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« Friday fortissimos | Main | Notes from both sides of the market, part 8: tenure requirements »

06/09/2017

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Anonymous

Hi all,

I'm somewhat well positioned to speak on grants, though particularly in the Australian setting. I'm a grants officer at one of the major Australian universities -- though I'd really prefer to not say which.

In Australia, the situation for grants is quite good - the Australian Research Council funds multiple schemes for which philosophers can put in grant applications - there are the Discovery Projects, Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRA) and Future Fellowships (there are also Laureate Fellowships - but these are too rare to discuss anyone having a go at them).

The biggest issue I notice with grants put forward by philosophers is that they are terrible at explaining why the research matters to anyone other than other philosophers in the area. There are of course cases of simple bad luck - for instance proposals in philosophy and economics that get assessors that don't like the philosophy parts or think the methodology is flawed because they just disagree. But the general issue is that proposals are very rarely assessed by experts in the area. Instead, they tend to be assessed in the first instance by readers who are well educated experts in the humanities - but not necessarily in philosophy; the ARC only seems to have two philosophers in the "College of Experts")

For most schemes, the competition might have a slightly easier time explaining their significance. If someone's research is on the molecular basis of cancer, they don't tend to have too hard a time of saying why spending $300k is important. This isn't to say philosophers aren't ever successful, or that they don't have a chance.

In my experience, those who are successful tend to have a few things going for them. Firstly - their track record is impressive for their stage of the career. For instance, for a DECRA, which is limited to those within 5 years of their PhD, in the humanities it tends to be a monograph and 8-12 papers in good journals + a few book chapters. The key is to show that one's track record sets them apart from their colleagues at that stage in their career.

Projects which are fundable tend to have a good case made for the significance beyond philosophy. This significance might be obvious to a philosopher, but it needs to make sense to someone outside of the field as well.

I hope this helps!

Tim

(I don't know if what I'm about to say is true across all funding agencies. I do know it to be true for the NSF, which I'm most familiar with. And yes, I'm a philosopher.)

Often, funding agencies decide how many people in field X will get an award by roughly the following procedure: if y% of the applicants are from field X, then y% of the awards go to people from field X. Obviously there's more to it than that, but it's the general principle that matters, not the details.

The important thing to take from this is the following: applying for a grant may not help you. But it may nonetheless help the discipline by raising the number of grants that go to philosophy. So we all should be applying for lots of grants from lots of agencies.

Helen De Cruz

I got a British Academy postdoctoral fellowship (5% acceptance rate), and my sense is Leverhulme is great for research that is interdisciplinary but not so good for pure philosophy stuff. You need to find a grant scheme to fit what you do. The BA postdoctoral fellowship offers fantastic support, is good for philosophers, lots of philosophers win it, but you need to be within 3 years of having received your PhD.
If you do philosophy of religion or something related - e.g., philosophy of science or cognitive science, stuff the John Templeton Foundation cares about, it's worthwhile to check out the John Templeton Foundation or the Templeton World Charity Foundation. You can do one of the grants through a project funded by them e.g, Intellectual Humility or Immortality Project (though these have both ended - you need to check which ones are active), or directly through their Online Funding Inquiry.
Going outside the UK, there are lots of EU grants for early-career folk. Marie Curie Fellowships, FWO (Belgium) postdocs, NWO Veni (in Netherlands).
I've done a lot of reviewing for grant agencies and a couple of things jump out at me:
As the anonymous person says, it's really important you communicate in a straightforward way why your research matters. Philosophers are not good at this. Remember, many grant panels are larger, interdisciplinary, e.g., humanities. Avoid the epicycle trap and try to say in the broadest terms why your work matters.

Pendaran Roberts

Helen, these two parts of your post made me giggle.

"I got a British Academy postdoctoral fellowship (5% acceptance rate)...

...lots of philosophers win it[.]"

Anyway, what's your take on AHRC grants?

Michel X.

Tim: That's very interesting, and really good to know. Thanks!

I've had a little experience (and success) with grants at the doctoral and postdoctoral levels. I can report that everyone I've talked to--supervisors who've won grants, university-organized information sessions, former committee members, etc.--confirms pretty much everything that Anonymous said above. Most of these committees are interdisciplinary in nature, and we need to calibrate our materials accordingly. That means clearly stating research questions at the outset, taking the time to explain the basics, etc. And it means taking a serious stab at methodology, which can be really hard for us to do.

One resource that I've found very helpful is Michèle Lamont's "How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment". Lamont is a sociologist who spent some time studying interdisciplinary granting agencies in the humanities and social sciences at the committee level. It doesn't say a whole lot about philosophy and philosophers (except that we don't play well with others on the committee, and that we struggle to communicate the value of our work to the committees), but it does give a lot of useful background information on how these committees work, and what kinds of things they're looking for.

One surprising lesson from the book is that historians absolutely demolish the grant process. It might be hard to find philosophers to talk to about their successful applications, but it's a lot easier to find historians!

As for the last set of questions in the OP: For Canadian citizens and permanent residents, the obvious granting agency is SSHRC, but there's also the Banting (via NSERC) and the Trudeau Foundation (for work related to human rights and dignity, responsible citizenship, Canada in the world, and people and their natural environment). Less well known is that Québec residents can also apply for fellowships from the FRQSC.

Postdoc

"One surprising lesson from the book is that historians absolutely demolish the grant process."

This is interesting to me. I'm the person who asked this question originally about grants.

I looked over the Leverhulme grants awarded and saw a lot of history and sociology but, as I said, basically no philosophy.

