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Thing 10: Research Funding

Updated: Apr 9

Dr Mike Rose, Research Strategy Business Partner, University of Bath

Dr Tseen Khoo, Senior Lecturer in Research Education and Development, La Trobe University


Your ability to bring money into your institution through winning grants and sponsorship is becoming ever more important. Regardless of your discipline or career stage, knowing how to approach a funder – from research councils, to industry, to charities – will improve your chances of success, and hopefully make the process less daunting.


There are whole books on when, where, and how to win funding so we will keep this short and sweet. Below are some crucial aspects for any funding application and general advice to consider. If you’ve not yet ventured into the world of funding applications, you can use this blog as an opportunity to reflect on what your future funding plans may be, or if you’ve already had experience of applying for or securing funding, you can share your own experience with other people in your pod or on the 23 Things forum.


Photo of a notebook in which someone has drawn a full-page-sized dollar sign
Yes, I think this gets my main message across pretty clearly (Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash)

Finding the right opportunities and getting started

Most funders provide up to date information about their current and upcoming calls on their websites. Good examples of these include the UKRI Funding Finder (UK), National Research Foundation (Singapore), and the ARC or NHMRC (Australia). Most universities subscribe to funding databases that present a smorgasbord of opportunities – ask your mentor or local research office about how to access these. These databases, such as Research Professional, allow you to set up regular email alerts for relevant funding. For smaller grants, the Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding (UK-based) may be useful, and don’t forget to look out for internal opportunities. Often, institutions will have seed funding for great ideas around collaboration, new projects, or research outreach, as well as awards for attending conferences or visiting other researchers. Academic societies or networks in your discipline are great ways to hear about opportunities, so make sure you are subscribed to relevant mailing lists for your field or following them on social media.


Thoroughly research the funding body and conditions of the funding. Understand their eligibility, timeline and assessment criteria, or you might just be wasting your time. Do they have a particular focus this year that fits your research? Is the funding limited to people at certain career stages, with permanent contracts, or within a set number of years post-PhD?


Know what will happen if you win the funding. What are the funder’s policies for successful applications (e.g. Open Access), and what data management plan do you need to have in place? There are certain expectations that they will have of you, including annual or milestone reports – it is crucial to fulfil these expectations as future funding opportunities with those funding bodies will depend on it.


Give yourself enough time. Writing, getting feedback, editing, gathering documentation (e.g. references) and submitting will always take longer than you think, especially if you’re just getting started on your funding pipeline. Depending on the size of the grant, it may take several months.


Be aware of deadlines and processes for submission. An excellent way to approach this planning is to create your own funding calendar for the schemes that you’re most interested in – include the funder’s deadlines and make sure you know what your institution’s deadlines are, too. This is extremely important because there may be steps to take within your institution before you can submit a funding application. These can take several weeks. Some schemes only permit a limited number of applications per institution, so you need to speak to your relevant team in good time. A good practice is to always flag early to the relevant funding teams at your institution that you intend to apply for a scheme – their expertise and advice will be invaluable in helping you develop and submit it all!


Information that will be requested

Every funding application is slightly different, so there is no magic formula for the information you will need to provide, or how to present it. However, there are areas that will be similar across many schemes. Here’s a more detailed example of what they can ask for:

In the UK, UKRI is moving towards a more streamlined and uniform application process, so that every application provides similar details, under five major themes: Vision, Approach, Applicant and Team Capability to Deliver, Resources and Cost Justification, and Ethics and Responsible Research and Innovation. These may be supplemented by Opportunity Specific Criteria. It’s helpful to think about what you will need for these specific themes, and which may be relevant to your plans.


Vision

What are you hoping to achieve with your proposed work?


This means explaining your work in an accessible way, making clear why it will be important and of high quality. How will you extend current knowledge, advance technology, or make a social or environmental contribution? Connect your work to other current research and indicate the timeliness of your project – what is the need and why now?


Approach

How will you deliver your proposed work?


Assessors want to see that your design is effective, feasible, and appropriate to your objectives, having considered relevant risks. They may also need to understand your methodology. You will need to summarise previous work in this area, your contribution and intended outputs. It is also important to indicate why you want to undertake work with a specific institution, partner or group – what about this environment will ensure success?


