Grant writing and the grown ups table

It’s that time of year again. And by ‘that time’, I mean it’s the ARC time of year.

In the early months of the year, researchers across Australian universities dedicate themselves to the Australian Research Council (ARC). They busy themselves with the process of grant writing, and later emerge in February or March to continue their research as if nothing had interrupted them in the first place.

This is my first year joining this ritual of the academic grown ups. I’m applying for an ARC DECRA grant, which is limited to funding young academics who are within 5 years of having graduated from a PhD.

This ECR (Early Career Researcher) award is a relatively new addition to the ARC landscape. It provides salary and resources to an early career researcher for 3 years, with the aim of getting them on their way to being an independent superstar who will remain in Australia and enrich our national research capacity for years to come.

The DECRA scheme is highly competitive. I’ve heard of success rates in some years being as low as 8% or in lucky years as stratospheric as 14%*. The highly competitive nature of the scheme means that they have come to be seen as highly prestigious.

A recent successful awardee from the 2014 funding round, Dr Danielle Edwards, made waves in the Australian media and within the academy when she had the nerve to turn down her grant funding. In this rare case the money returns to the pot back at the ARC and cannot be re-assigned to another applicant.

Her motivations were an unsurprising mix of personal and professional, encompassing what she thought best for her career, her partner’s career, their imminent children and their relationship.

Some Australian researchers were taken aback. Her decision could be seen as ungrateful, unpatriotic, and disrespectful to unsuccessful applicants, who would remain penniless.

Edwards controversial decision sparked discussion about the usefulness of the scheme. She had chronically struggled to get work as an ECR in Australia and had found the possibility of job security through the US academic system. She said that although the DECRA was designed to attract and keep the brightest young things to our universities, the lack of long-term promise was problematic.

The DECRA is now largely seen as ‘a make or break’ point in a pathway to academia. Winning a ‘prestigious’ grant is a good step in the right direction but missing the opportunity can be seen as a hard career blow to recover from.

The DECRA is prestigious because it is difficult to win, not because of the opportunity it allows the recipient. After a DECRA, with limited clear career pathways, what happens to our young academic superstars?

It’s clear that the ‘make or break’ idea is not the case at all. Hard work and good work don’t guarantee grant success in the first place. And even after a successful application to the Australian Research Council, high-quality research output along the way don’t guarantee that you will make it to the next career phase.

Several of my young colleagues have been awarded DECRA grants in previous years, and I’m unashamedly envious. I’m keen to join their ranks and sit at the grown ups table. For the chance to join them, I’ve now invested a considerable amount of time working on a proposal that is unlikely to be funded.

It’s considered general knowledge that grant writing is an odious process and that obligatory grunts, groans and eye rolls must accompany any description of the dull process. It turns out that this time at least, I’ve really enjoyed the process.

At its essence, the writing of a grant is science communication. For me, it’s been interesting to learn how to communicate my ideas in a new format to a new audience.

It’s also been rewarding to thrash through ideas, working out which ones interest me, which have the greatest scientific merit and which can be achieved in a limited time on a limited budget.

But it’s also a long process to becoming a grown up. The deadline for applications is still around a month away and successful applicants are only notified in November.  I’ll keep you posted on how I’m going and if I’m still enjoying it in 9 months time!

* I’m not sure how precisely accurate these figures are, they could well hover closer to 14% year-to-year.

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