Written by Tom Vradenberg. Edited by Stephanie Mason.
Editing research grant proposals: it’s about as specific as it gets. Most editors, throughout their careers, specialize in subjects they gravitate to, with many pulled towards the more popular genres of scientific journals or poetry (amongst others). However, editing academic research grant proposals may be the niche of niches.
During our March Speaker Night, we were joined by Letitia Henville, of BC Branch, who primarily works with academics seeking research grants and secondarily works with artists seeking Canada Council grants. Among her many achievements, Letitia completed a PhD in English in 2015, a Claudette Upton Award in 2017, and a President’s Award for Volunteer Service.
One of the first notes Letitia made was how, though one needs to learn about the most current events in specialized academic or artistic fields, it’s also essential to know about the vastly particular bureaucratic processes and how to help applicants through it. Further, the more specific the knowledge is, the farther it will go for the “stressed-out smartypants people” that need the help and, by proxy, make the work intellectually stimulating and rewarding. Letitia cited a recent project worth $27.8 million: “They’ll go to great lengths to make their proposal look shiny,” she said.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Letitia’s biggest piece of advice was to “get narrow, find your specialty subject.” She noted how, with progress, it’s common to work with the same academics repeatedly and get to know their field. However, it’s not just about learning their jargon; there needs to be a familiarity with the field to be able to identify any gaps in their grant applications.
She then went on to detail the rules of the grant-application process, both the written and her own unwritten rules. They go as follows:
For the written rules:
- Note when granting agencies publish their rules for applying. (For example, the three federal granting agencies publish a Guide on Financial Administration.)
- Read those rules carefully and read them for every new project, even if you think you’ve read them before. Granting organizations will change the rules and not flag the ones that are new or changed.
- Expect that clients won’t read them or keep updated. Reminding clients of the rules looks professional, but don’t charge for the time spent researching.
The unwritten rules:
- Know that researchers should understand what their results will be before they propose the project. The work should not be too innovative, out there, or risky.
- Try to anticipate who will be on the review panel before the client prepares their application. Each reviewer serves roughly three years on a committee, so it’s a fair bet most of the reviewers from the previous year will return. Google them, look up their research profile, and explain to the client how varied their research backgrounds are.
- Emphasize that even if the committee doesn’t completely match the research of the client, the multidisciplinary committee is worse as they are funded at lower rates. Instead, find the right singular disciplinary field.
The last bits of information that Letitia offered were to do with the funding landscapes that she works with. There are different levels, and she noted that in Ontario, the Ontario Research Fund is not considered a major market considering editors most often get hired for lucrative, high-prestige projects, and this fund doesn’t have the money for them.
She instead recommended the federal level grants where, essentially, all the funds are. The three agencies of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Social Sciences, and the Humanities Research Council all have multiple funding streams with lots happening in each one. She noted that even if there’s uncertainty about having the core scientific or technical knowledge, there are likely funding streams for projects in familiar fields.
Letitia also noted some non-government funders both in Canada and out, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Wellcome Trust in Europe, and the Max Bell Foundation in Canada.
A highly educational and enjoyable night for all!