Applicant and team capability to deliver

Why are you the right individual/team to successfully deliver the proposed work?


Provide evidence that you are at a relevant career stage for this work, and that your team has the right experience and expertise for this project. Give details of leadership and management structures that will help you complete the project – both your own experience and the teams or structures you will be able to rely on. How will this project develop you professionally, and how will you develop and support others on your team? You should also indicate how this project will add to your local research environment and community.


Resource and cost justification

What will you need to deliver your proposed work and what will it cost?


This is an opportunity to show that you have a coherent and realistic idea of how the work will progress, that you can make effective use of resources, and are located with an appropriate institution or partner. The outputs from the project should be cost effective. That doesn’t mean doing it on the cheap, but you should show that this is a worthwhile and considered approach.


Ethics and Research and Innovation Implications

What are the ethical implications or issues relating to the proposed work?


Demonstrate that you have identified the appropriate areas of concern, understand the processes to ensure your research meets relevant criteria (e.g. institutional ethics submissions), and have a plan to manage any potential challenges. If you do not think that your project carries any ethical risks, state this anyway.


Opportunity Specific Questions

These reflect who the fund is aimed at, for example a fellowship or a network. These may include confirmation of host institution support, how the project adds value, public engagement, or how the bid fits with your career development.


a black and white photo of two children, dressed in hooded jackets, eating at a table
Darryl, I’m telling you as a friend, but the way you hum while you slurp your milk gives me the creeps (Credit: HungryBlues)

As mentioned earlier, this is an example from UKRI, and other funders will have their own set of topics or questions that they will require you to address so it’s important that you research those aspects!


The importance of critical friends

Something that’s crucial to developing a strong application is having it rigorously and constructively reviewed so that what you submit is the best version it can be. Building your circle of critical friends – people who can give you this kind of feedback – is something that all researchers need to do. The earlier you develop a network of strong critical friends, the better.

These are the traits of someone who would be a good critical friend:

  • You like and trust them, and you trust their intellectual perspectives.

  • You feel they are honest and kind. They will not tell you something is great if it’s not. They may have major concerns about some aspect of what you’ve done but they won’t slay you with the critique; they will find a compassionate way to do it, offering suggestions for addressing these concerns or talking it over with you. In other words, they will consider your feelings.

  • You have, or are willing to establish, a reciprocal academic relationship with them. Having someone become your critical friend automatically means you would become their critical friend. It’s a two-way street. You can’t be all take and no give.


There’s more about critical friends in Tseen’s post, The care and feeding of critical friends.


And just to add a note of realism…

Inevitably, some applications will be unsuccessful. Funding is always competitive, especially for larger grants; it’s often just a case of someone else providing a better fit to the funder’s internal priorities and resources. The good news is that the funding bodies are generally getting better at offering feedback to unsuccessful applicants.

Learning from setbacks and reapplying your work to new areas is a big part of being an academic. Can you revise your application for a different funder? What can you learn from the weaknesses identified by reviewers?


There’s no secret formula to succeeding, but you can position yourself as competitively as possible. Persevere, do your best, and always keep your passion for the work burning.


You can do it!



a mountaineer negotiating a trick snow-covered outcrop with ice-pick and ropes
Fifth time lucky…(Photo by Robert Baker on Unsplash)


Task

Whatever stage you are at in planning, applying for, or delivering on funding, we invite you to spend a bit of time considering your next steps. Do you have a pitch in mind? How can you refine it? Who can help you through this stage? What else will this lead to?


Please meet with your pod to share experience and expertise – often conversations with friends and colleagues can help you uncover the perfect angle or approach!


Further Reading

A wealth of resources is online to help you better manage, share, and preserve your data. We’ve only just scratched the surface here. (I didn’t even get to talk about preservation!) You will be able to find some discipline or method specific advice – look for recent publications and check to see if your professional societies have any advice. Of course, there’s also lots of great general overviews including:



Mike Rose is Research Strategy Business Partner at University of Bath, and will happily talk to anyone about philosophy, literature, great coffee and terrible puns.


Tseen Khoo is a Senior Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia) and one half of the Research Whisperer team




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