Funding your Research Blog

REF2021: How prepared is the sector?

In December last year, we ran a short survey in conjunction with the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University where we asked the sector how prepared it felt for REF 2021. We know that the refining of REF guidelines and the emergence of the Teaching Excellence Framework, and potential for a Knowledge Exchange Framework, is placing increased pressures on universities and academics as they strive to undertake high quality research. Ongoing internal challenges around competing priorities and the effective use of resources highlights the need for institutions to understand exactly where pressure points may exist and how best they can prepare staff and the university for the REF.

Although the sector has been aware of the next REF for some time, all but one of the institutions felt that they were somewhat unprepared for the upcoming exercise. In addition, there was widespread agreement that others in the sector were more prepared than they were. This may reflect a sector wide lack of confidence in preparations, even with most of the key REF guidelines having been released.

Despite the lack of confidence and feeling of under preparedness, all universities have a range of support services in place to help their researchers gain the skills needed to deliver high quality research. All universities provide grant writing training and support alongside research days which offer professional development opportunities as well as showcasing the best research taking place. The picture in regard to impact training and support and researcher mentoring is patchier, with a number of areas, including systems to monitor and record impact as well as academic writing, support barely featuring in the responses. Even with this support in place, several challenges and barriers were highlighted.

University wide leadership including clear messaging, support for research and allocation of resources centrally was seen as critical to achieving success. This included ensuring that ‘time was given to staff to do research’ and ‘funding is made available’. Coupled with this, and reflected across the whole survey, was the pressure of high teaching workloads which reduced the capacity of academics to undertake any research at all. This was particularly prevalent in smaller or specialist institutions who may have less research active staff or a smaller cohort of academics with PhDs.

Some parts of the sector, those with particularly heavy teaching loads or which may be described as teaching lead institutions, are still working to increase the profile of research internally. To do this they have highlighted some key actions that will help them achieve strong results. An overarching concern, linked to leadership above, is the need to ‘articulate research excellence as a core value’. In addition, appointing new staff with doctorates and ideally an emerging track record in research in their field is considered critical. This can then support the creation of a ‘vibrant PhD community’ which supports the REF environment case. The appointment of senior posts within schools and faculties with an explicit research focus would also help.

The survey also highlighted what many referred to as a need to develop a research culture. The ability to positively grow a research culture can be hampered by a poor understanding of the research skills needs that academics have. Assumptions are often made about the skills and knowledge of academics post PhD, but recent research led by Professor John Sharp has demonstrated that often research skills are poorly developed with researchers lacking the confidence to undertake what are often considered day to day research tasks. Strong and clear leadership can help with messaging and this, coupled with research support training, can go some way to addressing and growing a research culture and confidence. At Cloud Chamber we have worked with Professor Sharp to offer a range of support including short training sessions on grant writing, academic reading and writing for doctoral students and writing for publication for research staff. In addition, Professor Sharp has developed an audit tool that can help institutions, faculties or research centres to identify exactly where their research support needs are. To find out more and how we can support your preparations for REF then please contact Lachlan.smith@cloud-chamber.co.uk

Getting ready for REF2021!

Last week the latest batch of REF rules were released. These included clarifications on portability rules, the level of outputs required, definitions of who should be included in the return and how many impact case studies will be needed for each Unit of Assessment. With the release of these key funding rules the countdown is on to the REF census date, 31 July 2020. This is only two and a half years away! Whilst this may seem a long time, for those in academia and HE it will go very quickly as the pace at which outputs are drafted and published let alone the development of robust and traceable impact are long term projects.

Ensuring staff have the skills to ‘deliver’ the outputs and impacts for REF is not something that many universities instinctively look to when looking at what drives success but research from Professor John Sharp at Leeds Beckett University suggests that understanding your researchers skills levels and what support and development needs they have can help transform research cultures. Targeting support is crucial to success. This is particularly the case when it comes to academic writing, a skill that it is assumed all academics have but in reality many are not confident about.

We are keen to explore the current state of readiness amongst researchers at UK Higher Education Institutions and in conjunction with Professor Sharp we have developed a short survey to explore the thoughts of the sector. We welcome the thoughts of everyone in the sector, whether they are a research leader, academic, vice-chancellor, administrator or providing research support. The survey, which can be accessed here, will be open until 22 December and we will provide a summary of the responses in the new year on this blog. There is the option of having follow up conversations to discuss the results and what the implications might be for your university, research centre, faculty or school might be if that would be of interest.

We’d love to have as many views as possible! If you want to discuss any aspect of how Cloud Chamber may be able to support your preparations for REF 2021 then please check out our website or drop me an email.

Sandpits: Creating new research ideas and collaborations

Last week I had the opportunity to support the first ever CREST research sandpit as an expert mentor. The event, held at Loughborough University and brilliantly facilitated by Sophie and Heather from the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), brought together researchers from ten member institutions over two days to explore issues and challenges around collaborative research, to generate ideas to take to community and business partners and then pitch for small seed corn monies to kickstart further conversations.

