Funding your Research

Delivery across the Spectrum

Over the last year here at Cloud Chamber we have expanded the amount of support we can offer through research development activities, support and training. It has been an exciting year that has seen us work with a number of new clients including Leeds Beckett University, Bucks New University and CREST. I’m often asked exactly what support we can provide so I thought it would be useful to outline these below. If any of these might be of interest to you or your institution or you would like more information then please feel free to get in touch.

  1. Grant Application Reviews: We have worked on a number of applications with academics and universities providing a critical friend role to help strengthen the application, ensure it meets guidelines and criteria and to input best practice from across the sector. This support has ranged from reviewing the earliest drafts right through to reviewing the final drafts only. It can be tailored to suit your needs.
  2. Research Strategy Support: We have supported universities and departments/schools to explore research funding strategies and find ways to plan pro-actively for funding opportunities as they arise. I have blogged about our CREST workshop on this.
  3. Grant Writing Training: Our support is tailored specifically to those with limited or no experience in grant writing and covers a range of topics including developing a research career, where to find funding, the basics of writing a proposal, developing a research budget and impact. These sessions are a mixture of practical exercises and presentations and run for around half a day which in our experience is the right length for those new to grant writing! Some of the topics we cover are summarised in blogs which can be found here and here.
  4. Mock Grant Panels: These interactive sessions use real funding applications as examples for researchers to review and make decisions about whether they would fund them or not. They provide an opportunity to show academics how grant panels work, the types of things panels might look at and experience of reaching a consensus. At the end of the session the fate of the real applications is revealed along with any feedback received from the funders.
  5. Grant camps: These camps are a brilliant way of supporting people write the first draft of a funding applications, especially if they are inexperienced or are having difficulty finding the time. The camps run for about 4 hours and take participants through six structured writing sessions which ultimately produce a first draft of an application. We all know that writing the first sentence is tough and this approach helps take care of that, getting people writing quickly and effectively. The idea came from Melbourne via Research Whisperer and I blogged about a couple of grant camps I ran which explain it in more detail.
  6. Arts and Humanities specialist support: Often researchers within Arts and Humanities can feel overlooked and isolated with many messages coming from funders and government relating to impact, economic development and STEM. We specialise in working with Arts, Humanities and Social Science researchers and can provide tailored support to help you achieve impact and funding success via workshops or specific grant support.
  7. Mentoring scheme development and training: We have run successful training sessions for universities who are interested in setting up research mentoring schemes in their institutions. The training sessions cover the basics of mentoring, why you might want a scheme, what you want it to acheive and how to set it up. The session will  enable you to think through what is best for your university. We also deliver training for researchers to enable them to become effective mentors.
  8. Blogging: We regularly blog (you are reading one now!) and we aim to cover topics that are of interest to academics and institutions who are looking to increase their research income and infrastructure.
  9. Twitter: We are on Twitter as @HEResearchfund and @cloudchamber – do follow us for the latest advice, blogs, tips, funding opportunities and to find out more about what we are up to.
  10. Supporting small and specialist institutions through ARMA and CREST: We are actively working with ARMA and CREST  to support research development in small and specialist institutions. These institutions often have unique challenges that can best be solved by working together and we help to bring people together to learn from each other, share best practice and to be a peer network.
  11. Other training courses and services we deliver include:
    1. Reading and writing for Doctoral students
    2. SPSS and a basic introduction to statistics
    3. Research contract training including the development of contract templates
    4. Other tailored workshops and sessions to meet your needs

Do get in touch if any of the above is of interest to you – we are happy to have a chat and see how we might be able to help. I can be contacted at Lachlan.smith@cloud-chamber.co.uk

Research Development: Reflections from ARMA

It was great to attend the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) conference in Liverpool this week. Despite battling the wind and rain to get to the venue it was a great couple of days. It was good to catch up with colleagues and clients, old and new, over the three days. There were a variety of interesting discussions and key notes which reflected the ever changing landscape of research management, particularly within the context of Brexit and the election today. Some of the key take away messages and impressions for me from the conference were:

1) It is really important to keep applying for EU funding. The UK currently puts around £2 billion into the EU research funding pot and receives just over £3 billion back which is an excellent return on investment. By applying we not only continue to access this important funding stream but it continues to highlight the importance of it and keep it in the mix in Brexit negotiations.

