The Malacologist | The Malacological Society of London The Malacological Society of London The Malacologist

Volume 51

Research Funding in Focus:

The Society's Research Grant Review Process and

What Makes a Good Application 

The Research Grants scheme was established to commemorate The Society's Centenary in 1993, with the aim of funding small discrete research projects that broadly fall within the scope of The Society's Journal of Molluscan Studies; the maximum amount of an individual Research Grant is currently 1000 (see rear cover of this publication for details). Over recent years the Research Grants scheme has become very successful, highlighted by the number of applications received. Since 2004, The Society has received a total of eighty-one applications from applicants working in twenty-five different countries (Table 1); most of these have been written by bright PhD students wishing to research novel and fascinating aspects of malacology.

Table 1.

International nature of The Society's Research Grants scheme illustrated by the range of countries of origin of applicants during the period 2005 - 2008. The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of applications received from a given country.

2005

2006

2007

2008

France (1)
Germany(2)
United Kingdom (5)
United States of America (3)

 

 

Argentina (4)
Bermuda (1)
Canada (2)
Chile (1)
Costa Rica (1)
Croatia (1)
Germany (3)
Italy (2)
Jamaica (1)
Peru (1)
Spain (1)
United Kingdom (4)
United States of America (1)

Argentina (5)
Canada (1)
Germany (1)
Ghana (1)
Hawaii (1)
Nepal (1)
New Zealand (1)
Switzerland (1)
United Kingdom (4)
United States of America (3)

 

Argentina (5)
Australia (1)
Brazil (2)
Canada (1)
Czech Republic (1)
Italy (1)
Moldova (1)
Philippines (1)
South Africa(1)
United Kingdom (5)
United States of America (9)

Analysis of research grant applications received over the same period reveals a general upward trend in the number of applications received per year, with twenty-eight received in 2008 alone (Fig 1). In part, this surge in applications is due to increased exposure of the Research Grants scheme internationally. Publicity of the scheme is achieved through regular advertisement in The Society's newsletter, The Malacologist, inclusion in the same publication of reports from research done by the awardees, and announcements at The Society's annual Molluscan Forum in November. To reach beyond members of The Society, the awards are also advertised on the mollusc list-server operated by the University of Berkeley (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/mologis/mollusca.html). In response to increased Research Grant application numbers, The Society has boosted funding to the scheme. In 2008 spending on Research Grants was 72% higher than in 2005 (8,898 compared to 5,162; Fig. 1). In spite of this, the increased demand for awards has impacted negatively on success rates. Whereas in 2005 the success rate was 64%, in the current year it was 36% (Fig. 1). Nevertheless, this still represents a good success rate, which The Society's Council feel is sufficiently high to encourage researchers to apply to the scheme.

Overall, The Society is committed to funding promising individuals proposing only the highest quality of research that is likely to lead to publication. To sustain and further promote scientific excellence within applications and to encourage young researchers who have not yet applied to do so, I felt that it was timely to provide a brief overview of the Research Grants awarding process and to highlight factors that the Awards Committee views as being important in defining an excellent application. Details concerning the application procedure and the electronic application forms are available on The Society's web site (http://www.malacsoc.org.uk/Awards.htm), so will not be discussed here.

Research Grant Review Process

Once applications are received they are screened for completeness and applicants are sent an acknowledgement. The Awards Secretary then collates applications with their letters of reference and asks Councillors of The Society if they would join the annual Awards Committee. Typically the Committee comprises between six and eight malacologists (including the Awards Secretary) who are then sent applications to review. Every effort is made to ensure that each application is reviewed by at least three (normally four) members of the Committee and that each member reviews applications that fall within their area of expertise. Applications are then scored by reviewers according to a range of criteria (see below) before being returned to the Awards Secretary; these scores allow individual applications to be ranked. The Awards Secretary then collates the grades and ranks, to produce a final spreadsheet of applicants/projects for discussion by the Committee. Defining the cut-off point is always a tricky task because The Society wishes to fund as much excellent malacology as possible within the realms of what is financially reasonable. In general, any research project which has been deemed by any one reviewer to be of low quality is unlikely to be funded. Therefore achieving high marks in the scoring exercise from each reviewer is crucial; excellent science and good grantsmanship is therefore vital to success. 

