This week Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia signed a broad cooperation pact. This is not news to anyone who has followed the foreign policy and the international relations debates about an emerging multipolar world that have occurred over the past several years. The neoconservative ‘unipolar moment’ of the George W. Bush Administration in the United States now seems like a rapidly fading memory.
The cooperation pact also vindicated several of my recent (unsuccessful) competitive grant applications.
In 2019 as I was finishing my PhD, I wrote a Defence Department grant proposal to study Chinese and Russian ideology, metapolitics and ways of war. Their funding went to a more experienced research team. In 2020 and 2021, I wrote proposals on potential multipolar conflict for The University of Melbourne’s McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. The 2020 proposal was sidelined by COVID-19 impacts. The 2021 proposal was shortlisted for full proposal development but didn’t get funded, although I was very grateful for Review Panel feedback.
One of the toughest aspects of writing successful grants is idea generation. You need an idea that will underpin a two to three year research program that will result in publications, further grant applications, and ‘good news’ stories for your host institution. Your idea needs to advance the field or discipline that you are working in yet it also needs to be understandable to general reviewers who are non-specialists. It is also helpful to be aware of the four or five other research teams nationally and internationally who are working on similar ideas, although their data collection and their chosen research methodologies may be different.
Chance events that occur near or after you submit to the funder can make your application more timely. As Professor Nicholas Rescher would observe these outcomes can involve luck. A few weeks after submitting a proposal on deplatforming to Deakin University the social network platform Twitter closed the account of then United States President Donald Trump. This made the proposal timely yet it was unsuccessful.
I then set-up an account (AlexBurnsResearch) on the social network platform Parler to monitor Alt-Right activity and discovered that my name-sake account had already been taken by a white nationalist. When I submitted my McKenzie Fellowship proposal in 2021, the United States and Australia were pulling out of Afghanistan. A few months later the AUKUS submarines and technology transfer deal was announced.
However, a successful grant application needs other aspects as well. A competitive proposal needs at least several months of iterative drafting and developmental feedback. All of the sections of a grant or a fellowship proposal need to be tightly honed. A fellowship proposal needs strong reports from PhD examiners; relevant recent employment; and a track record already of publications that show the capacity already to build a cumulative research program. Mentor letters of recommendation also play an important role in highlighting reputational and social capital.
Then there are unwritten rules of elites, social class, and stratification that reveal hidden institutional logics and preferences. These may only become obliquely visible after at least one unsuccessful application to a potential funder. For example, there is often a knowledge gap between an individual’s assessment of their track record to date (relative to opportunity) and what the funder’s expectations of it are. There can also be more complex games - such as the geographic arbitrage of hiring more experienced candidates from overseas - where some knowledge of game theory, optionality, tournament theory, financialisation, globalisation, and neoliberal political economy can be helpful.
My unsuccessful grant proposals are what the ancient Egyptians called ‘dead kaw’: possible futures or possibility spaces of academic research that never actually materialised. I put them up on my Academia.edu public profile to normalise the reality that 90% of grant and fellowship proposals are not funded. I take some consolation that the economist Professor Robert Guttmann has already solved aspects of my 2020 and 2021 McKenzie Fellowship proposals in a new book: Multi-Polar Capitalism: The End of the Dollar Standard (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022). If a funder or university won’t support your grant or fellowship proposal, you can always arbitrage this by buying in the expertise of a more well-funded scholar as a proxy for what you might have developed.
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