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9 most common researchers’ mistakes in grant projects. Interview with Sylwia Piskorska, IDEAS NCBR expert

Modern science operates in grant model, where not only good research idea and competences of scientists, but also ability to manage a project from business perspective is what counts. In second part of the interview we ask Sylwia Piskorska, expert of IDEAS NCBR, on how to navigate this complicated world.

19 August 2022

Presently, working in the science sector requires operating in project mode, where grants are awarded in open competitions. To implement original research plans and develop the career in the field of their interest, the scientists have to be experts in acquiring and accounting for research and development funds. Even the best ideas and most talented researchers may have problems with searching, acquiring and accounting for public funds. It requires quite good management skills and understanding how R&D sector operates from financial and operational side.

Sylwia Piskorska – Chief Fundraising Specialist in IDEAS NCBR – describes the most common mistakes and problems, which are met by scientists in grant projects. This text is continuation of our interview (available on our website), in which our expert explained how to successfully acquire research grants.

Mistake 1: trying to kill several birds with one stone

SP: Many scientists, particularly at the beginning of their career, approach the submission of applications in a chaotic manner. Many times I saw them for example trying to submit the same application to different competitions without any reflection. Authors concentrated only on modifying the schedule of implementation, names, or costs category, matching descriptions to the particular sections and after such “renewal” they would send the application again. Please: before you submit the grant application, fill all the tables and descriptions, and complete documents, check if this competition is for you. Verify if subject of the competition or target group fits your project. Check if you meet the formal criteria of the entity for which the grant is provided. And what is most important – please think if the application implements the guidelines for the competition.

Mistake 2: Do it for me

SP: Another bad practice is outsourcing preparation of the grant application concentrated on acquiring financing and not the content of the project. Of course you may approach the matter this way and be almost certain to achieve score of 100%. Unfortunately, afterwards it turns out, that to achieve desired effect (acquiring financing), you have to fulfil demanding indicators and implement incredibly innovative and breakthrough goals. “Application will accept all.” But its implementation may not be so simple. Fulfilling contractual obligations will be connected with disproportionate amount of work, stress and bureaucracy compared to the funds acquired and the actual ability to achieve scientific success.

Mistake 3: Ctrl C + Ctrl V

SP: Copying sentences 1:1 from the competition documentation may seem to be convenient solution. After all, in manuals for applicants you may often find tips on which information should be included in the application. Unfortunately, copying and pasting the tips is only the evidence of lack of appropriate attention to the application and its content. Answers and descriptions in the particular sections of the application should comply with the competition guidelines and explain how and why the proposal of this project fits their mission and guidelines. Manuals usually include suggestions only, not the precise directions what should be written in which point.

Mistake 4: words, terms, definitions

SP: Using complicated terminology and catchy key words is often incomprehensible to the team assessing the project. It is hard to resign from using specialized language, but it should not dominate the description of grant application. Main sections of the application such as aims of the project, expected results or gains of implementation should be written using “popular science” language – understandable for each reader. If we “overload” the assessing team with overly specialist slogans from the very beginning, we may put them off further reading. We may leave the specialized terms for later, e.g. to describing ways of implementing tasks, methodology or necessary technology used to implementation of the project.

Mistake 5: Houston, we have a problem

SP: Very often the applicant writing grant application concentrates on identified challenges forgetting to offer solutions. Nobody likes to listen to the person who only complains and wrings hands giving nothing in return. Grant applications definitely should clearly describe key problem. However the main focus should be directed to methods used to address that problem. You need to show what measures or methods may be used to solve it, what would be the results and benefits and convince why this is worth being financed.

It is difficult to define the best moment to submit grant application. If we have interesting project idea, we should seize any opportunity, any competition. Even if the application is not accepted, you can always get valuable feedback – learn what went wrong, what areas need to be strengthened, what to improve. Such failure may be an extremely helpful experience, which can be used in the next competition.

Sylwia Piskorska

grant expert, IDEAS NCBR

Mistake 6: Let’s do something. What exactly?

SP: The downfall of many projects is lack of precision in constructing the success indicators and milestones of the project implementation. In description of implementation of particular phases you do not describe the problem itself. Very well prepared grant applications include roadmap of what the applicant plans to do within the project, how to find the solution of the presented problem and how to evaluate it. He/ she presents specific actions or activities, which should be taken to solve the problem. Then, even if project fails, it can still be considered as scientific success. The hypothesis has been tested and it has been proved, that particular method does not work and in the future either different type of actions have to be taken, or the problem itself has to be totally redefined.

Mistake 7: Cost estimations, tables, schedules of dread

SP: Creating the budget or other executive documentation in hurry, you can forget, that the time to implement them will come. Despite IT systems supporting application process, sometimes the final version still includes serious mistakes. To avoid them, partial tables and project’s summary should be verified couple of times before submission. It is crucial, that budget supports the whole financing logic. So do not apply for overstated funds for implementation of the project, that could be executed for 20-30% of the stated amount. Such “ambitious” attempts almost never work, applicants don’t stand a chance against experienced officers.

Creators of the application usually prepare maximum 3-4 budgets a year, while each expert evaluating legitimacy of the presented costs to the scope of the project implementation, deals with tens or even hundreds budgets in one competition only. This translates to vast experience and efficiency in catching inconsistencies, wrong estimates and mistakes. That is why the budget accompanying the grant application should be prepared with the same diligence as description and fit item by item to implemented tasks.

Mistake 8: Who needs manuals?

Currently all applications go through formal verification, which takes place before directing to further, more detailed assessment. To make a short list and go forward, you need to complete the requirements described in the application submission manual. If it includes information, that e.g. plan of the project or Gannt diagram should be attached, you simply have to do it. If declaration of project manager is required – make him/ her sign the document attached to the application. If small – but particularly important from the formal point of view – action is missing, everything can fail. Such omissions led to the failure of many valuable applications, which never even made it to the substantive assessment stage because of that “small” mistake.

Mistake 9: Nothing ventured, nothing gained

It is difficult to define the best moment to submit grant application. If we have interesting project idea, we should seize any opportunity, any competition. There is never a perfect time, it is easy to find excuses: too short a deadline, insufficient experience, low innovation score, etc. Even if the application is not accepted, you can always get valuable feedback – learn what went wrong, what areas need to be strengthened, what to improve. Such failure may be an extremely helpful experience, which can be used in the next competition. So what are you waiting for? Start looking for competitions and writing the applications now.

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