The agenda for the two days under discussion

The agenda for the two days under discussion

This was my first sandpit and I wasn’t entirely sure how they worked. I had heard they were intense, usually held over a few days and when involving academics they had an interdisciplinary focus that looked at framing problems and solutions within a certain context (for us it was the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund). The idea for this sandpit was to develop cross university and interdisciplinary project ideas that researchers could then take to community or business partners. These ideas were to start a conversation with the intention of developing them further and building equitable research partners. Ultimately of course the aim is to secure larger funding grants to make the ideas a reality.

The ideas developed in this sandpit will be brought back to a further event in February where partnerships will pitch for small pilot projects to be undertaken to test out ideas, develop them further and apply for more funding. My role was to provide feedback, answer questions and offer expertise and comment around research funding and how the partners may go about accessing future funding. In summary it was a really stimulating couple of days that saw a number of great ideas being developed. I enjoyed watching the ideas come together and the way in which the different researchers, all with different backgrounds, came together was really positive and inspiring. The following are some specific observations on the event and I think many can be applied to developing research collaborations more broadly:

  1. Sandpits are intensive! I had heard that they are but until you experience one it is hard to describe. There is little time to think about anything else as you move through intellectual challenges and discussions at a swift pace quickly developing, binning, refining and creating ideas.
  2. To make the most of a sandpit you need to go in with a completely open mind. You may have been asked to come with some research ideas up your sleeve and if that is the case you will get a chance to express and discuss them but you should remain open to new ideas including topics you may never have considered and disciplines you may never have thought you might (or could) work with. It is surprising how ideas are developed.

    Pitching for 'conversation' funding - the panel decides

    Pitching for ‘conversation’ funding – the panel decides

  3. The pace at which ideas were generated was exciting and saw a huge number of ideas being discussed. This is a really important part of the process as it whittles down vast ideas into manageable yet ambitious potential projects.
  4. The sandpit gave everyone an opportunity to pitch for funding. Time to both develop and deliver the pitch was tight and this made for a great learning experience for all involved. It is a skill that can be easily transferred to other funding opportunities.
  5. The energy in the room enabled people to mix easily – good facilitation is critical to make this work. The tasks undertaken were all engaging and well paced helping to ensure both the agenda moved forward quickly and people got to know each other.
  6. The networking opportunities were worth the admission price alone! The way in which the event was facilitated meant there was plenty of space to learn about others and their interests and expertise. These new connections will likely lead to new opportunities in the future.
  7. I learnt a lot as an observer about different ways to approach facilitation, build ideas and rank priorities. The Diamond Nine technique was incredibly useful as a way of seeing how your own priorities may match up with potential collaborators, providing a good starting point for discussions.

The two days produced four really interesting ideas that will now be taken out into the world and developed further with potential partners. I’m pleased that Cloud Chamber will be able to support these ideas further over the coming months in conjunction with CREST. I for one really enjoyed my first sandpit and I hope to attend more in the future. If you ever get the opportunity to attend a research sandpit I highly recommend you get along, it can really open up opportunities and new networks.

A busy summer…

Summer time can often be a quieter time in academia with univesity students heading home and enjoying a break, often giving academics a chance to have a well earned rest, at least from teaching! Research doesn’t tend to take a break though with many projects ongoing and any down time being taken to develop new grants and look at infrastructure systems across institutions. Cloud Chamber have had a busy summer working with a number of universities as well as CREST and ARMA to support universities grow their research culture and infrastructure. Some these activities have included:

  1. Working with Newman University to help develop template research contracts for use as their funded research portfolio increases. In addition we have conitned to work with Newman over the summer to examine different research management systems including assessing advantages and disadvantages of various systems.
  2. We delivered an introduction to research mentoring workshop at Bishop Grosseteste University which was designed to equip their research mentors with the right skills to successfully mentor new researchers. Later in the summer we delivered a session supporting researchers and finance staff at the university to develop accurate and robust research budgets.
  3. Working with ARMA and their Research Development Special Interest Group leads we have established a new working group for research development professionals working in small or specialist higher education institutions. This new group successfully kicked off with a meeting at Leeds Trinity University in September and the work agenda for the new year already looks packed!
  4. Earlier in the summer we visited the STFC and worked with their research fellows exploring research funding, research application writing and impact.
  5. We have continued to work with CREST and met with them in August to explore lessons learnt from previous work undertaken with their memebrs and to explore future work opportunities.
  6. We continued to develop our services and look forward to working with Newman and Harper Adams universities to provide tailored research development support during the 2017/18 academic year

Lots of these are works in progress and we are looking forward to working further on them over the coming months as well as exploring some great new opportunities to support research development in universities. Now that the academic year has started again things are only going to get busier! If you want any more information on any of the types of work above or would like to discuss how we can help your university or research centre then please feel free to get in touch.

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!

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