 9 million NOK, and I am so grateful to him and the rest of the CauMed team who helped me nail this project.

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Discussing the medically unexplained in a café in Bodø.

CauMed

My PhD supervisor, Johan Arnt Myrstad (middle), is another one of my helpers.

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