Funding your Research

Please pay attention to detail – it can help you win grants!

23rd Mar

Nothing frustrates me more than a lack of attention to detail on a grant application. In my job I am lucky to be able to support people to develop high quality funding applications that not only meet the eligibility criteria but (hopefully!) make sense! I am also lucky as I am asked on occasion to review proposals that have already been submitted and to score them against different funders’ criteria. This is a really useful insight into how people are developing grant funding applications and what common mistakes might be. No grant application is ever going to be perfect and even if it were it doesn’t guarantee that it will be funded but there are some key things you should do, some of which I referred to before here.

The one thing that continues to strike me is the lack of attention to detail in various different areas of applications and these normally fall into two categories:

1) Budget inconsistencies – Please check and double check your budget. A key aspect of this is getting your budget justification right and checking for accuracy. Make sure your figures add up and this includes any breakdowns you might include on various budget lines. If these figures are wrong it damages your credibility and raises doubts about your ability to manage budgets.

2) Broader internal inconsistencies – This is similar to the budget but at a broader level. One helpful way to resolve any issues relating to broad internal inconsistencies is to give yourself as much time as possible to complete an application. Further to this always try to make sure that any items referred to in the budget are referenced and explained in the narrative. I have read a number of applications recently where upon arriving at the budget I have noticed a number of budget lines, some of which are for posts, software, consultancy and other IT, which are not mentioned at all in the project narrative! This, perhaps even more than the budget inconsistencies outlined above, will damage your credibility and will pretty much guarantee that your application will be rejected. It suggests that the narrative and budget were written by different people or that the PI doesn’t have a good handle on what they are delivering.

These problems are both easy to iron out. Make sure you develop the budget at the same time as the narrative of the application and proof read your application a number of times. This is enhanced by sharing drafts with others who have the time to proof read it (and not the day before – give them time!). Don’t risk your application being dismissed out of hand by not addressing questions of accuracy and attention to detail. A concise, well structured and accurate application will help you go a long way towards success.

A hard life for Early Career Researchers?

20th Mar

You may have noticed the recent announcement (and follow up announcement) by the ESRC about changes to their standard grant scheme. In summary the key changes are:

1) An increase in the lower limit from £200,000 to £350,000

2) A decrease in the upper limit from £2m to £1m

These changes will come into force on 1 July 2015. A good blog post by Adam Golberg exploring some of these changes can be found here.

Clearly these changes will have implications for academics as they look to develop robust and credible research proposals. One particular concern is the ever diminishing pool of smaller funds that can be applied for, thus constricting options for early career researchers (ECR) even more. There is clearly some truth in that although how easy it was for an ECR to successfully apply under the current rules is debatable. I expect the success rate probably wasn’t that high. When early in your career it is becoming increasingly important to bring in research income, or at the very least be seen to be actively trying. Many academics in the social sciences and arts turn to schemes like the British Academy Small Grant. This is a great scheme that has lots of flexibility but like most schemes it is becoming ever more competitive. So what can you do as an ECR? Some things I would suggest are:

1) Network, network and network again – During PhD life you can become consumed into a very narrow area of academic thinking, research or expertise. Post PhD it is time to scan the horizon a little and see what else is out there. Opportunities can come from unexpected sources. Make sure you attend as many conferences and seminars as you can (especially your own university and/or departmental seminars) as this helps get you onto the radar of other people.

2) Join relevant associations and interest groups. Engage in discussions with them and go to events as often as you can. If a particular question or area interests you then try to arrange an event on that. Many associations will support this, as will most universities (and if they don’t then they should!)

3) Raise your profile on social media. Twitter, Piirus,, Linkedin and personal blogs (similar to this one) are all useful ways to help connect with people and make sure people can connect with you easily. They may even enable you to demonstrate impact in the future.

4) Finally grab any opportunities you can to collaborate whenever you can. Whether this is to collaborate on a paper, a seminar, a project – it doesn’t really matter but if you are asked to collaborate on research applications then take those opportunities where ever you can. By networking and taking the time to invest in 1-3 above then these opportunities will become more frequent.

Keep putting yourself out there and the make connections wherever you can. It will pay off.

Wellcome Trust Seed Awards

18th Mar

Latest Seed Funding Opportunities from the Wellcome Trust.

How to write a simple research methods section

13th Mar

Some great advice when putting together a research methods section for a funding application. The trap that is described is something I come across often, especially when working with early career researchers or those fresh from a PhD. Getting bogged down in the background is easy to do. Make sure you talk to people, explain to them what you are doing. Those conversations can really help to clarify thinking.

In defence of the crowd

A really interesting read. Crowdfunding is not well developed as a research funding option here in the UK. I think it should be considered more carefully by universities and academics alike. For smaller research projects with clear and tangible public benefits it is worth exploring.

Research Impact Network Event – **NOW OPEN FOR REGISTRATIONS**

28th Feb

Impact within research in HE looks like it is here to stay. Following the REF Impact continues to develop and evolve and the implications for HE institutions, academics and administrators continue to be important. As a result of REF Impact there has been a growth in the number of resources available to help people incorporate Impact into their research. One such resource is the Research Impact Network. They hold a number of useful events and workshops, the latest of which is outlined below. Well worth attending if Impact is a key part of your role.

