For the last five years, I’ve directed a research development centre for the Arts and Social Sciences. I’ve just finished that job and am thinking about what I’ve learnt. This is one of the things that I’ve worried about.
The dictionary tells me that the verb ‘to shoehorn’ means to force something into an inadequate space. It’s a verb which is derived from an actual shoehorn, a device used to help you get your heel into a tight fitting shoe or boot. Like – well, you know the story of Cinderella. Her happy-ever-after depended on a slipper fitting her foot exactly and no one else’s – all her rivals had to be shoehorned into her fairy-made bespoke footwear.
Now what’s all this talk of shoehorning got to do with research bids, I hear you ask. Well, shoehorning is what some people try to do with their research bids. And its usually a sure-fire recipe for lack of success. Let me explain why.
These days, certainly in the northern hemisphere, a lot of research funding is subject to particular research calls. A funder declares a particular topic or theme and asks for research bids in response. It might be the EU or a charity or a government funded agency. So, for example, the Research Councils in the UK currently have a call for bids which respond to the theme ‘building resilience’.
The call is described in this way – As part of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), the UK research councils are taking a leadership role in generating interdisciplinary research and communities which can address the issue of ‘Building Resilience’.
The call is elaborated further to signal exactly what the funder is interested in.
Building resilience rests on the ability to take a holistic approach which encompasses environmental knowledge, socio-economics, infrastructure, governance, and the history and culture of a community or region that is affected. It will require new inter-disciplinary research and recognition of the importance of engaging with local actors to understand what knowledge is required and how it can be implemented to design solutions that help all parts of society. The call is open to proposals addressing resilience to natural and man-made environmental hazards in a range of developing world contexts. The focus is on how to build resilience in relation to both sudden and slow-onset environmental hazards (eg land-degradation, deforestation, drought, hurricanes, climate change) taking into account the intersections and relationships with other contexts such as conflict and fragility, poverty and famine, urbanisation, economics and health / disease risks.
These paragraphs are fairly typical of a themed call. The text outlines a BIG social problem – how people adjust to environmental hazards and disasters. It then sets out some parameters for the research – it must be located in a particular place and work with local partners; it must be interdisciplinary. Some of the disciplines that might be involved are flagged up – geography, politics, economics, history, health, perhaps archeology, languages, psychology, sociology or education. But there is also a lot of scope for researchers to shape their own project, arguing why their specific focus is significant, and why their approach is appropriate. Overall, researchers must argue why the aspect of the call they’ve chosen to address is the most crucial, the most credible, and the most fundable.
For researchers who already work on this agenda, this kind of call is a god send. There is a good match between what they do and what is wanted. These researchers already know the field(s) intimately, they understand the theoretical and methodological debates, frontiers, and challenges. They know the literatures. Indeed, they may well have a project they have really wanted to do forever, if only there were a big enough pot of money available. They know other people who they can work with. These are researchers who are well positioned to put together a bid. The funding shoe fits.
Then there are researchers who can see how their research might contribute significantly to a bid in the area of the call. They might get together, or be encouraged by their institution(s) to come together with others, to develop a bid. A new team, usually with support of mentoring, time and perhaps someone to do some literature work and/or writing, can devise a project and work plan. This new project not only fits the call, but draws on the extensive track records of a community of scholars who may not have worked together before. In the particular call from RCUK, this may indeed be just what the funders want – they want new research groups to emerge. The researchers come together to make a new foot which the shoe will fit.
The problem comes when a researcher or research team sees the call and decides to try to make their research fit into it. They work in a related area and have an ongoing research agenda. They think they can see a way to bring the two together. But… They don’t design a new project from scratch. They don’t get their heads around the concerns of those making the funding call. They don’t make sure they know the methodological and knowledge issues beyond their existing frame. Instead, they try to push the next logical step for their own research agenda into the framework specified. This researcher/research team does not alter their foot at all – they simply try to shoehorn themselves and their work into the call.
The problem is that shoehorning is usually pretty obvious. A reviewer can see the various mismatches in literature, methods, projects. They can read the multiple ways in which the overall warrant for the research struggles and strains to fit the call. They can see the gaps in the track record. The researcher/research team hasn’t done enough work on the new framing. They’ve simply tried to bend their own work around, write it in a new way, adopt a bit of the call’s language and assert the commonality of their concerns with the theme. And, like Cinderella’s sisters who amputated their heels and toes to try to make the slipper fit, the shoehorning researcher often omits the very aspects of their own research that make it compelling. The end result is a research rationale and research design that is ill-fitting. Shoehorning produces an un-fundable bid.
In times of research funding scarcity, it’s always tempting when the big calls come out to try to do the shoehorning thing. After all, when else are you going to get a crack at some big money that might allow you to make a step change in your research? Better do this now or else there might not be another chance.
But unless there is already a good fit between your research and the call, or unless you are prepared to do the work necessary to meet the call – often with others – then simply shoehorning really isn’t a good use of your time. In fact I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably a waste of the time you might have spent writing a more modest bid for less prescriptive funding.
The shoehorned research bid is rarely successful. It’s something to avoid. It hurts when you’re writing it, as you have to contort your own concerns, and it hurts when it’s rejected.
My message? Save the shoehorn for the stretchy leather boots.