The Secret Behind CRC Funding

The person in room 720 must be wondering what’s happening.  I’m trying to get in with the slide key thing and pushing and rattling the door because that little green light won’t come on.  My first reaction is that the slide key thing has stopped working.  My second reaction is to remember that I stayed in room 720 on Sunday night in Perth.  Today is Tuesday morning and I’m in Adelaide.  Oops!

Silly season

Is starting earlier again this year. But my silly season is mock interview time.  Twelve consortia are madly preparing for their pitch to the Commonwealth government for a Cooperative Research Centre.  It’s competitive and it’s a big deal – most bids are drawing together close to $100 million.  They all want me to help in their preparation because they hope that I know the secret handshake of the CRC Committee who’ll advise the Minister in a month’s time who should receive those vital Commonwealth millions to give their CRC life.  Little do they know I don’t even know which room I stayed in overnight.  After going to the 11th floor, I realise I have no idea of even the floor I’m on and decide to go downstairs and ask at reception.

In my third year of participating in practice interviews, hearing about the real interviews and talking to everyone involved, I’m ready to reveal the secret.  Are you ready?  The best business cases get recommended for funding.

What?

Boring!

The best business cases get recommended – you must be joking? Nope, that’s it.

Many people have trouble with the concept that the best proposals for Commonwealth funding actually get recommended for Commonwealth funding.  As far as I know, Ministers generally accept that advice.  So the best proposals get funded.

It’s not that extraordinary when you think about it.  But, as any follower of AFL knows (or every other sport to my knowledge), people will do anything to get the winning edge.  Any tidbit of information is taken under the microscope and examined in the most minute possible detail for every clue about what it might mean.

Unfortunately the approach of putting tidbits of information under the microscope can introduce some risks to the process.  It goes further than not seeing the wood for the trees – it’s examining the underside of one leaf to describe the wood and the whole surrounding landscape.  It doesn’t work.

The start of that over-analysis often begins with the question “What is the Committee’s thinking about … ?”  But let’s put that question itself under the microscope.  No Committee ever, anywhere, thinks.  A Committee isn’t an organisation with a brain;  a Committee is a bunch of individuals that eventually, in this case, arranges a bunch of proposals in a rough order.  The reason one committee member thinks a particular proposal is the best is going to be different to other committee members.  After all, if they all thought exactly the same way, we wouldn’t need 14 on the CRC Committee, would we?  It’s that collection of different points of view that ends up giving the Minister some advice

It is simply impossible to tell anyone how the Committee thinks.  It doesn’t think anything.

Very often the second question relates to some type of competition analysis about which combination of the bids are likely to get funded.  People imagine that the CRC Committee couldn’t possibly fund two agricultural and no medical CRCs this year, could they?  They’ve heard that one of the bids briefed a particular Minister, so won’t that Minister tell the Industry Minister to fund it?

The reality is much less interesting.  When the Chairman of the Committee tells me they fund the best applications and I pass that onto bidders, who have already heard it directly anyway, there are no hidden agendas.  The best applications get funded.  The mix of funded CRCs does not matter.

What about the priorities?  To date, the priorities have tended to only affect selection at the edges.  Things are changing in that the priorities are being considered at higher levels like the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council.  So it is very important to be knowledgeable of the priorities and to respond to them where possible.  But you can’t make that analysis at the interview and assessment stage.  You need to consider priorities before entering the round.  Trying to meld yourself to a priority during the funding competition is akin to thinking about training for the long jump when you are towards the end of running a marathon – it isn’t going to help.

What does help at this stage?  My overwhelming experience, which is surprisingly consistent across all types of CRC bids, comes down to three areas:

(1)        Showing that the proposal is end-user driven;

(2)        Describing the uniqueness and excitement of the research and development; and

(3)        A compelling case that this particular group will perform in a major collaboration.

If there was a fourth “good to have” it would be an outstanding education program.

It’s hard to build these areas if you don’t have them in your proposal already.  But if you have those things, make sure you describe them well and convey the excellence and the passion and the need.  If you can do those things, you are well on the way.

I hope the person in room 720 understands.