Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Marking funding proposals is fun

No, I'm serious. An expansion of tweets from earlier in the day.

I've been assessing/marking/commenting on funding proposals from various UK funding bodies for the past decade or so, most being for programmes concerning digital games, or virtual worlds, in education. Perhaps I'm a little mad, but I find it really enjoyable.

There's several benefits to marking proposals. It's satisfying. You get to see what direction the field is moving in. References and citations in proposals are often of interest. And, so long as you don't go off on an ego or power trip, then you can have a positive influence over what projects come about, and how funding is allocated.

On that last point - with marking comes a great responsibility. What you comment and mark will directly affect the lives of a lot of people. What they do. What they earn. What they produce. A particular rung on their career ladders. If you aren't comfortable with this, or you have problems with bias, favoritism or grudges, then simply don't mark funding proposals.

It's also interesting to see how funding proposal writers cope with emerging concepts, paradigms, and buzzwords. Take the buzzword "gamification", which is a mangled business speak word referencing an old concept (people have been trying to turn things into games, or add game elements to non-game tasks or systems, for many years). In the last batch of funding proposals I assessed*, approaches included:

  • Enthusiastically using the word.
  • Cynically using the word, and dissecting it.
  • Impartially using the word, and putting it into a historical context.
  • Not mentioning the word altogether.

I should stress there's no right or wrong approach here.

Money Talks

And there's a few disadvantages, to marking funding proposals. It's rarely paid work. The systems of assessment have gotten gradually more complex and fiddly over the years, and sometimes you feel like a robotic checklist ticker. The variation in proposal quality for the same call can be unnerving. A *lot* of reading is involved, and you have to take it all in. Some funding bodies give you little time to do a good, reflective, job. You can't tweet or discuss openly anything you've read. And very occasionally (has happened to me), you will come across someone slagging off your previous work in their proposal - and because of the confidentiality process, you can't call them out on it, ever.

Some tips for proposal writers

I can't give specific examples but here's a few things that come up over and over.

1. And the most important. Ask for funding for the stuff the funding brief or circular says you can have. Not what you think you should have. It's difficult to believe at times, but some academics/institutions still do submit proposals that don't make it past the first stage because of this.

2. Yes, these are competitive times, but if you promise the earth on a shoestring budget to try and be the "best value for money" bid, you may get marked down or out as being unrealistic.

3. There is rarely any justification for the director to present the findings of your project in another continent, so don't include eye-watering expenses so he can do so, even if he has told you to include them. Dissemination nowadays can be a cheap activity. Should be a cheap activity.

4. Spell check. Grammar check. Check your budget adds up. Get someone else to check the whole thing before it is despatched. If it's for a UK funding body, use UK language, not US language.

5. Justify, justify, justify. The ideal funding proposal outlines something new and unique, which otherwise wouldn't be funded, and is argued convincingly with reference to other works.

6. Humor very rarely works in funding proposals (often in real life) and I'm puzzled by what appears to be a recent trend in this. Did someone influential recently say something about winning markers over in this way? I just find it odd - especially as most funding proposal circulars put a strict word or page limit on what you can submit. Just avoid this.

7. Don't repeat yourself. See previous point about page limit.

8. Yes, yes, interesting and well argued. But what exactly will your project have produced by the end of its funding. If it isn't clear by the time the whole funding proposal has been read, then there's a problem.

9. Don't resubmit a failed proposal from a previous year with just a few things changed. Veteran proposal markers will spot this. In relatively small academic fields, we may even remember the previous failed proposal. Resubmits rarely read well, even if a few of them do get funding.

10. Please label graphs and charts clearly. There seems to be some kind of persistent problem with this in UK Higher Education proposals, and more than once have puzzled "so what do these units mean?" or even "what units are they altogether?"

Anyway, no funding body is going to phone you out of the blue and say "We've just found a load of money. Have it to spend on your pet project idea." So, if you do have an idea, get writing.

(* checked with funding body and they are happy with this post)

No comments:

Post a Comment