Book review: The Research Funding Toolkit (Part 1)

For the purposes of this review, I’ve set aside my aversion to the use of terms like ‘toolkit’ and ‘workshop’.

The existence of a market for The Research Funding Toolkit, by Jacqueline Aldridge and Andrew Derrington, is yet more evidence of how difficult it is to get research funding in the current climate.  Although the primary target audience is an academic one, research managers and those in similar roles “will also find most of this book useful”, and I’d certainly have no hesitation in recommending this book to researchers who want to improve their chances of getting funding, and also to new and to experienced research managers.  In particular, academics who don’t have regular access to research managers (or similar) and to experienced grant getters and givers at their own institution should consider this book essential reading if they entertain serious ambitions about obtaining research funding.  While no amount of skill in grant writing will get a poor idea funded, a lack of skill in grant writing can certainly prevent an outstanding idea from getting the hearing it deserves if the application lacks clarity, fails to highlight the key issues, or fails to make a powerful case for its importance.

The authors have sought to distil a substantial amount of advice and experience down into one short book which covers finding appropriate funding sources, planning an application, understanding application forms, and assembling budgets.  But it goes beyond mere administrative advice, and also addresses writing style, getting useful (rather than merely polite) feedback on draft versions, the internal politics of grant getting, the challenges of collaborative projects, and the key questions that need to be addressed in every application.  Crucially, it demystifies what really goes on at grant decision making meetings – something that far too many applicants know far too little about.  Applicants would love to think that the scholarly and eminent panel spend hours subjecting every facet of their magnum opus to detailed, rigorous, and forensic analysis.  The reality is – unavoidably given application numbers  – rather different.

Aldridge and Derrington are well-situated to write a book about obtaining research funding.  Aldridge is Research Manager at Kent Business School and has over eight years’ experience of research management and administration.  Derrington is Pro-Vice Chancellor for Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Liverpool, and has served on grant committees for several UK research councils and for the Wellcome Trust.  His research has been “continuously funded” by various schemes and funders for 30 years.  I think a book like this could only have been written in close collaboration between an academic with grant getting and giving experience, and a research manager with experience of supporting applications over a number of years.

The book practices what it preaches by applying the principles of grant writing that it advocates to the style and layout of the book itself.  It is organised into 13 distinct chapters, each containing a summary and introduction, and a conclusion at the end to summarise the key points and lessons to be taken.  It includes 19 different practical tools, as well as examples from successful grant applications. One of the appendixes offers advice on running institutional events on grant getting.  As it advises applicants, it breaks the text down into small chunks, makes good use of headings and subheadings, and uses clear, straightforward language.  It’s certainly an easy, straightforward read which won’t take too long to read cover-to-cover, and the structure allows the reader to dip back in to re-read appropriate sections later.  Probably the most impressive thing for me about the style is how lightly it wears its expertise – genuinely useful advice without falling into the traps of condescension, smugness, or preaching.  Although the prose sacrifices sparkle for clarity and brevity, the book coins a number of useful phrases or distinctions that will be of value, and I’ll certainly be adopting one or two of them.

Writing a book of this nature raises a number of challenges about specificity and relevance.  Different subjects have different funders with different priorities and conventions, and arrangements vary from country to country, and – of course – over time.  The authors have deliberately sought to use a wide range of example funders, including funders from Australia, America, and from Europe – though as you might expect the majority of exemplar funders are UK-based.  However, different Research Councils are used as case studies, and I would imagine that the advice given is generalisable enough to be of real value across academic disciplines and countries.  It’s harder to tell how this book will date, (references to web resources all date from Oct 2011), but much of the advice flows directly from (a) the scarcity of resources, and (b) the way that grant panels are organised and work, and it’s hard to imagine either changing substantially.  The authors are careful not to make generalisations or sweeping assertions based on any particular funder or scheme, so I would be broadly optimistic about the book’s continuing relevance and utility in years to come.  There’s also a website to accompany the book where new materials and updates may be added in the future.  There are already a number of blog posts subsequent to the publication date of the book.

Worries about appearing dated may account for the book having comparatively little to say about the impact agenda and how to go about writing an impact statement.  Only two pages address this directly, and much of these are taken up with examples.  Although not all UK funders ask for impact statements yet, the research councils have been asking for them for some time, and indications are that other countries are more likely to follow suit than not.  However, I think the authors were right not to devote a substantial section to this, as understandings and approaches to impact are still comparatively in their infancy, and such a section would probably be likely to date.

I’ve attempted a fairly general review in this post, and I’ll save most of my personal reaction for Part 2 of this post.  As well as highlighting a few areas that I found particularly useful, I’m going to raise a few issues that arise from the book as a bit of a jumping off point for debate and discussion.  Attempting to do that in this first post will make it too long, and unbalance the review by placing excessive focus on areas where I’d tentatively disagree, rather than the overwhelming majority of the points and arguments made in the book which I’d thoroughly agree with and endorse absolutely.

‘The Research Funding Toolkit(£21.99 for the paperback version) is available from Sage.  The Sage website also mentions an ebook version, but the link doesn’t appear to be working at the time of writing.

Declarations of interest:
Publishers Sage were kind enough to provide me with a free review copy of this book.  I have had some very brief Twitter interactions with Derrington and I met Aldridge briefly at the ARMA conference earlier this year.

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