Increasingly the intellectual world is saturated with grants. Increasingly institutions measure their status in terms of grants gained. And increasingly scholars are expected to secure grants. Quite a few years ago, I realised that the world is full of billions of dollars of grants and it shouldn’t be that difficult to get hold of some. What I didn’t realise at the time was that it requires a whole set of specific and dubious skills to make that task easier.

I used to be in awe of former colleague who was able to write up grants pretty much for anyone, with one proviso: you needed a very good track record. Producing a winnable proposal is a relative cinch after that. In other words, the grantsman begins preparation a decade earlier, before actually launching into applications. But now that I am a little more aware of the unenviable skills of the grantsman, I no longer hold this scholar in awe.

But how exactly does a grantsman go about his or her task? The first thing to realise is that it is a massive game of spin. Assessment panels rarely know of an applicant’s work first hand, so they rely purely on what is in the application in order to allocate massive amounts of funds. Buzz-words, hot topics, structure that invites readers in so that they don’t want to throw it away. Some institutions provide special seminars on how to ‘frame’ or ‘tilt’ the application in a certain way. One example: since the attack on the World Trade Centre in September, 2001, massive amounts of cash have been given for projects on ‘terrorism’, Islam, border security and related areas. Suddenly there were specialists in these topics everywhere, spitting out grants applications with all the appropriate hot buttons pressed. However, I have yet to find one entitled ‘Osama Bin Laden: The Patron Saint of Research on Border Protection’.

Second, grants are usually given for business-as-usual. Since the track record is so crucial and since the grantsman needs to show that he or she has a background in the area, a grantsman will promise to do more of the same. Or at least pretend to do so. Since the genuinely new idea will never get funded, it must shelter under the same old thing, waiting the opportunity to get to work.

Third, the grantsman knows never to ask for money for a brand new project – this is old advice from the science grantsmen. Make sure a project is half complete, for then the grantsman will be able to outline the project very specifically, provide clear objectives, expected outcomes. Anyone who says they want to explore a topic and see what happens hasn’t got a chance. If successful, the grantsman will then be able to complete the project in half the time or less for the grant and get on with the next project, for which another grant will then be developed …

Fourth, the grantsman knows that one should never actually say what one will really do. Propose one book in three years, perhaps a dozen articles, and the assessment panel implicitly recognises the codes of ‘feasability’. Never, ever does the grantsman say he will write one very, very good article, since that is lazy. She will not propose to write three books, or thirty articles, or run around the globe, since that is not human.

Fifth, to those who have more will be given. For those on $60,000 or more year – of course, they need yet more money to undertake research. No granting body would dream of saying, ‘hey listen, rich dude, you don’t need money to do what you propose to do; use some of your “own” money’. But this slogan also applies to grants: the grantsman knows that already having a few grants always increases the chance of getting more.

Finally, obtaining grants can be an excellent distraction from actual writing. Get a team together, get some teaching relief, employ a research assistant or three, organise symposia and conferences, engage in public policy work, edit a shitload of journals and books – for the grantsman is aware that obtaining a grant is a crucial aim of scholarly life.