A burning question

Frequently in my courses, participants ask me some variation of the following question: If I submit a proposal on topic x, will my grant be (more) likely to succeed than if I go with my current topic on y?


It’s a burning question for many. The activities we do in these courses invite participants to look at the funding options available for their topic/field, and some quickly realise that there are limited opportunities there, OR that there are more opportunities for funding in a slightly different field or topic.


There are several factors that influence how I respond to this common question, depending on the participant:

  • How extensive is their publication record in their current area vs the new area they’re considering a move into?
  • What are the links (in career narrative terms) between their current area and the one they propose to shift into?
  • What lines of argument could be made about how their current area aligns with funding body objectives and priorities?  
  • How topical are both areas of research in the wider social, economic and political climate?


All of these elements matter and deserve their own blog posts, yet it’s the last of these that matters in today’s increasingly ‘impact-oriented’ funding climate. By that I mean that, more and more, researchers are required to indicate (and build into their project design) the impact and/or wider societal or economic benefit and significance of their proposed project.


So while we can try all sorts of scenario-setting along the lines of ‘if (I write x) then (I’ll be successful/unsuccessful)’, I’d much rather see you ASK that wider community of likely beneficiaries of, or those impacted by, the proposed research, rather than expect to arrive at a ‘right’ answer from drafting the proposal in solitude. So how might you do this?


Here are 3 steps to get you started:


1. Consider and note down who is currently preoccupied with the problem or phenomenon you’re proposing to study.


This could be politicians, bureaucrats, local farming communities, tourism peak bodies, art galleries, medical specialists, workers in a specific profession or trade, sufferers of a chronic disease, a certain socio-economic group. If you’re drawing blanks on this one, ask another academic or someone in your Research Office to help you brainstorm out loud to get you ‘seeing’ your research through fresh eyes.


2. Based on the proposed scope of the proposal project, decide which stakeholders among those on your list above could be genuinely enrolled in the project.


If your project is only 6 months in scope, or only looking at regional NSW, it’s not going to be feasible or convincing to do, say, regular engagement and post-study follow up and translation of your research with stakeholders all over Australia, since the project funds are unlikely to extend that far, and the research scope and findings will be specific to NSW. And while you may have a long list of stakeholders from step 1, you’re best off focusing on a limited number of meaningful yet influential stakeholders to help you keep the project contained and more likely of quality impact.


3. Google search those stakeholders (you’re a researcher after all – so some investigative work should be second nature!). Contact them and ask for 15-20 minutes of their time to understand what challenges they’re having or ways they’re handling [insert the problem you’re studying].


Note that I didn’t say contact them to ask them if they see your project as a good idea or worthwhile. You’re going to use these conversations to see and hear about the ‘problem’ through their eyes, not through the lens of your research question. The conversations may even reveal that they DON’T consider your topic a problem. That kind of response is just as instructive … you’ll learn far more quickly what issues do matter to your stakeholders, which will either take you back to the drawing board with your idea, or give you an opportunity to mould your proposal around those issues. By doing this sort of preliminary investigation with the humans in your research story, you’ll be building relationships that may turn into collaborative partnerships in the proposed project. For instance, that policy maker you spoke to about your project later followed up with you to say they’d like to partner with you on the project and that they have some funds available to contribute to your application.


So while we could split hairs over the ‘if I focus on x instead of y, will I get the grant?’ question, I say, base your assessment on the pre-application input you get from the real world of stakeholders in your topic’s circle of impact.


What about you – have you tried this approach before? What did you learn? Or are you trying to figure out which direction to take your research in but are unsure which path will be more likely of funding success? Has this post encouraged you to think about trying these 3 steps? I’d love to know.

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