Chris Woodruff talks to Viv Davies about common mistakes in the initial ERG applications [Read the transcript of the interview]

“Exploratory Research Grants are not meant to be a fishing licence… they need to be based on a clear question that will guide the research” (Chris Woodruff)

Chris Woodruff talks to Viv Davies about the PEDL Exploratory Grants programme, which has already completed its first four rounds. They discuss progress to date, the programme’s priorities and the spread of projects across the PEDL themes.

Woodruff also highlights some of the common mistakes that are being made in the grant applications, stressing that the ERG initiative is first and foremost a research programme,  with the overall aim of providing funding that will lead to high quality academic research that addresses questions which are relevant to policy. As such, the research question needs to be already developed and literature reviews should be undertaken and completed before the proposal is even written. He points out that the ERGs are designed to provide an opportunity to test out a method and whether something is going to work ‘in the field’, and/or whether relevant data can be obtained, etc. Woodruff stresses that the grants are not intended to help develop an initial question, but more to help define the question.

The interview was recorded at CEPR’s offices in London in September 2012. The audio file will be available to download from the PEDL website very soon. The transcript of the interview can be read below.


Transcript of the interview:

Viv Davies: Chris, the ERG programme is now eight months old. Are you pleased with the way the programme has started off?

Chris Woodruff: More than pleased, we are ecstatic! We have received over 150 Exploratory Research Grant (ERG) proposals in the first four rounds. This is an astonishing response, and shows the potential for generating research on private sector in low-income countries. Since our budget allowed us to fund fewer than 25 proposals over the first 7 rounds, this obviously means that the programme has been, and continues to be, extremely competitive.

Viv Davies: What are the priorities of the Exploratory Research Grants programme?

Chris Woodruff: There are two priorities. The first is funding research ideas which are somewhat speculative but which have a clear potential to develop into full scale projects. The hope is that these projects help feed the pipeline for the Major Research Grant programme. But we should be clear what we mean by this. The ERG proposal must contain a well developed research question, well grounded in the literature. The review committee has to be convinced that the project, if fully developed, will lead to cutting edge research. The ERG programme is not intended to be a license to look around for a good research question. That question needs to be clear, and clearly justified in terms of policy impact.

The second priority for the ERG programme is to attract young scholars to issues related to the core PEDL research themes. I’ll be clear about our motives here: We expect that funding PhD students and recent PhD graduates will leverage the PEDL funds to produce research in this area. We hope that the PhD students and young scholars funded by the ERG programme will develop research agendas on these topics well beyond the project funded by the PEDL grant.

Finally, I want to point out that because the ERGs are relatively modest amounts, the programme allows us to take some chances to fund proposals from researchers with shorter track records. We have funded several proposals by young scholars based in low- and lower-middle-income countries. Over the next few years, we hope to be able to assist in building the networks between these scholars and scholars based in Europe and the U.S.

Viv Davies: Over the first four rounds, how have the applications been distributed across the main themes of PEDL.

Chris Woodruff: I would say that we have received many more proposals in the SME / entrepreneurship area than in the other three areas. This makes sense, because this is currently the most active research area of research on the private sector among development economists. We have also received a healthy number of proposals related to international trade.  There have been fewer in the ‘market frictions’ area and fewer still in the ‘macro modeling’ area. In the macro area, we are particularly interested in projects that will uncover and make available data that can be the backbone of research in this area. I am encouraged that in the last round, we have received at least a couple of good proposals in this area. But I think there are people out there with relevant tools (structural IO comes to mind) that are not yet coming forward. We have some ideas about how to generate more proposals in these areas, but of course, we would welcome good proposals, however they are generated.

Viv Davies: PEDL also has three cross-cutting themes. How have the initial proposals addressed those themes?

Chris Woodruff: I would say we have had the most robust response on proposals related to fragile and conflict affected states. We have also funded several projects with a gender component, though we are discussing ways to generate more proposals in this area. Among the three cross-cutting themes, we have probably received the fewest proposals in the area of climate, environment and social compliance. But we have seen more proposals in that area in the third and fourth rounds.

Viv Davies: What are some of the common mistakes in proposals that applicants should avoid?

Chris Woodruff: I would say the most common mistake is to interpret “exploratory” as a fishing license. Many proposals fail to reference an academic literature, and fail to provide a clear question which will guide the research. We have seen many proposals with a timeline of activities that starts with a “literature review.” The literature review needs to be completed before the proposal is written. PEDL is first and foremost a research programme. Our aim is to provide funding that will lead to high quality academic research. Importantly, the research needs to address questions which are relevant to policy. But the two have to go together. Research quality is fundamental. That means the applicants need to show how the project will  relate to the existing literature. 

Viv Davies: Can researchers with an ERG later apply for an Major Research Grant from PEDL?

Chris Woodruff: Yes, and we hope that many will. One purpose of the ERG programme is to provide funding for researchers to develop concepts and therefore stronger large grant proposals. Because we ultimately want to fund innovative research, we see the ERG programme as allowing researchers to show that a project can be scaled up.

Viv Davies: Can there be a policy dimension to ERGs?

Chris Woodruff: The topic should be directly linked to policy. Since many of the ERG proposals are for pilot projects or initial work, we don’t expect that the ERG projects will always produce credible policy recommendations. 

Viv Davies: How do you see the ERG programme evolving in coming months?

Chris Woodruff: Well, one thing is that I expect funding will become more competitive. As we continue to receive applications at high rates, we are bumping up against budget constraints. So I expect we will pay closer attention to the potential for projects to become large scale projects, and to funding for PhD students and other young researchers.

We also expect to release a special call for proposals from researchers based in LICs, in a programme that will link research, training programmes and networking with researchers in Europe and the U.S.  So watch this space in the fall for an announcement about that!

Viv Davies:  It sounds fantasic. You're doing a really great job, Chris. Thanks very much!

Chris Woodruff: Thank you, Viv.