Time to write a grant application? Give yourself Time!

To pull a strong application together there are three key things to do (well there are lots of other things as well and blog posts will come in due course regarding them but these three I believe are key!). They are the three things that I keep coming back to when approached about grant writing tips and advice.

1) Give yourself time – an application written quickly, in only a few sittings rarely reads well and is usually easy to spot. One significant drawback of a quick application is there is little time to edit it. Good editing will help to make sure the application flows and therefore has an internal consistency. Further to this it is likely the research will have poorly thought through research questions and budgets. I have written about budgets previously and this can be accessed here. In essence I would suggest that whatever time you think it will take to write a strong application you will need double that time!

2) Answer the questions asked – sounds simple doesn’t it? It should be simple but it can easily forgotten, especially when you are close to your research. This is totally understandable but can lead to questions not being answered correctly or fully. My personal favourite is when a funder asks for a description of the aims and objectives. Often answers will start with a paragraph or two of context before listing the aims. This isn’t necessary, there is normally space for context and background information elsewhere in the proposal so it is best to put that text there. Just list the aims and objectives if that is what is asked for. Both reviewers and funding bureaucrats will like you if you do this (I know, I used to be one!). Keep it simple and if you have doubts about whether you are answering the questions then the third key thing to do will help address this.

3) Make sure you ask colleagues and research support staff to read your application – This is incredibly valuable. This process can be uncomfortable, particularly when the research idea is so important to you but by sharing your application with people who you trust will give you honest feedback your application can only be strengthened. This could include sharing you proposal with academic colleagues in your institution or a wider network. It may also involve sharing it with research support colleagues. By sharing it with both groups you will get insights from both technical and generalist readers which is important given that you will have both technical and more general reviewers looking at your proposal after it is submitted. Take any feedback offered and think through what it means. Adapt your proposal accordingly and ask people to read it again. Research support staff exist to read applications! Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification and to debate points, it can really help clarify your thinking.

If you can successfully achieve all three of the above then you will submit a credible application. Even if it is not funded (hopefully it will be) you can use the information again for future applications and I can guarantee the time spent isn’t wasted. Are there any other key tips you should consider? There are lots of resources out there and some links to these are listed on the homepage. Happy grant writing!

Let’s talk about Ethics

16th Feb

Ok, I know nobody wants to talk about ethics! It never ceases to amaze me how little understanding there is of ethics in research within the Humanities and Social Sciences. I think sometimes people see ethics as a barrier or a problem when in fact it can be a really useful process to go through which can help you think through your research design and hopefully avoid (or at least manage) any potential problems in your research.

Most funders expect a proposal to address the ethics of the research within the application. Some approach it as a tick box exercise but more often than not there is now a requirement to explain whether there are any ethical issues with your research and how you will deal with them. On quite a few occasions academics have forwarded their response to me and it has said something along the lines of “The research raises a number of ethical issues and to address these an application will be made to the university ethics committee”. There is no doubt that this is a start but funders will expect a more coherent and nuanced explanation of the ethics issues raised and how they will be addressed. They want to know they are not giving their money to a maverick!

So where do you start? The university research office (if you have one) is the best place to go if you have initial questions but there are a number of on-line resources that I think are really helpful in giving both an overview of ethics in research but also help you to think through your own research design and its implications.

The British Sociological Association has a really useful guide to sociological research although it applies more broadly than that. Another useful Social Science resource has been produced by Lancaster University. Finally, a broader research ethics check list has been produced by the UK Research Integrity Office and this provides a good standard for research throughout the HE sector.

If you are after a good resource to keep on your bookshelf then this review might help. It provides a useful summary of Ethics and Values in Social Research by Paul Ransome. It is on my list of books to read! Perhaps ask your university library to get a copy?

No matter where you are in the ethics process there are resources available to help, you just need to know where to look and who to ask.Hopefully the resources described above can help you to get started. What tips do you have for working through the ethics of research projects and navigating the subsequent ethics approval processes?

New ESRC Funding Opportunities

13th Feb

Two calls have been announced recently by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which will be of interest to people within the Social Sciences. More details are provided below. I will endeavour to put funding calls of interest on this site but if you aren’t linked to a university (and even if you are!) I would suggest following the brilliant blog produced by the Research and Knowledge Exchange team at Manchester Metropolitan University. Their blog can be found here.

Research seminars and Strategic networks competition 2015/16

Funding is available for UK research organisations to hold Research seminars and Strategic networks for groups of academic researchers, postgraduate students and non-academic users from different organisations. This call closes on 8 April and further information can be found here.

ESRC-DFID Education and development: Raising learning outcomes in education systems programme – 2015 call

Pre-call announcement

ESRC and DFID are pleased to announce that we will be inviting applications to a second call under our Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems programme in March 2015. This £20 million programme is generating world-class cutting-edge social science research that addresses key questions on learning outcomes within education systems in developing countries. Further details can be found on the ESRC website.

For more general funding information and current calls then please use the links on the right hand side of this page which take you directly to some of the major UK and international funder websites.

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