The roots of discoveries

Scott McCulloch takes a revealing trip through the unfamiliar world of research grant applications.
September 20, 2013
By Scott McCulloch

Applying for a research grant is not for the faint of heart, as Scott McCulloch learned. The writer took a first-hand look at what it takes to secure a coveted grant, and discovered that successfully doing so can bring far-reaching rewards — to the researchers, the university and society.

More than 20 years ago, Concordia cast me into the world of journalism. I have covered everything from the mothballing of Margaret Thatcher’s Cold War bunker to world launches of elite cars in Detroit, a city now gone bust. I have dined with royalty. I have interviewed Fords and Vanderbilts, sheikhs and Swiss bankers. Yet my latest assignment — walking through the A to Z of Concordia’s research grant process — has thrown me more than a few interesting curves.

I sat down with Justin Powlowski, interim director of Concordia’s Office of Research, and Dominique Michaud, BA 82, associate director of Research Development. They took me through the research grant application process with aplomb. “Ideas,” says Michaud. “It all begins with ideas.” Indeed, and the cleverer the better. “Universities are judged by the quality of their research,” adds Powlowski. “Many researchers are really driven to improve society. Ultimately, that is what it is all about.”

Discovery towards a better world — what more noble a journey? My own begins with questions. How do ideas grow into full-fledged research programs? Programs cost money and, depending on their sophistication, can require major resources.

Scott McCulloch, pictured above in each photo, visits researchers to get research grant insight: Simon Bacon, associate professor in the Department of exercise science; Dominique Michaud, associate Director of research development; and William Bukowski, director of the Concordia centre for research in human development.

I phone William Bukowski, a psychology professor and director of the Concordia Centre for Research in Human Development. Bukowski says his research has been funded since 1983 — a good sign that I am talking with someone who knows how to successfully navigate the process. “Concordia has been very good at helping researchers get started with seed money,” says Bukowski, who has been both a grant applicant and adjudicator. “But some studies are vastly more expensive than others.”

Like an angel investor, the university will kick in as much as $15,000 to get qualifying research projects off the ground. Ambitious programs with, say, laboratories and sophisticated equipment, inevitably require more major sources of funding. Enter Canada’s federal funding agencies: SSHRC — often pronounced “shirk” — the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council; NSERC — known as “n-serc” —the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; and CIHR, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Quebec has similar funding bodies. And there are numerous international foundations and institutions, as well as generous individual donors, that underwrite worthy research projects.

You can have a very strong research program in, say, the humanities, which won’t require a lot of money but can be prestigious.

“Let’s say we look at SSHRC,” says Michaud. “A researcher can get up to $100,000 per year for five years in the Insight Program. That’s half a million dollars towards his or her research.” After which, Michaud says, word spreads among students keen to work with principal researchers. “Graduate students are attracted by the funding success of Concordia and its researchers, but much more by the reputation of a scholar.”

So status has its privileges, particularly when funds for Canada Research Chairs are granted. The federal government’s flagship program, which awarded Concordia 10 such chairs in the past two years, has been credited with everything from reducing brain drain to attracting top-notch researchers from abroad.

The adventure begins

After my immersion at Concordia’s Office of Research, I peruse the NSERC website. It makes for dry reading. I say a silent prayer for applicants who must complete the funding body’s forms, many written in sleep-inducing bureaucratese.

Yet it is all part of the research grant journey. Michaud assures me that grant applicants have support; Concordia research facilitators are on hand to troubleshoot and provide feedback on proposals. When applicants’ questions arise, facilitators’ answers follow. There is a supervisory review, too. Faculty administrators are called on to help when a research proposal needs special facilities or other university contributions. Michaud highlights an application tracking system that “addresses all that should be addressed” in the interest of quality control. The Office of Research is a well-oiled machine for processing funding applications.

I ask Michaud what she likes best about her job. “Hearing about researchers’ work and getting them the best possible funding,” she says without hesitation. Ironically, this is also her most challenging work.

The funding odyssey is complex. Arlene Segal, a research facilitator at the John Molson School of Business, makes it easier. Her job: target opportunities and get researchers funded. “One of the things we do very quickly is meet professors and get to know what their research is about.” Why? As few as one in four research proposals get funded; successful awardees must be persuasive. “One of the first pieces of information I convey is that a grant application is not like writing an academic publication,” says Segal. “The point is to get funded.”

That can pay other dividends. “Although undergraduates are attracted by great teachers, individual professors attract graduate students through the strength of their research,” says Powlowski.