2) The breadth and quality of research done at small and specialist institutions is really impressive. At Cloud Chamber we are lucky to work with a number of them including Newman, Harper Adams, St Mary’s and Bucks New universities and given the tight budgets and resources that they have access to they really do punch above their weight and do impressive work.

3) Despite being so great at punching above their weight the challenges at small and specialist institutions can be huge. The session on Managing current awareness at small institutions which was delivered by Arts University Bournemouth provided a great insight into the day to day life of running a small research office and the tensions that can exist between operational and strategic tasks. This highlighted an appetite for an ARMA group to be established to look at supporting those who work in research development in smaller institutions. This group could help them to network, learn from and support each other.

4) As a professional group we need to find effective ways to lobby funders for more realistic time-scales to develop applications. This is particularly important for calls that require complex partnerships, often those which require overseas partners like Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). Coupled with this, given this is a new and emerging research area it is really important that feedback provided to applicants is clear and constructive as this will help all university partners to develop stronger, more relevant and timely applications.

5) The research management community is incredibly supportive and people are always willing to share experiences, resources and ideas. This is really evident amongst those that work in small and specialist institutions. What was clear is that there are lots of free resources out there ranging from blogs to templates for different documents, polices and procedures and that these can be really helpful in making sure your research office is in the best possible place to support research in your institution.

Next year ARMA is joining up with international partners to deliver INORMS in Edinburgh. It will be a great opportunity to build collaborations and learn from international research development partners. It should be a great event but in the meantime there is much to do, including voting today!

Finding the time – Tackling the no time conundrum in grant writing

Throughout the work I do with universities at Cloud Chamber the single most common barrier preventing academic researchers from writing research proposals is time. This  issue comes up over and over again and usually is most prevalent in smaller and specialist institutions which are often teaching heavy and have less of a research tradition. I thought it might be useful to get a perspective from some academics who, like their colleagues, have heavy teaching and administrative roles but have managed to write funding applications (and be successful some of the time!). What was their secret? Well it turns out that there isn’t a secret but there are some tools, techniques and approaches that they employ which help them along the way. These different ideas can be broadly placed into two categories. Firstly there are the broad approaches to grant writing and the thought processes behind them and secondly there are practical things you can try which aim to help carve out time for grant writing and research more generally. Finally I have added some other tips at the end that may be worth doing if you are going to take the first steps into grant writing.

The right frame of mind

Being from a small institution can feel daunting, it feels daunting enough if you work at one of the larger research intensive institutions, especially if you are at the start of your research career. Even though the research funding world can look daunting experience tells me that it will get easier as you learn about it, write applications and become immersed in it. We know that the odds of getting research funded are small (can vary anywhere from 5-25% for most schemes) but without putting yourself forward you certainly wont secure funding. So what can you do?

  • First up you need to consider what research drives you? What are you interested in? Why did you get into academia? Was it to do research, was it to teach, was it something else? Be aware of what motivates you as this will help you identify what (if any) research applications are right for you. Once you know the answers to this you need to think more carefully  around the specifics outlined below.
  • It is really important that whatever your research idea is it must interest you. The research should build on your passions, on what really interests and engages you. Remember, if you secure the grant you will need to deliver the project. This sounds flippant but it is a reality that can easily be forgotten (I’ve seen it happen!). If your heart is not in the application process then delivering the research will be even more problematic. Make sure that your heart is in it, the research will drive you and your curiosity will be sustained even when other things may get in the way.
  • If you are from a small institution you may believe that nobody from small institutions ever gets funded. It may feel like this but it isn’t the case. Yes, it is tougher submitting from a smaller institution but funders are very concious of ironing out biases in the research review process. In all the applications I have supported and got feedback on in the last three years never has the institution been raised as an issue. Indeed on some occasions the institutional support and environment has been praised in the feedback, in part due to the extra mile some smaller institutions go to when supporting an application. Remember that one of the reasons that smaller institutions receive less funding is because they put in far fewer applications. Browse through previously funded projects on funder websites, you may be pleasantly surprised.
  • When approaching grant writing you need to accept that you probably won’t get it right the first time. Perhaps not the second time either but each time you write a grant you will learn knowledge and skills that will support you in other parts of your work as well. Grant writing is a great way of enhancing clarity in your writing, understanding issues around value for money and budgeting and most importantly it can develop problem solving skills as you put the jigsaw of a research project together.

