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On internal alignment: objectives, outcomes, outputs, and contributions in CIHR Project grant applications

You wouldn’t start a road trip without a destination in mind or a map of your route. Grant applications work in the same way.

par LETITIA HENVILLE | 19 AVRIL 22

Question:

I already submitted my CIHR Project grant application, but I admit to still feeling frustrated by some feedback that I received from an internal reviewer at my institution. They told me that I needed to specify the number of articles that I anticipate producing, and where I’ll publish them. Without knowing what results I’ll get from the data I haven’t yet collected, how am I supposed to speak to this level of detail?

 

– Anonymous, Neuropsychology

Dr. Editor’s response:

Your internal reviewer did you a favour by asking you to detail your planned publications, since one of the evaluation guidelines for CIHR Project reviewers asks them to check if the “anticipated contribution(s) (e.g. publishing in peer-reviewed journals) are clearly described, and […] substantive and relevant in relation to the context of the issues or gaps” (see CIHR’s Peer Review Manual).

The agency distinguishes between “outcomes” – the positive health changes your work will bring about; the parallel to SSHRC’s “significance” – and “contributions,” which is the stuff that you’ll produce: public engagement events, policy papers, conference presentations, and peer-reviewed publications. In fact, “contributions” is one of the most-used terms in the CIHR Project adjudication criteria: it appears eight times, once more than the word “applicant,” and is a factor in all aspects of application assessment – concept, feasibility, and expertise.

Your reviewers need to know that your planned contributions are “likely to advance basic health-related knowledge […] or health outcomes”; that your “anticipated contribution(s) are realistic”; that your team has the “expertise and experience” necessary to “achieve the proposed contribution(s)”; that your “approaches and methods [are] appropriate to… achieve the proposed contribution(s)”; and, that your team and your institutions have the resources necessary to deliver these proposed contributions. They’re also assessing “the value of the anticipated project contributions.” It’ll be hard for your reviewer to assess these things if you don’t detail what you anticipate your contributions will be.

Your frustration – that you won’t know what and where you’ll publish until your grant has been funded – is certainly understandable. Some applicants can get the feeling that they need to have conducted the research they’re proposing before they have enough certainty to please a selection committee.

In some ways, asking you to describe manuscripts that you won’t be writing for another five years is an exercise in crystal-ball-gazing. But think about it from your reviewer’s perspective: they need to be assured that the funding they’re allocating will substantially advance both knowledge and health outcomes. Without at least some sense of what you think constitutes an appropriate contribution for your proposed work, they can’t feel assured that they would be allocating dollars wisely by investing them in your work.

So when devising your list of anticipated contributions – be they peer-reviewed publications, presentations, intellectual property, policy briefs, or even clinical resources and workshops – strive to answer the questions that address your reviewer’s set adjudication criteria:

  • Given the impact you want to have and the goal you’ve set, who needs to learn about your results? Is it just other researchers? Or should you also be addressing a broader set of stakeholders, from patients, families, and clinicians to hospital decision-makers or government policy-makers? And do you know how to reach these audiences?
  • Given your objectives and the methods you’ve planned to meet them, which other researchers would be most interested in your process and results?
  • Given your track record of previous publications, which journals do you think may be both appropriate and achievable for your work?
  • How much can you and your team reasonably accomplish within the time you’ve set for this work and the resources, supports, and training you have at your disposal?

When I’m in the middle of a particularly thorny Project grant edit, I sometimes make a chart of the key components of the proposal: the anticipated outcomes, objectives, methods, outputs, and contributions. The goal is for each component to logically follow from the one that precedes it, so that the methods will enable you to accomplish your objectives, the outputs appropriately fit with the methods, and the contributions extend from the outputs. I expect to be able to draw a clear through-line across the grant, connecting and aligning these different parts of your project. The through-line of these components of your proposal needs to be equally visible in your timeline and your budget.

You wouldn’t start a road trip without a destination in mind or a map of your route. Grant applications work in the same way. While it’s true that you may encounter surprising results that change your plans, it’s reasonable for your reviewers to expect that you’ll be able to anticipate the kinds of audiences that will benefit from learning about your research. Your reviewers want to know that you have the knowledge and capacity to communicate your results to the people who most need to hear them. So tell us who those people are and how you’ll reach them.

À PROPOS LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @shortishard.
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