Funding Guidance really can help – do read it!

I was really annoyed when I started writing this post – I’m glad I didn’t hit send on the first draft I wrote  – I have had a chance to reflect and calm down after a period of steam coming out of my ears!  Having said that I think it’s best to just get straight to the point >>>> So, to just to cut to the chase please do read the funding  guidance before developing a research application as it makes life so much easier for everyone, especially the applicant! Let me explain:

Research Development is complicated (and sometimes tough!), you are often working with a raft of people at the same time who are each working on an application (or two) which will be targeted to different funders. Each of these funders and often different schemes within each funder will have different rules and regulations regarding what you can apply for, the type of research you can do, what the budget can and can’t pay for and how an application should be presented (amongst other things). Now I’m always happy to read applications and provide guidance and I know that research development professionals all over the country and the world are happy to do the same. What really helps us though is when we know that the PI has, at the very least, had a read of the guidance. This initial read may only at headline level but it gives a good sense of what is required. It’s also helpful when you come to us to clarify any areas of misunderstanding or concern. The reality is that you ignore funding guidance at your peril and it can lead to many wasted hours of work, time that is precious to academics (and believe it or not, administrators and managers too!). So in order to save the stresses involved in hitting hurdles and barriers later in the application process I’d suggest the first priority for a PI, once they have identified a funding scheme, is to read the guidance. If it is long and complicated (and some guidance is ridiculously long and complicated!) then it might be worth making time to sit down with your research office and go through it. Two heads being better then one and all that. In addition to this I would suggest doing (or not doing) the following:

  1. Talk to your research office as soon as possible – as soon as you have an idea. They can point out all the immediate and obvious pitfalls that you should take account for as you develop your application. This is often generic advice (not particular to a specific funder or scheme) but is really valuable.
  2. Send drafts for comment (to research office and colleagues) on an ongoing basis. Don’t wait until you have finished your first full draft. By then it may be too late (I’ve blogged about this before).
  3. Start your budget as early as possible. It really can help shape your proposal and avoid problems later down the line. I have outlined the basics of budget preparation in a previous post but do remember your research office and finance teams will support you with this too.
  4. Do not base your application solely on previous successful (or unsuccessful) applications as this can lead to disaster. Why? Because often funder rules and priorities change and these won’t be obvious by looking at previous applications alone. They can be a useful guide but as the following blog by Adam Goldberg highlights there are pitfalls to using them and I’d suggest all applicants  and aspiring researchers should read it.
  5. Lastly – if in doubt please don’t make it up! This applies especially to the budget but to the application more broadly. Talk to your research office, they will be able to help or will know someone who can. A lot of unnecessary time can be spent undoing mistakes made when assumptions are made about what is required.

Okay, so rant over – save yourself some time and read that guidance! Any other tips and thoughts welcome, what do you think?

Research Development – The ARMA experience

One of the key challenges for CREST members and smaller or specialist institutions is creating vibrant and inclusive research cultures that enable academics to undertake high quality research and develop strong research funding applications. All CREST members are making great strides in this area and four members recently attended the Association for Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) annual conference in Birmingham to showcase the successes and outline some of the challenges faced by smaller institutions.  Lachlan Smith (Bishop Grosseteste, Newman and Leeds Trinity Universities) and Claire Tapia (St Mary’s University) were joined by Dr Anett Kiss (Sussex University) to explore some of the different approaches to research development and what lessons can be learned by larger institutions.

Over 70 delegates attended the workshop which covered issues ranging from current research infrastructure, how best to share intelligence and promote interdisciplinary working and the importance of celebrating success. The two key themes of the workshop were to highlight what can be achieved with limited resources and to share these lessons with colleagues from larger institutions, especially those based at a departmental or faculty level. Following an icebreaker where people were asked to consider where they would start if they had to establish a new research office with only one member of staff the workshop outlined existing structures within the smaller institutions. This lead into a discussion about current activities, key lessons and thoughts from the audience on approaches to research development activities. Some of the key activities and advantages of being a small institution highlighted were:

  • The ability to share intelligence and share research stories and expertise through university wide research days. These days can bring together researchers, administrators and external speakers to focus on current research, celebrate research success and develop new partnerships and networks.
  • Implementing research management software to track research progress and report outputs for REF and other internal monitoring. These systems can be implemented more easily in smaller institutions as they tend to have fewer legacy systems than larger institutions. Many smaller universities implement these systems later and can learn from larger universities.
  • Sharing of resources can be a positive experience including the sharing of research development expertise. Joint events as well as joint posts have been implemented to take forward research support. For joint posts to work it  was agreed that they needed to have quick access to decision makers, work at the coal face and ignore potential competition between institutions.
  • Smaller research offices can deal with problems and questions quickly, often facilitating and brokering relationships with other key members of staff. This is coupled with a face to face service that is valued by academics and enables clear and focused advice to be given to individual researchers. Smaller institutions can often retain the personal touch when working with researchers although this, it wwas acknowledged, needs to be managed as research grows.
  • Being agile and responding quickly to opportunities can be easier when smaller. As can the ability to openly draw on free external resources that can support researchers. When working within smaller institutions it is important to be as flexible as possible when looking for potential resources – we don’t have time to reinvent the wheel!