Practical tips and approaches

When you have a great research idea and what to turn it into an application you may still find yourself looking at your diary and wondering how you will write it before the deadline hits. There are some things that you can do, some easier than others but in the experience of academics I’ve worked with they are all achievable in time.

  • All academics will generally have research time allocated to them as part of their institutions workload planning systems. This can vary by institution. What ever your allocation is (let’s say it is 10% of your time and you work full time) then work out what this means in hours. In our example 10% would normally equate to about 4 hours in a week. To use this effectively some researchers look for a consistent spot in the diary (perhaps a morning or afternoon where you don’t teach) and then block that out for the whole semester / term or year. This protects your time but you do need to be vigilant about it and not let meetings creep in. If people request meetings at that time then explain that you already have commitments. During that time don’t check emails or only check them at the start or end – allow yourself a fixed time to do it. The advice I’ve had is that you must be disciplined. It isn’t easy but if you build it into your routine it will get easier and easier. As one academic said to me “It’s amazing how easily things can be rearranged and then we realise the world will not end if we say ‘no’ or ‘no yet’. No really, it won’t.” Nobody will automatically protect your research time for you, you need to make it a priority for yourself.
  • Set up funding alert emails using whatever resources your university provides (this may be Research Professional or Research Connect – or something else, check with your research office.) Build some research thinking and browsing of research opportunities time into a Friday afternoon (or whenever suits). Browsing the funding opportunities can be a good (and hopefully low stress) way to complete a week. Even if none of the opportunities are relevant or right for you at the moment you are keeping abreast of what is happening in your field/discipline or areas of interest.
  • Build a relationship with your research office. Drop in or arrange to see the team. Get to know them and make sure they know what your interests are as well. That way the advice they provide will be as accurate as possible and they, in conjunction with you, can make quick assessments as to whether a particular call is worth pursuing or not.
  • Network, network and keep networking. Get yourself known both on-line and in the real world. Make sure you engage with debates and questions in your area of interest. Make sure that when other people have a research idea and are looking for a collaborator that you are one of the first people they think of. Being a co-investigator or collaborator on a research proposal takes some of the hassle and stress out of writing an application. And it can be a great way of increasing your chances of securing funding, especially if you are collaborating with someone with a good funding and research track record.

Other ideas

One thing worth bearing in mind as you go through the grant writing process is that it does get easier. It is amazing what you learn along the way and how you can easily apply this knowledge to future applications. To support this learning you may want to also try the following ideas.

  • Sketch out your whole research idea as early as possible. Don’t start by trying to write the whole application from beginning to end. Get the outline down on a couple of sides of A4 first. This can quickly help to establish the viability of your research proposal and can be shared with others quickly and easily for initial feedback. There are a number of good templates out there, one of my favourites can be found here and is reproduced below.

research-proposal-flowchart

  •  Break the bid down into achievable chunks, working backwards from the deadline (whether self imposed or funder driven). It is always useful to do this with research office staff as they can make sure that the time-line also fits in with any institutional sign off requirements. It also means they can draw on their experience to help ensure it is achievable, including pointing you to other internal resources that may help.
  • Whether you are ready to write an application now or at some point in the future you may want to consider mapping out a 3 or 5 year research plan to help guide your thinking. I have outlined on a previous blog what this might include. It is worth doing this with a mentor, trusted colleague or research office staff who can help you think through how this will work best for you.

