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.

Lachlan Smith

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