Funding your Research

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Awards

14th Apr

The AHRC have recently released their guidance for the current CDA call which closes on 7th July 2015. The call is designed to build on partnerships between Higher Education Institutions and other organisations to enable outside work opportunities to be taken up by doctoral students as part of their research degree.

Further details of this funding call can be found here.

Forget REF – Start with what you are interested in….

At a meeting I recently attended I was struck by how the REF remained front and centre of all discussions related to research including how universities might encourage academics in smaller institutions to undertake research. This of course includes the challenging task of completing research funding applications. The discussion moved between common themes like research metrics, which funders to apply to, the types of outputs you (the university and academic) needs and how this would then fit with any given Unit of Assessment (UoA) or overall strategy of the university for the next REF. It was acknowledged that younger (or at the very least those who are new to academic life) are generally more open to applying for research funding and being engaged in the process. But even then the approach to metrics, REF strategies and outputs can still seem wearing and distant to the academics concerned.

I made the point to the people around me that I never discuss the REF with academics. I just don’t see the point if you are trying to encourage research activity and I believe that focusing these discussions around the REF and performance management is ultimately a counter productive way of encouraging research. It feels a bit more like a stick as opposed to a carrot. Given that I don’t talk about the REF then what do I talk to them about? Well, put simply, I just talk to academics about their research. What interests them, what would they like to do, what have they done in the past and where do they see their career going in the future. This tends to lead to a more fruitful discussion and can generate sparks of genuine interest in pursing research. Nobody ever started a PhD with REF in mind so don’t start research support discussions in that way either. I believe if you start with what people are interested in researching you will inevitably hit the metrics you need including producing high quality research, good outputs and quite possibly strong impact as well. All of these outcomes will more naturally stem from research that academics want to do and have ownership of.

So, some advice for academics thinking about pursuing research or who might be under pressure to develop research funding applications; don’t start with REF and all the metrics, start with what interests you, it will only increase your chances of success.

One weird trick to get a research grant

31st Mar

Some excellent tips in here, especially reviewing applications for an overseas funding body. We all want applications to be assessed quickly and efficiently so the more quality assessors there are in the pool the better.

This post also provides a useful reminder to us administrators that we have a role to play to. We need to encourage people to become reviewers and assessors and this in turn will help our own institutions as we will have an experienced pool of people who can support high quality applications.

I would certainly recommend that academics take these opportunities seriously as they can really enhance the ability to write a good grant application.

HEFCE Publishes Database of REF Impact Case Studies

27th Mar

HEFCE have released a database of all impact case studies from the 2014 REF. Worth a look and maybe search by your subject area? Future collaborations could start from these case study examples.

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.

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