So there you have it, some (hopefully) helpful and relatively simple ideas to help you find the time you need to write a funding application. I’m sure there will be other tips from other researchers and it would be great to him them. Cracking this nut can be hard but I know it can be done.

A special thanks to Dr Stephen Pihlaja (@mysonabsalom) and Dr Helen Hanna  (@DrHelenHannafor their ideas in preparing this blog. Apologies in advance if I have misconstrued your thoughts, tips and hints!

Planning for research funding opportunities

Recently we ran a workshop for CREST which was designed to support their members to think through and create Research Funding Strategies that work for their institution. The idea was borne out of the common challenge that smaller and specialist institutions have in relation to the time it takes to build research infrastructure and systems. They were looking for ways to not just build this infrastructure but to get practices in place that would enable them to take a more structured approach to securing research funding. We all recognise that it is very easy to be caught in the cycle of being reactive and ‘chasing’ the funding. Changing this practice can be very powerful in changing the culture and ‘place’ of research within an institution. We developed and ran a workshop in early March which explored some of the things that you can do give yourself the best possible chance of both planning for and then submitting high quality grant applications.

I wanted to share some of these ideas, tools and techniques as some really resonated and many of the participants agreed that they were easier to develop and implement than they had imagined. I stressed at the workshop that to implement all of the ideas we discussed would take considerable time and resource so it’s important to pick and choose which are right for your university, school or faculty. Even when I have worked at larger institutions like Warwick we didn’t effectively implement all these tools across all departments.  Although I’m not covering all the tools and ideas in this blog post I would stress that before you implement any of them it is worth giving some thought to at what level these should be implemented. For many universities it may make sense to start with a specific research centre or school or faculty and not try and tackle the challenge at a university level straight away. In fact I would argue that some of the tools fit more naturally and would be more effective at these lower levels.

So what exactly were we trying to achieve? The ultimate aim of the workshop and subsequent follow on work was to ‘support the right proposals from the right people at the right time’. To do this we outlined and discussed in groups a number of tools and techniques. It’s important to note that for them to work effectively they should only be implemented after a full research audit to understand where you are and what skills, experience and opportunities already exist amongst your current researchers. A number of approaches can be taken to achieve this but that may be best left to a future blog post! Once your research audit is completed then what should you do next? Some ideas are outlined below:

Annual Funding Calendar: This idea captured the imagination of the room due in part to it’s simplicity but also the fact it can help researchers and research development staff alike. The idea is to provide a simple visual tool that lets people know which regular and known calls take place within a one year calendar cycle. The calendar can contain any level of information but should at a minimum contain the funder, call date and link to further information. It can easily be updated quarterly, half yearly or annually and can sit on university research Intranet or sharepoint pages. It can look something like this:

Annual funding calendar

Staff Research Plans: Most universities undertake annual reviews with their academic researchers. These can often be tied to performance measures and have a number of annual objectives or goals. Often promotions can be dependent on achieving these goals. Whilst these systems and policies have a place we think it is more useful for researchers and research development staff to look further into the future. Therefore we advocate developing three to five year plans which are reviewed annually and developed as part of a three way conversation between the researcher, their line manager or research lead in their department and a research development professional. These plans aren’t about tying people into doing specific things by specific dates neccesarily, they are about exploring what the future holds, mapping out longer term objectives and outlining a path (or paths) to get there. The topics or themes that can be discussed and mapped out could include:

  • What are the key themes / questions in the academics research?
  • Map the stakeholders / impact of the research
  • What is the end goal? Final research project?
  • Steps to achieve final research goal / project?
  • Publications on the way (journals, blogs, books etc)
  • Research outputs to be achieved with broad time-lines
  • Additional support / training required
  • Networking opportunities / plans

