Who can say no?


Over the last decade, we’ve written a lot of words about how to get research funders to say ‘yes’. I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about who can say ‘no’ to you applying for a grant. I want to talk about the people who can stop you from applying.

First, a caveat: your mileage may vary – I’m writing this based on my experience in Australia. I am aware that different cultures and jurisdictions will handle things very differently. So please filter this advice through your own situation and experience.

Refusal versus discouragement

Before we begin, I’d like to differentiate between refusal and discouragement. This article is about the different people who can forbid you from applying for funding. There are also people who might feel like they have the right to say ‘no’, but can’t actually veto. They might feel that they have the right to discourage you from applying. Generally, this will be done in the guise of feedback offered on the basis of their experience. These people are saying that, in their opinion, you shouldn’t apply rather than saying that you cannot apply. Because of power differentials within the university, this advice can sometimes be construed as an order. That’s unfortunate, and you may need to push back strongly if you want to apply.

Discouragement like that, coming from outside your discipline, can be corrosive. It is also often badly handled. ‘Robust feedback’ can often come across as cruel, mean or useless. Researchers really, really care about their research and even senior researchers may feel like imposters. We should frame our feedback accordingly.

Colleagues who know your research area are the best source of advice about a research grant. They can tell you if it is exciting and competitive. The flip side is that they can tell you if it isn’t exciting and if you aren’t competitive. While they can’t actually stop you from applying, you should absolutely listen to their advice.

There are several different groups that have the right to tell you that you can’t apply. It is always difficult when this happens, especially when you’ve put time and energy into developing the application. I’ve provided some advice about how to avoid this situation, if you can.

Your government can say no

The government of your country can tell you that you cannot apply for funding. This normally happens when you have breached ethical guidelines and the regulator has banned you from being funded for a period of time. It can also happen when countries are at war, and special provisions apply regarding doing research (and applying for funding) with the enemy. In an atmosphere akin to a trade war, Australia has passed several laws that restrict research with some foreign actors. The intelligence agencies have instructed the government to refuse some funding applications. Finally, I recently found out that there are limits on currencies that can be transferred into and out of countries – you can’t apply to a funder if they aren’t allowed to transfer the funds into your country. These are all edge cases, and most academics won’t need to worry about them.

The funder can say no

The funding body can obviously refuse to fund your application – that is part of the process of competitive funding and happens all the time. They can also tell you that you cannot even submit an application. These restrictions can be based on groups, or they can relate to individuals. Their restrictions will be listed in their funding guidelines.

They can restrict the applications to particular groups of applicants. They might say that this funding is only available to women or to early career academics or to full professors. If you aren’t in that particular group, you cannot apply.

They can also tell individuals that they cannot apply. The most common example of this is when people have not completed a final report, or some other required milestone. Some funders say that you cannot apply if you currently have an active grant with them, or you can only apply once per year. All of this will be set out in their guidelines. If you satisfy their guidelines, then you can apply. If you don’t, then they will say no. As always, read the guidelines.

Your university can say no

Most grant applications are submitted by your university on your behalf. You write the application and you might even push the final button. However most funding bodies do not accept applications from individuals, so your university is considered the legal entity who submits the application. Legally, your university has the right to say that you cannot submit.

In fact, the university (as a legal entity) rarely does this. When it does, it might make a blanket ban, or it might provide individual advice. For example, most Australian universities have a ban on applications for funding from tobacco companies. This is because any university that is funded by tobacco companies cannot accept National Health and Medical Research funding. The universities would prefer to support health research than tobacco profits.

A university might advise an individual that they cannot apply with a particular partner because that partner has outstanding debts to the university. They won’t sign a contract with a bad debtor or an organisation with an abysmal credit rating, so they won’t allow the application to proceed. This is something that the university knows, but you cannot know ahead of time. The only way to protect yourself against this is to keep in touch with the relevant part of the university, so that they can provide a warning before you get too involved.

Mostly, though, your university doesn’t say no, but people or groups within your university might.

Your research office can say no

The central research office generally has the job of checking compliance for grant applications. They often make a final check before the application is submitted. This is where things get tricky. There are two types of compliance advice – advice that is based on a close reading of the rules and advice that is based on experience with the rules. They are very different.

If the rules say that you must use black text when writing your application, and you’ve used blue text, your central research office could advise you that you’ve breached the rules. They are basing that advice on a close reading of the rules. To my mind, you can choose to accept or reject their advice, and they should respect your decision.

If, on the other hand, the university has submitted applications in coloured fonts in the past and had them rejected by the funding body, then their advice is based on experience. They know that your application will be rejected. I think that they have the right to refuse to submit your application in that case.

It is a fine distinction and one that most busy research offices won’t want to go into on a case by case basis. You should be aware that, if you reject the advice of a compliance review, you risk your application being deemed non-compliant. An experienced applicant might be able to provide an understanding of whether to take that risk or not, but there is still a risk.

Your boss can say no

Your head of School or Department manages the overall workload of the Department. They have limited resources to do that. If your application requires additional resources or a commitment that they cannot honour, then they have the responsibility to say no. If, for example, your research application commits the Department to buying a new Thingatron, and they don’t have the funds for that, they can’t approve your application. If a Fellowship application requires them to permanently hire a Fellow that doesn’t fit their teaching needs, then they will be hard-pressed to provide approval. You can protect yourself against this by keeping your supervisor informed about what you are applying for.

I think that Heads of Departments go too far when they refuse to approve an application because it doesn’t fit the research profile of the Department – they want to build up strength in one area, but your application is in another area. This seems to be an overly narrow approach. I believe that, unless there are significant resource considerations, they should allow their academics to undertake research based on their curiosity and the opportunities that arise. But I don’t run a Department.

You can say no

Finally, you can say no. You might decide not to apply because you are too busy, your research is going in a different direction, you aren’t interested in working with the people who have invited you or the funder doesn’t seem interested in your type of work. If you don’t have the energy or the resources or the interest to apply, you shouldn’t feel pressured to apply. Just say no.