I recently read a fascinating post from the always-informative Research Fundermentals blog on response to reviewers' comments. I highly recommend this post to you, as it's an important part of getting your funding proposal accepted.
The post made me think more broadly about the sorts of feedback a researcher can expect to receive at different times in the proposal-writing process. When should you ask for feedback? From who? And when can you take it seriously?
Let's say you've decided to apply two-stage Research Council funding scheme. We'll follow the journey you'll likely take as this proposal makes its way through the world.
Writing the bid
Stage one is a mixture of coming up with a project idea and finding the call you want to apply to. Sometimes one comes first, sometimes the other, but these two activities collide and inspire you to write a bid. Once you've sketched out your initial idea, you'll start contacting relevant Co-Is and collaborators, sending them some information on the call, and your rough ideas. This is probably your first chance to get feedback: do your partners like your idea? do they think it fits the call and the funder's needs? do they agree their work will contribute as you hoped? If the answer is no, take them seriously, and work with them to refine your idea. You may decide the solution is to tweak a work package or the expected outputs of the proposed work, or to swap out one collaborator for another. Let the funder's needs and the research guide you, not just your loyalty to friends.
Your second chance comes when the proposal is in draft, right up until submission. Conversations with collaborators and partners should continue throughout the process, but once you've got a full draft you should broaden your feedback search. Talk to colleagues not involved in the bid, maybe even from irrelevant fields, and get them to critique your approach. Talk to RIDO, and get us to check for readability, whether you conform to the rules of the call, and get our interpretation of what the funder wants to see. Between us, we have a wide range of experience, and our perspectives can answer other questions. Use this feedback to get your final draft together. Key points here:
- you're the expert: only you know if our recommendations improve or harm what you were trying to say
- reviewers may not be experts: if we struggle to understand, they might struggle too.
You've submitted, now what?
Different calls have different rules. Sometimes you get feedback opportunities, sometimes you don't. In our two-stage RCUK example, you should receive feedback after the first panel meeting. The panel will tell you why your work seems exciting, why it seems old-hat, why it fits (or doesn't fit) the aims of the funder. They have expertise, but it won't overlap perfectly with yours. Use their comments to re-draft the proposal for stage two, and describe the changes you've made. If you feel comments are unreasonable, explain why. Understand their perspective, and see this as your chance to sell your work better - not a chance everyone gets! Go through the feedback with RIDO and use us again - we're used to interpreting the language of feedback.
In our hypothetical call, your bid would be sent to peer reviewers. I won't repeat the Fundermentals blog referenced above, but suffice to say, your fourth set of feedback may be the most important. Consider the panel: they have in front of them your bid, including stage one improvements, their own non-expert notes, and notes from the referees. They form opinions from their own knowledge base, but they are guided by referees and the scores they provide. If you are invited to respond to reviewers' comments:
- take the opportunity
- acknowledge valid points and give detailed answers to requests for detail or clarification
- be polite where you feel a comment is unreasonable or misunderstands the proposal, but explain yourself thoroughly
- follow the funder's rules (page limit etc).
If you do all this, you give yourself the best chance of getting your case across to the panel, and you've maximised all your opportunities.
These principles, and those cited above apply at other times you can expect feedback.
- After a final funding decision from the panel.
- During a project at reporting stages from steering groups, the funder, your team.
- Writing articles based on your work from editors and reviewers.
Try to learn lessons from every bid you submit and ever paper you write. All feedback at every stage can help you with your next attempt.
Some feedback is not useful and could even be malicious. Usually a panel will pick up on this but don't assume they will: don't dismiss negative feedback out of hand. Respond politely but clearly, and see it as an opportunity to speak directly to the panel concerned. Other feedback is vital to improving your bid. If a reviewer has not understood your work and asks for more detail, we must assume the panel would be in the same position, and it will only improve your chances to explain yourself more clearly.
I hope this helps in your funding journey!