Internal selection processes: In conjunction with the annual funding calendar it can be a really useful idea to undertake an internal selection process (some funders will effectively require it if only one application per university is allowed). The advantages of doing it more generally include creating a structured longer lead in time to applications which ensures researchers develop ideas earlier and helps research development staff to plan. It also ensures there is a low risk of last minute applications and if any ideas do come forward that aren’t suitable for the scheme in question then alternatives can be explored earlier on, preventing potentially wasted work by the researcher. When undertaking an internal selection process it is important to provide feedback to applicants, both those approved to go forward and those rejected. This can support a positive research environment, especially when getting feedback from funders is only getting rarer and rarer.

Once you have mapped out in advance when you need to receive internal applications you can undertake the internal call. This could be general or targeted to specific researchers depending on the call and your priorities as a university. We suggest the internal call application form should include the following:

  1. Start and end dates
  2. Case for support including relevant contextual literature (1 page max)
  3. Key research questions
  4. Methods / approach
  5. Budget estimate
  6. Potential Impact and outputs
  7. A CV of 2 pages should be attached outlining key publications and research history

Total application (excluding CV) should be no more than 2 or 3 pages. This can enable a quick decision either way which supports all involved.

Other topics we tackled on the day included making an assessment of your key funders, undertaking an internal research audit, using internal research funding flexibly and effectively, supporting peer review of applications, tenders and their role in research, creating internal databases of previous applications and other ongoing support and development needs.

Developing a proactive Research Funding Strategy does take some time but the rewards can be great. It not only increases your chances of success with ‘known’ calls but it also puts you in a stronger position to respond to those calls that do appear out of nowhere and require a quick response.

If you have any thoughts about the above then we would love to hear them. One of the great things about research development is the fact that there is always something to learn! In addition if you’d like to discuss how a research funding strategy may help your own institution, school, faculty or research centre then please do get in touch.

Reflections on a recent grant application

We all make assumptions in life and work and sometimes those assumptions prove to be very wrong and this is what happened to me recently on a grant application and there are some lessons in there for all parties involved. So what did I assume? I assumed that after working for a few years with an institution that the knowledge of their staff, particularly around research budget development, was greater than what in fact it was.

Now this really should not have surprised me, it was always an issue that as a research support team we had an awareness of but we never systematically addressed. As that was the case we created a problem for ourselves. The saving grace was that the grant application was being submitted to an open call scheme so we had time to keep refining the budget (and application). Had we been against a deadline we may not have got it right in time.

It has highlighted again for me that within institutions (and especially small institutions where expertise may be more thinly spread) the research office and finance need to work hand in glove and that PI’s need to work on their budgets at the very earliest opportunity. Since the challenges of that particular application we have teamed up with finance to look not only at budget development but we have also tightened up the grant approvals process and talked through some of the practicalities of managing grants and setting up contracts once funding is secured. It took that budget development fright to get the discussion going and I think we are now on the right track.

It has highlighted for me the need to keep working with and supporting all internal partners in research. This applies not just to a academics but to finance, HR, school administrators, heads of schools and departments and senior management of universities. When universities grow and build their research portfolio the support and planning needed spans across the whole institution. I love this challenge and enjoy the rewards for academic and other staff. We just have to make sure we keep learning as the research applications, successes and income grows. And as for the grant application that kicked all these discussions off, well I have high hopes….fingers crossed!

British Academy Funding Deadlines 2016-17

The British Academy has recently confirmed the deadlines for a number of their key funding schemes during 2016-17. These are detailed below. If you are interested in any of these schemes then do contact your university research office.