What makes a good project application?

There are several criteria (Table 2) that are used to score applications but, in addition, the whole application must hang well together, be written in clear English, and must not exceed the length permitted in the boxes on the application form.Overall, scientific excellence is a key ingredient for success. It is important to set the scene for the research project in the 'Background' section while avoiding unnecessary detail, but emphasising the importance of the research area to malacology in general. The aims and objectives must also be well defined and must be logical and focused; importantly, they must be achievable within the time-frame of the project and must be underpinned by appropriate work-plans listed under 'experimental approach'. Applicants should also ensure they include a timetable in the project details; this is often forgotten, even though it is requested on the form. Over ambitious work-plans should be avoided and projects should be achievable within the maximum one-year time frame. Also, reviewers will be assessing whether or not the outcomes of the research are likely to lead to publication therefore, focused applications are more likely to tick this box! Moreover, applications are much more likely to be funded if they are discrete; reliance on other funding sources that are not yet obtained is likely to be detrimental to an application.

Table 2. General criteria used by members of the review panel to score and subsequently rank Research Grant applications.

Scientific merit:

Background:Aims/objectives:Methods:Timeliness/relevance:Publication:

How well is the research project put into context of previous work?Are these clearly defined in the application?Are the methods well described and is the work plan achievable?How timely is the research and how much will the research benefit the field of malacology in general?Is the research likely to result in a publication?

Costs:

Value:

Are the requested costs reasonable and is the project discrete?

Applicant:

Career:

References:

Current post:

 

 

If funded, how much will the project benefit the individual's research aspirations?

How supportive are the referees of the project and of the individual?

Is the applicant employed in a professional post, or are they a student/researcher without a professional post?

Importantly, the Research Grants scheme is also designed to help researchers develop as successful malacologists. The Society hopes that receipt of a Malacological Society Research Grant at an early stage in a person's career will provide encouragement, and offer all important financial assistance allowing researchers to complete an interesting piece of work that might have otherwise been impossible to undertake. Thus reviewers evaluate the individual aspirations of an applicant and the letters of recommendation submitted with the application (Table 2). Occasionally, only one reference is received for an applicant and this can be very detrimental to the outcome of the review; applicants are reminded that it is their responsibility to ensure that all references are received by the Awards Secretary. Finally, researchers in professional positions are automatically down-graded because the scheme is designed to give preference to those researchers without professional positions (e.g. students and researchers on temporary contracts). Thus we discourage applications from researchers in professional positions and, to be successful, such an application would have to excel in all respects.

The reporting process

Once work is completed, applicants must provide a brief financial report indicating how the money was spent and an article of approximately 1000 words for publication in the The Malacologist. Crucially, this latter report informs the membership of the type of research that The Society's money is spent on; in addition, it provides the researchers with a publication which does not preclude publication of the results elsewhere. Recipients of research grants are also asked to acknowledge The Society in any publications (conference, journal or otherwise) arising from the work, ultimately increasing international exposure for The Society.

Concluding remarks

I sincerely hope that this article has been interesting and useful to those of you wishing to apply for a Malacological Society of London Research Grant and that it has demystified much of The Society's grant awarding processes. In addition, I anticipate that the article has been insightful to those of you that were wondering how The Society's money was spent on research awards. You can see that lots of work goes on behind the scenes with regard to grants administration, even in a small society such as ours. I am indebted to the malacologists of The Society that take the time to review the grant applications received, allowing us to fund excellent science; without rigorous review it would be impossible make important decisions regarding which projects to support. Finally I would like to thank the researchers who have so far received Society funds for their hard work, diligence, and enthusiasm for malacology. Results of the funded work have undoubtedly furthered our knowledge of this fascinating and diverse group of organisms considerably.

Dr Tony Walker

Honorary Awards Secretary

Fig. 1. Overview of Research Grant application numbers, success rates and total sums of money awarded between 2005 and 2008

 

.