And strong research builds track records, the quality of which is scrutinized in grant applications. Herein lies the chicken-and-egg scenario: track records are built on exceptional research, yet exceptional research can depend on grants. “That’s tough for young people because the review committee has to make a bit more of a bet,” says Bukowski. SSHRC’s Insight Development Program, which offers small two-year grants of up to $75,000, recognizes this unique predicament of “emerging scholars.”

Despite this, my gut tells me whizbang proposals should boil oceans. Bukowski is more rational: “The first thing people should think about when writing a grant proposal is, ‘Why should someone pay for this?’ ” Only proposals recommended by a peer-review panel — experts familiar with the research subject matter — have a crack at funding. A recommendation is good but does not necessarily engender success. Alas, there are two ways to not succeed: a proposal can be rejected outright for quality reasons, or be recommended but not actually funded.

Winning conditions

So what goes into a winning proposal? I track down Simon Bacon, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science, and pick his brain. “What normally happens is that for every grant you submit, you rarely get it the first time,” explains Bacon, who has four CIHR grants to his credit. “It is kind of a philosophy CIHR has. You send the application. You get feedback. You make it better and resubmit it.”

CIHR, I discover, supports more than 14,000 researchers and researchers in training on a billion-dollar budget. That is a lot of knowledge. For Bacon, research grants are more about quality than quantity. “Can I answer this question better than anyone else?” he asks rhetorically. “And do I have the expertise to do it?” If he does, Bacon will put together a team — psychologists, doctors, biostatisticians, perhaps even a methodologist — to answer questions that pertain to “populations with disease,” his bleak yet fascinating field of research. He will summarize his idea, pen some rough methodology and a few lines about what he intends to discover. His team will meet. They will discuss goals.

It may take a year before an application is submitted, first through Concordia’s Office of Research then, ultimately, to a panel of experts who ensure proposals — if approved — meet top standards. “It is a time-consuming and stressful process,” says Bukowski. “It is also one of the most creative processes in our jobs.”

For Bacon, who is currently applying to three funders, it offers the promise of societal rewards. “For example, we’re trying to understand how physical activity, which we know keeps you alive for longer, might be related to keeping you alive longer but in a better state.”

Societal benefits

I ask Michaud if faculty members are encouraged to apply for grants. “Yes, there is an expectation to develop research, and in order to develop research, you ask for funding.” Monies, that is, for discoveries that will “have some eventual benefit for Canadian or Quebec society,” adds Segal. Quebecbased researchers, Michaud notes, have access to both federal and provincial funding agencies “to get their research program to completion.”

Concordia’s annual sponsored research income is around $40 million. It is a strong figure for a university without a med school, especially when measured against similar researchintensive Canadian institutions. Medical-doctoral universities garner the lion’s share of research funds because healthcare is an expensive business. “Dollar figures are not always indicative of quality,” stresses Michaud. “You can have a very strong research program in, say, the humanities, which won’t require a lot of money but can be prestigious.”

Powlowski adds that total funding income is but one indicator — an easily measured one — of an institution’s research quality. He cautions: “We always need to keep an eye on what the outputs of our research are.”

I certainly agree. I look to the Department of Biology, where recent Concordia-led research shows how liver acid can kill several types of cancer cells. I check out the Department of Psychology, where researchers have linked exposure to second-hand smoke to the uptake of smoking in teens. These investigations clearly resonate beyond the lab.

With a recent grant from Consortium en innovation numérique du Québec and the non-profit organization Mitacs, researchers in the Department of Studio Arts and Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering have advanced the field of 3D animation, a market expected to triple in value to $10 billion by 2018, according to MarketsandMarkets, an India-based consultancy. Grants undoubtedly have an impact.

Researchers and the grants that support them make Concordia an institution of discoverers — innovators whose ideas can have far-reaching implications and societal benefits. To convince adjudicators that a project is worth supporting, grant applicants must demonstrate that their research builds on current projects, what they have already accomplished and what is going on in their research domain altogether. “The grant review process is far from perfect but generally works well,” says Bukowski.

Here are more outputs. Concordia’s research adds $177 million to Quebec’s economy, according to SECOR, a consulting firm. Meanwhile, Higher Education Strategy Associates ranks Concordia ninth in Canada in arts, social sciences and humanities in terms of research impact and productivity.

Yes, applying for a research grant is challenging. Landing one is tougher. Improving the world through discovery? Powlowski believes that is increasingly a Concordia mainstay. Now I see why.

Scott McCulloch, BA (journ.) 90, is senior advisor, communications, for Concordia’s Advancement and Alumni Relations.

Students and faculty preparing grant and scholarship proposals can get more peer-review process details on the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada website.

Also, to assist with the transition to the new online application systems (research portal and common CV), the Research Portal page features a new tool to guide users through the process according to their needs. It includes links to detailed instructions and Frequently Asked Questions.

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