I’m applying to the next round of the CFI Innovation Fund (IF). While my university often gets a pretty healthy funding allocation, I know that we usually submit applications for more funding than we are allotted. Any suggestions for making sure that my proposal is one of the funded ones, given how infrequently this competition is open? (Please tell me it isn’t all politics and institutional “strategy”!)
– Anonymous, Astrophysics
Dr. Editor’s response:
Good news: It isn’t all politics and strategy. While most institutions run an internal competition for the IF, there should be peer reviewers adjudicating that competition, which means that a compelling proposal should have a shot at being put forward for funding.
In last month’s column, I shared best practices for preventing cost overruns in CFI-IF-funded renovation projects. For the IF, I recommend starting your application by drafting your budget, to keep your proposal well within the scope of your university’s funding envelope, and to focus the rest of your writing on what you need and why you need it. But with budget recommendations largely covered in last month’s piece, this month, let’s focus on the non-budgetary parts of your IF application. The following advice comes to us courtesy of two experts: Juzer Kakal, a grant consultant and scientific editor with expertise in the CFI, and Olivier Gagnon, the CFI’s associate director of innovation fund and special funds, who shared recommendations that come from CFI’s (Useful! Detailed!) 2020 IF Strengths and Weaknesses Analysis:
Detail how the infrastructure will advance a particular program of research
The CFI won’t fund a piece of infrastructure if there isn’t a good program of research associated with it. Ultimately, the CFI-IF is designed to fund innovative research – not to buy shiny new toys.
“Describe what the end goal will be if you get this piece of equipment,” advises Mr. Kakal, “by saying something like, ‘The equipment will enable me to do X, which will have the following benefit to Canada…’ You need to say why you want this kind of equipment and not some other model.” Do you need the thingamajig that comes with all the bells and whistles? Justify their inclusion – tell your reviewers why they’re necessary for your proposed work.
Looking back at some of the top reasons why reviewers didn’t rank IF proposals highly, Mr. Gagnon highlights three common problems with descriptions of programs of research: lack of innovation in the research program, lack of details about methodology, and lack of clarity about the feasibility of the approach. “Innovative research comes first,” Mr. Gagnon told me. “Sometimes you need a piece of equipment that’s a workhorse, and those can be funded if they will be used to advance innovative research.”
In short: whether you’re proposing purchasing some cutting-edge tech or a tried-and-true tool, you’ll need to articulate for your reviewers what innovative research program will be made possible because of the equipment you propose purchasing or the renovation you want to perform.
Describe the long-term life of your infrastructure
This second recommendation is an extension of the first: you want to achieve X within the five years of the grant, but, once your questions have been answered, what’s in store for your piece of infrastructure?
“Justify the bells and whistles here, too,” advises Mr. Kakal. “Those aren’t going away, and should continue to have value.”
Mr. Gagnon reports that reviewers are critical of sustainability plans that don’t describe the role of the infrastructure beyond an initial five-year period. You’ll want to describe how you’ll maintain the infrastructure in the long term, and this includes detailing the governance or management structure associated with maintaining the equipment. How will potential users request access to this infrastructure? Who will determine the whos, whens, and hows of its use and maintenance? Reviewers are expecting to see this level of detail.
One trend that Mr. Gagnon identified across a number of successful IF applications: reviewers seem to value having new equipment be integrated into an existing facility that has proven long-term sustainability. It seems that reviewers have confidence in the sustainability of a new tool when it is attached to a core facility with existing operations and management resources and support staff.
Articulate the infrastructure’s broad benefits — beyond even industry applications
Because the CFI-IF applications are reviewed by both an expert review committee, who most likely will be conversant in your field, and by a multidisciplinary committee, who may not, you’ll need to be able to articulate the benefits to Canada of your proposed infrastructure.
“Benefits to Canada doesn’t mean your research has to be commercializable,” Mr. Kakal told me. “It might mean that X trainees per year have access to the equipment, or that clinicians can use it during your downtimes.”
So the “benefits to Canada” criteria isn’t necessarily about making your research serve the needs of a particular industry, even though the CFI is mandated to support economic growth and job creation. Instead, you’ll want to be able to show that your infrastructure can help as many people as possible.
Ways to stand out, Mr. Gagnon suggests, include “a credible and proven tech transfer plan” – or, really, any knowledge mobilization or knowledge translation plan that is based on a strong foundation of experience. To show that you can mobilize knowledge and benefit the country, point to a solid history of student and highly qualified personnel training, or experience with spin-off companies, or a background transferring knowledge to the healthcare sector or other external stakeholders. Reviewers will likely find you more credible when you’re not only saying “I can do this,” but also “I’ve done this before.” Mr. Gagnon says: “That’s a way to stand out.”
In sum, dear letter-writer, much of your CFI-IF application will draw on grant-writing skills that you’re familiar with from your experience writing NSERC applications. And if that point isn’t a reassuring one, then you can always hire an editor with expertise in the CFI-IF.