I went through a stage earlier this year of giving talks about the materials science behind money and counterfeit. This was mainly inspired by gazing out of the window wishing I had more of the stuff to live my fantasy lifestyle and also to pursue all of the public engagement projects I had saved in my head for later. During the process, I learnt that counterfeiting money is possible, but it’s quite difficult to do well and it can get you burnt at the stake. Fortunately, there are lots of organisations who give out money to people with good ideas about public engagement, but this requires some convincing, usually in the form of a written proposal.
Around the same time as attempting to form an illegal counterfeit ring with London’s finest science comedy audiences, I was invited to sit on the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious Panel. The Ingenious Fund is a huge pot of money which RAEng distribute annually to people with good ideas about public engagement with engineering – up to £30,000 each! – so the projects that come through are large-scale, ambitious and exciting.
It was my first time doing anything like this and there were very few others on the list without Dr, Professor or FRAEng by their name. I was also about 20 years younger than everyone else, one of only a small handful of women and I spent about 20 minutes sitting in the wrong room before the panel began.
So here are the 10 things that I learnt on that day about getting money for public engagement projects without having to invest in an HD printer and/or a coin press.
Make your summary brilliant
The summary/abstract part of your proposal could be the only part that panellists read. Reviewers have a lot of them to read in preparation for the discussion (over 100 pages in my case!) so they will likely only read on if your abstract is killer. Summarise your project in as few words as possible and make that your first sentence. It needs to be exciting so grab their attention by using words they won’t have seen on the other 100+ pages of proposals.
Next, make your budget detailed and accurate
Imagine if it was your money and you were putting your faith in someone else to spend it sensibly. You’d want them to be as detailed as possible. Including a 10% contingency is a nice touch and shows that you’re realistic about unforeseen circumstances. To me, applying for the maximum amount looks a bit greedy, though I have been guilty of this myself when applying for funding in the past. What are the chances that your project costs exactly £30,000? It’s better to do accurate and realistic costings and apply for what you genuinely think you’ll need, even if that comes to £29,995.95. Says the aspiring fraudster.
Involve as many people in your team as you can.
If the panel are choosing between two equally good proposals but one of the projects will benefit and train one person and the other 20, they’ll go for the latter every time. Which brings me to…
Offer your team training.
This gives the panel reassurance that the project will have longevity in the form of skilled people after it finishes.
Make sure your idea is unique and hasn’t been done by anyone else before.
This means Googling and asking around people who have been in the area for a while.
Evaluation is key
If your idea has been done before (by you), make sure you include how you used the evaluation (which you definitely did) to learn from your mistakes from last time (which you definitely made), and how you’ll use these lessons to make the project better this time. Panels usually won’t fund exactly the same thing twice. Your application will ask how you’ll evaluate your project. There are lots of resources to help with this online, and keep an eye out on this blog for some Talent Factory tips on evaluation.
Geography counts for a lot!
Diversity of audience is important. This includes the usual categories of race, gender and socio-economic groups, but also geography. If you’re the only application from the Isles of Scilly, you stand a better chance than if the same proposal came from Islington.
Panels will Google you
So be aware of your public image. I’m not saying that I voted against a project with four white boys doing “engineering” on the homepage of their website but maybe that’s what I’m saying.
Don’t be surprised if your funding comes with conditions
Sometimes a panel will like most of the elements of a project, but they think you haven’t considered certain aspects carefully enough, such as evaluation or recruitment. This is a good thing as it means the panel liked your idea enough to fund it despite the shortcomings of the proposal and it’ll make the project go better in the long-run.
If you find out you know someone on the panel, it won’t help to give them money/chocolate/sex…
…because that counts as a conflict of interest, so that panel member will just tag out of the conversation when it comes to discussing your proposal. Eat the chocolate yourself, it’s a better use of your time.
So those are my top 10 tips for increasing your chances of getting funded. But how do you find funding in the first place? Here are some good places to start:
- Your university public engagement team – most have internal schemes for getting projects off the ground as well as funding long-term activities
- The professional body of your subject area e.g Royal Academy of Engineering, Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry, Royal Society of Biology, The Royal Society of Medicine, The Royal Astronomical Society
- Charitable bodies e.g. The Wellcome Trust
Getting funding looks brilliant on your CV and although the proposal and evaluation forms can seem daunting and be very time-consuming, it’s a great feeling when you get awarded the cash and it’s definitely better than getting burnt at the stake. Good luck!