Mid-Career Fellowships Outline Stage

http://www.britac.ac.uk/british-academy-mid-career-fellowships

Scheme Opens: 10th August 2016

Deadline for Applicants: 14th September 2016

Deadline for Institutional Approval: 15th September 2016

Deadline for Referees: 22nd September 2016

Result of Outline Stage Announcement: December 2016

 

BA/Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowships

http://www.britac.ac.uk/baleverhulme-senior-research-fellowships

Scheme Opens: 12th October 2016

Deadline for Applicants: 16th November 2016

Deadline for Institutional Approval: 17th November 2016

Deadline for Referees: 24th November 2016

Final Award Announcement expected: 31st March 2017

 

Earliest Award Start Date: 1st September 2017

Latest Award Start Date: 1st January 2018

 

Wolfson Research Professorships

http://www.britac.ac.uk/wolfson-research-professorships

Scheme Opens: 28th September 2016

Deadline for Applicants: 23rd November 2016

Deadline for Institutional Approval: 24th November 2016

Deadline for Referees: 1st December 2016

Final Award Announcement expected: 31st March 2017

 

Earliest Award Start Date: 1st September 2017

Latest Award Start Date: 1st January 2018

 

Postdoctoral Fellowships Outline Stage

http://www.britac.ac.uk/british-academy-postdoctoral-fellowships

Scheme Opens: 24th August 2016

Deadline for Applicants: 5th October 2016

Deadline for Institutional Approval: 6th October 2016

Deadline for Referees: 13th October 2016

Result of Outline Stage Announcement: January 2017

 

BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grants (Autumn 2016)

http://www.britac.ac.uk/baleverhulme-small-research-grants-0

Scheme Opens: 1st September 2016

Deadline for Applicants: 12th October 2016

Deadline for Institutional Approval: 13th October 2016

Deadline for Referees: 27th October 2016

Final Award Announcement expected: 31st March 2017

 

Earliest Award Start Date: 1st April 2017

Latest Award Start Date: 31st August 2017

 

BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grants (Spring 2017)

http://www.britac.ac.uk/baleverhulme-small-research-grants-0

Scheme Opens: 12th April 2017

Deadline for Applicants: 24th May 2017

Deadline for Institutional Approval: 25th May 2017

Deadline for Referees: 8th June 2017

Final Award Announcement expected: 31st August 2017

 

Earliest Award Start Date: 1st September 2017

Latest Award Start Date: 31st March 2018

Funding Guidance really can help – do read it!

I was really annoyed when I started writing this post – I’m glad I didn’t hit send on the first draft I wrote  – I have had a chance to reflect and calm down after a period of steam coming out of my ears!  Having said that I think it’s best to just get straight to the point >>>> So, to just to cut to the chase please do read the funding  guidance before developing a research application as it makes life so much easier for everyone, especially the applicant! Let me explain:

Research Development is complicated (and sometimes tough!), you are often working with a raft of people at the same time who are each working on an application (or two) which will be targeted to different funders. Each of these funders and often different schemes within each funder will have different rules and regulations regarding what you can apply for, the type of research you can do, what the budget can and can’t pay for and how an application should be presented (amongst other things). Now I’m always happy to read applications and provide guidance and I know that research development professionals all over the country and the world are happy to do the same. What really helps us though is when we know that the PI has, at the very least, had a read of the guidance. This initial read may only at headline level but it gives a good sense of what is required. It’s also helpful when you come to us to clarify any areas of misunderstanding or concern. The reality is that you ignore funding guidance at your peril and it can lead to many wasted hours of work, time that is precious to academics (and believe it or not, administrators and managers too!). So in order to save the stresses involved in hitting hurdles and barriers later in the application process I’d suggest the first priority for a PI, once they have identified a funding scheme, is to read the guidance. If it is long and complicated (and some guidance is ridiculously long and complicated!) then it might be worth making time to sit down with your research office and go through it. Two heads being better then one and all that. In addition to this I would suggest doing (or not doing) the following:

Talk to your research office as soon as possible – as soon as you have an idea. They can point out all the immediate and obvious pitfalls that you should take account for as you develop your application. This is often generic advice (not particular to a specific funder or scheme) but is really valuable.