"we don't play well with others on the committee, and that we struggle to communicate the value of our work to the committees"

I wonder to what degree this is just intrinsic to our subject matter? A lot of philosophy concerns very abstract and fundamental questions, which are hard to relate to practical matters in the world. If funders are concerned with pragmatics in some sense, a lot of philosophy would have a difficult time getting through.

Michel X.

Postdoc: From what I recall, the (reported) perception that we don't play well with others is mostly based on two factors:

(1) Philosophers not believing (or giving the impression that they don't believe) that non-philosophers are qualified to evaluate philosophical work (especially when they're on granting committees). People don't much like the sense of intellectual superiority they get from us. From the proposal's perspective, though, part of the problem here might just be that we're lumped in with the humanities but our methods and subject matter differ significantly from those of the other disciplines included in that heading. So that's an obstacle to overcome in the proposal.

(2) The degree of conflict over philosophical problems makes it difficult to arrive at a consensus over the value of philosophy proposals. The subject and methods remark probably applies here too, because the result seems to be that the non-philosophers are often frustrated with the philosophers on the panel, and so don't lend as much credence to their judgements of what's worthwhile and interesting. Which, again, means that we need to do more to motivate our problems, methods, and the tentative conclusions in our proposals--especially when these might seem counterintuitive, or when they're related to problems that everyone thinks theyalready have a handle on (e.g. everyone thinks they know all about--or have correct intuitions about--art, morality, etc.).

Helen De Cruz

Hi Pendaran: I know senior people who got it, both philosophers and people who did more interdisciplinary stuff, but I don't know if AHRC does any early-career grants. Indeed, the UK baffles me still because of its patchwork of different grants of all shapes and sizes. Other European systems, e.g., the Netherlands, have a much more centralised grantmaking policy, usually government-led.

Anon UK reader

I've noticed that historians get a disproportionate number of Leverhulme-type grants. I find this hard to understand since a lot of the hisotrians' projects are of little interest to those who are not already super interested in history. Their work often has little or no relevance for philosophy or for any of the sciences, for example, and often has little or relevance for other fields in the humanities and social sciences. It's hard to square this with the apparent need to demonstrate how one's research is important for disciplines other than one's own.

My hunch is that it's just easier for non-specialists to understand what these historians are doing, what their methods are, what they're seeking to discover, etc. A philosopher of language is going to have a far harder time getting non-specialists to even understand what their research is about, never mind what its broader relevance is. Ironically, philosophy is actually often much more widely relevant than history.

While I can understand the rationale for trying to avoid giving grants to researchers stuck in fruitless epicycles, I struggle to understand why relevance to fields beyond one's own should be a necessary condition for receiving a grant. If we acknowledge that philosophy is interesting in its own right then surely we should fund projects that contribute to philosophy, even they don't contribute to other disciplines. If everyone's constantly trying to appeal to people outside of their own discipline then huge, important areas of study will be neglected.

Helen De Cruz

Anon UK reader: I agree that this is a problem. In The Netherlands, where almost all the grants are managed by one government-led agency, the NWO, all the humanities are judged by one panel. There are referees who are specialist, but the panel plays a big role in how grants are evaluated. As a result, there's a disproportionate number of grants on the philosophy of technology, and very few grants in, say, metaphysics. This is further exacerbated by the fact that Dutch grants need to have some sort of impact development in them (I believe this is also for AHRC but I am not sure, being relatively new here).

Anon UK reader

Helen, thanks for pointing that out re. the Netherlands.

It's especially vexing since fields like the philosophy of technology ultimately really depend on more fundamental work in fields like metaphysics to make progress (although, of course, those doing the fundamental work in metaphysics may not know, or be able to explain within the rigid confines of grant applications, what these relations of dependence are - indeed, they often don't become evident until well after the fact).

The irritating thing is that this is really just obvious when you think about it for 10 seconds, but hardly anyone on grant committees or involved in producing guidelines for giving grants seems ever to have considered it. Comments like that of Anonymous above ('Projects which are fundable tend to have a good case made for the significance beyond philosophy. This significance might be obvious to a philosopher, but it needs to make sense to someone outside of the field as well') are typical. The fact that this is presumably seen as an acceptable way to think by someone on a grant committee is really depressing.

Of course, I'm not at all decrying interdisciplinary work, or suggesting it's not valuable. I'm just saying grant committees need to make more effort to consider the merits of projects whose significance beyond their immediate area of investigation is not blindingly obvious to the investigator or the grant committee. There are, in fact, other criteria on which projects can be judged!

(My secondary, less important, point is that, actually, often people on grant committees break their own rule about interdisciplinary significance when it comes to funding some esoteric historical projects (I shouldn't just pick on History: literature projects sometimes get similar treatment.) My contention is that they do so because they can at least understand what these projects are about, whereas they often cannot understand what philosophical projects are about. It's little wonder philosophers on these panels get frustrated.)

Amanda

Are their separate grants for the social sciences? I sometimes think philosophy would be a better fit for the social sciences than humanities, and in some US departments that is how it is, but I have no idea how the UK works.

Anon UK reader

Amanda, usually there are in the UK, yes, but not always. Philosophy is always (so far as I know) lumped with the humanities in such cases. I'm not sure how I'd feel about putting us with the social sciences. I mean, that could work well for political philosophers, some ethicists, decision theorists etc., but would likely cause problems for historians of philosophy, aestheticians (if there are any left at this point), and would be unlikely to help metaphysicians.

Amanda

Thanks Anon Uk reader. You are right that having philosophy in the humanities might not be good for everyone. On the other hand, having philosophy in the humanities rather than social sciences is probably a loss for ethicists, political philosophers, philosophy of mind, etc. And while metaphysics isn't social science, metaphysics does not at all fit the definition of "humanities" when one looks how it is defined on most school of humanities sites.

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