Surveying the Wreckage – On funding and rejection

There’s a lot of talk about mental ill health in academia at the moment (see here here). Being an academic, especially an early career researcher, involves fighting against the uncertainty of short/long-term employment, the continual slew of rejection from publications and funding bids, all the while having to appear a bright-eyed bunny with something interesting to say and on the go. Of this rather sour bunch of grapes, the rejection of funding applications seems particularly bitter.

I remember reading that in some US states a woman seeking an abortion had to name the child that wouldn’t be born to instil in that moment the gravity of her actions/ some politician’s ideological agenda (delete as appropriate). There’s an Onion video riffing on this where women seeking abortions have to decorate a room for the child they are carrying (see here).

The situation for bid writing seems almost as bizarre. One, as an early career researcher you have to bring in funding to get on and do more of the things you like, rather than work on other people’s projects. Two, you take all your ideas and reading and passions and hopes and magic fairy dust and roll it up into a big ball of hope and then spend a month or two writing it up in densely argued prose. Three, then the funding agency ask you to not only name it – thinking up another bloody acronym in the process – but develop a budget, a data management plan, a series of events and publications… behind all of which is a vision of an enobled, lauded and applauded, you passing down humble pleasantries via the social media nexus described in your knowledge exchange strategy. And then, and then, you don’t get it. *deep breath, hides reddening eyes, points at throat and mumbles ‘frog’*

I read someone talking about all the non-projects and dead papers that haunt the desks in universities and spare room studies, and let’s face it, people do harder jobs and young children go to bed hungry but if you think of all the embedded effort, labour, hopes, insight and potential laying inert in those drawers it seems a bit of a waste and a hell of a shame.

Nic Whitton wrote about some tips for being a resilient researcher (read here). So in this spirit I decide to survey the wreckage of a recent unsuccessful application to the AHRC, and see what I silver linings I could come up with.

First the idea: The application was to the AHRC Connected Communities Design Highlight Notice. We wanted to engage with the critical design field that develops inventive and provocative installations to change the way we view the world yet these people often don’t work with the marginalised communities they hope to help. We wanted to adapt these practices so that that marginalised people could co-produce critical design projects that were provocative but also useful. A neat idea we thought.

So, what are the silver linings?

Silver lining 1: My first one, and I’m a fan of the conference tourism, was I got to present at Discourse, Power and Resistance 2014 (see the slides below), receiving some great feedback on this project that, hmmm, won’t happen. Then I’m off to ICQI to give another paper on the, erm, non-project.


Silver lining 2: We’re going to write up what we read and found and publish it.

Silver lining 3: As I was working on a funding proposal I got to spend a lot of time reading and thinking about design and critical design (read earlier blogs here here here and here), and from this I have a number future collaborations in the offing.

Those three were easy but then *the air fills with sentimental music* I figured out the following:

Silver lining 4: In developing the application I got to work with some great people. Janet Batsleer and Nic Whitton took a wacky half-idea and made it theoretically sound and practicable. Germaine Loader in the research office was ever present to offer advice and help with all the endless particulars and details, right up to the wire.

Silver lining 5: The AHRC are rightly concerned with researchers getting out into the communities to begin from the get-go to co-produce research with people. I think this is great practice and something I want to do from now on. So, in developing the application, I went and talked to two of the three great community groups we planned to work with. One woman who had been homeless most of her life but was going to cycle to France for Christmas because it was warmer told me in no-uncertain terms that my project was a waste of her time and embarrassing. Another said that people wanted jobs or training for jobs and so the projects we developed would have to be useful. Humbled and told we changed the project to focus on creating politically provocative design installations but also ones that were useful to the people who participated and the wider community, which was in itself an interesting theoretical and empirical point.

So, yeah, defeat sucks but there are some great people doing some great work out there and we can help by bringing the theory but, as ever, only if we can get the funding – although I’m open to hearing of alternatives. So let’s get cracking!

James Duggan

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