  1. Send drafts for comment (to research office and colleagues) on an ongoing basis. Don’t wait until you have finished your first full draft. By then it may be too late (I’ve blogged about this before).
  2. Start your budget as early as possible. It really can help shape your proposal and avoid problems later down the line. I have outlined the basics of budget preparation in a previous post but do remember your research office and finance teams will support you with this too.
  3. Do not base your application solely on previous successful (or unsuccessful) applications as this can lead to disaster. Why? Because often funder rules and priorities change and these won’t be obvious by looking at previous applications alone. They can be a useful guide but as the following blog by Adam Goldberg highlights there are pitfalls to using them and I’d suggest all applicants  and aspiring researchers should read it.
  4. Lastly – if in doubt please don’t make it up! This applies especially to the budget but to the application more broadly. Talk to your research office, they will be able to help or will know someone who can. A lot of unnecessary time can be spent undoing mistakes made when assumptions are made about what is required.

 

Okay, so rant over – save yourself some time and read that guidance! Any other tips and thoughts welcome, what do you think?

Research Development – The ARMA experience

One of the key challenges for CREST members and smaller or specialist institutions is creating vibrant and inclusive research cultures that enable academics to undertake high quality research and develop strong research funding applications. All CREST members are making great strides in this area and four members recently attended the Association for Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) annual conference in Birmingham to showcase the successes and outline some of the challenges faced by smaller institutions.  Lachlan Smith (Bishop Grosseteste, Newman and Leeds Trinity Universities) and Claire Tapia (St Mary’s University) were joined by Dr Anett Kiss (Sussex University) to explore some of the different approaches to research development and what lessons can be learned by larger institutions.

Over 70 delegates attended the workshop which covered issues ranging from current research infrastructure, how best to share intelligence and promote interdisciplinary working and the importance of celebrating success. The two key themes of the workshop were to highlight what can be achieved with limited resources and to share these lessons with colleagues from larger institutions, especially those based at a departmental or faculty level. Following an icebreaker where people were asked to consider where they would start if they had to establish a new research office with only one member of staff the workshop outlined existing structures within the smaller institutions. This lead into a discussion about current activities, key lessons and thoughts from the audience on approaches to research development activities. Some of the key activities and advantages of being a small institution highlighted were:

  • The ability to share intelligence and share research stories and expertise through university wide research days. These days can bring together researchers, administrators and external speakers to focus on current research, celebrate research success and develop new partnerships and networks.
  • Implementing research management software to track research progress and report outputs for REF and other internal monitoring. These systems can be implemented more easily in smaller institutions as they tend to have fewer legacy systems than larger institutions. Many smaller universities implement these systems later and can learn from larger universities.
  • Sharing of resources can be a positive experience including the sharing of research development expertise. Joint events as well as joint posts have been implemented to take forward research support. For joint posts to work it  was agreed that they needed to have quick access to decision makers, work at the coal face and ignore potential competition between institutions.
  • Smaller research offices can deal with problems and questions quickly, often facilitating and brokering relationships with other key members of staff. This is coupled with a face to face service that is valued by academics and enables clear and focused advice to be given to individual researchers. Smaller institutions can often retain the personal touch when working with researchers although this, it wwas acknowledged, needs to be managed as research grows.
  • Being agile and responding quickly to opportunities can be easier when smaller. As can the ability to openly draw on free external resources that can support researchers. When working within smaller institutions it is important to be as flexible as possible when looking for potential resources – we don’t have time to reinvent the wheel!

The workshop recognised that this wasn’t a one way street though. Although small institutions do have advantages and larger ones can learn from our approaches it is clear that we can learn from the bigger players too. Drawing on the experiences of ethics committees and policies, more flexible and imaginative approaches to internal funding and the need for specialist input (i.e. impact, EU funding etc) alongside more general support were highlighted as some of the lessons taken on board by smaller universities.

The session provided a great opportunity for four CREST members to promote the work that they do in research development with many members of the audience being surprised at the breadth of work covered as well as the positive impact it can have on research cultures. Many larger institutions are not aware of the work done in small and specialist universities and this workshop helped to highlight not only the work being done but also challenged perceptions about smaller institutions, their infrastructure and their research capabilities.

The Mock Panel – Decision time….

I recently had the opportunity to run two funding workshops which were designed to act as an introduction to research funding for a range of academics, many of whom were early in their research careers and some who had never engaged in a research funding application before. The two sessions were populated by staff from the same department of a university here in the UK. To do something different we decided to run some mock review panels in the workshop using real bids. Most of these bids were written in the last two years but some were older. We also knew what the outcomes were for these bids but we kept that information secret until the end of the process. In total there were seven mock panels and even though some of the panel members had never seen a research funding bid before there was a level of consistency and coherence in the decisions (or lack of decisions in some cases!). So what did we learn:

  1. All of the panels were highly critical (or full of praise) for the abstracts and opening statements on the proposals. They quickly learnt the value of making your abstract or opening paragraph as clear as possible, punchy, relevant and interesting. They agreed that you needed to state the problem you were solving upfront and emphasise the importance of solving this problem now. Some of the proposals failed (in the panels and real life) at least in part because reviewers were lost or confused so early in the proposal.
  2. Budgets – everyone hates doing budgets but everyone loves to tear other people’s budgets apart! Although some panel members felt they didn’t have enough expertise to make a judgement the majority of panel members were quick to judge whether they thought something was good value for money or in a number of cases was under resourced.Being realistic and accurate with your budget is critical to any application.
  3. Impact came up over and over again. People were keen to see impact in applications. As the panels all picked this up it is clear that impact is becoming a more integral part of the process of applying for research funding and that it remains at the forefront of applicants minds. Two things stood out though. Firstly there is still a lack of understanding of what impact is, the academy remains on a learning curve. The panels wanted to see impact but struggled to articulate what impact would look like. Secondly it shows the importance of reading guidance as each funder will treat impact differently and for some it has less importance attached to it when compared to major funders like the Research Councils.
  4. I was expecting that the panels would focus heavily on the methods, the research idea and impact but I wasn’t expecting them to notice the CV’s or track records of the applicants in such detail. What was apparent by the end of the session was the importance that the panels placed on track records when it came to making a positive decision on funding. a strong track record of previous funding, research and publications gave the panel confidence in their positive choices.
  5. Everybody likes to attack a methods section! No matter what discipline you are from most people feel qualified enough to try and comment (often negatively) on the methods sections of an application. It seems, no matter how much detail is given, people always wanted more. Less attention was paid to whether the methods would give answers to the research questions posed, the focus was on the detail of the methods and often whether people agreed with the methods on any level. Explaining your methods and approach in as much detail as possible is highly recommended. A couple of really useful blogs about the methods section of funding applications can be found here and here.
  6. And some weird and wonderful things like punctuation…..For some panel members issues around punctuation and grammar were seen as big red flags, some of the panel members wanted to turn down whole applications on the basis of one or two typos. Now don’t get me wrong, an application riddled with typos or grammatical errors is not easy to read and should raise alarm bells but one or two typos in a ten to twenty page application shouldn’t result in it being binned. I think it can be the case that people latch onto these types of errors only when there is very little wrong with the application or perhaps they don’t understand the application and resort to nitpicking. Or maybe I am too harsh?

Although most of these bids were in the subject area of the department concerned there wasn’t necessarily widespread expertise in the areas across the panels. As such they did at least partially reflect the type of panel your bid might face one day. Given this it wasn’t all that surprising what was picked up (both positively and negatively) but it does show the importance of getting your message right, providing an accurate and realistic budget, outlining methods that make sense and answer the research questions and which can lead to real impact. In addition to this the track record of the applicants was recognised as a key part of any proposal which just goes to show that tailoring your CV and relevant publications and research is an important part of any application.

And finally, despite the panels being a little too picky in some areas there is plenty to be said for taking care to make sure you use correct punctuation and iron out any typos! But please, if you are ever on a funding panel and come across a proposal which is sound expect for a typo or two, please don’t bin it – take a rounded picture of the application and what the research might achieve.

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