The workshop recognised that this wasn’t a one way street though. Although small institutions do have advantages and larger ones can learn from our approaches it is clear that we can learn from the bigger players too. Drawing on the experiences of ethics committees and policies, more flexible and imaginative approaches to internal funding and the need for specialist input (i.e. impact, EU funding etc) alongside more general support were highlighted as some of the lessons taken on board by smaller universities.

The session provided a great opportunity for four CREST members to promote the work that they do in research development with many members of the audience being surprised at the breadth of work covered as well as the positive impact it can have on research cultures. Many larger institutions are not aware of the work done in small and specialist universities and this workshop helped to highlight not only the work being done but also challenged perceptions about smaller institutions, their infrastructure and their research capabilities.

Looking for funding? Think as widely as possible.

Working with predominately smaller institutions provides additional challenges when supporting academics to secure research funding. We would all like to secure funding from the traditional research funders (a list can be found on my homepage that is particularly relevant to UK scholars in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) but these may not always be the best port of call, especially if you don’t have a strong funding record or perhaps are still early on in your research career. So I spend some of my time encouraging researchers to look as widely as possible for potential sources of funding as by casting your thinking (and net!) widely you never know what may lay around the corner. So what then are some of the options worth exploring? I have outlined some of the different types of funding below, some of which will overlap with others but should provide a good base for starting your search.

  1. Crowdfunding – Okay, I know what you are thinking…. Crowdfunding?? I have named this first to keep it at the forefront of everyone’s minds. I’ll admit I’m not an expert in this but it is becoming more common in other parts of the world. There is a great blog written by Jonathan O’Donnell which outlines some of the potential benefits of this approach. His blog, “In defence of the crowd” can be found on the Research Whsiperer blog. It won’t be appropriate for every type of research project but for smaller pilot projects which may be of particular interest to a large number of people then it may be worth exploring. If this is a road you want to go down then make sure you start your planning early.
  2. Stakeholders / interested parties – who might be interested in your research? If they are interested, might they fund it, at least in part? This doesn’t have to be a conflict of interest. If your proposed research is of potential benefit to a particular stakeholder/s then why not approach them. If you don’t have a relationship with them already then a cold call may not be the best way to go, you might want to engage with them first, find out what might be of interest to them and look for ways to work with them for mutual benefit. If you don’t know who your stakeholders are then map them out. By mapping out your stakeholders (some useful resources here and here) you will get a better picture of where you may secure funding from.
  3. Charities – relevant to your area of research or may be tendering for work. Keep an eye out, many charities commission research for all sorts of things including evaluations of their programmes. Would undertaking an evaluation on behalf of someone else be a good way to answer your own research questions as well, be they theoretical, practical or methodological? If so, you may need to tender for the work. If you have never tendered for work before then you should read my guide to tendering before you do anything!
  4. Government departments / local authorities – Despite significant cuts to government funding over the last parliament there are still opportunities to respond to government tenders for research. You should find and bookmark the websites of relevant government departments, local authorities and government quangos for future reference and then sign up to email alerts from tender sites like this. It is worth noting that winners of publicly funded contracts are made public so you can usually see who your competition might be. Often they will be private sector consultants and the tender guide outlined above will give you hints and tips to help you put together a professional case for funding.
  5. There may be associations relevant specifically to your field, areas of interest or geography. These may include businesses, representative organisations, unions, historical societies, sporting bodies and many more. You may find that these groups or associations have money available to members for research. In addition some may wish to fund relevant research and would be open to being directly engaged in co-producing research. Some may be key stakeholders as mentioned above.
  6. Internal funding and resources! I have written about using internal resources effectively in a previous post. Make sure you don’t forget there are often great resources available within your own institution which can be incredibly helpful for pilot and scoping research.
  7. Foundations and trusts. It is worth the time and effort of searching for local foundations and trusts, particularly if your research is focused spatially on the areas around your university or the wider region. In addition there are many thematic trusts who may only fund projects in specific interest areas and these may overlap with your own research. Finding out about these trust is not always easy -Google searching can be very effective but for UK readers the Directory of Grant Making Trusts is an excellent resource. I have my own copy but many university libraries will also have copies. If they don’t, encourage them to get it.
  8. Lastly, keep talking to colleagues and your research office. Getting a different perspective on your research may open up some of the options above that perhaps you had not yet considered.

I have no doubt there will be other option and approaches and I’d love to hear about them. Just make sure you think as broadly as possible. Both researcher colleagues and your research office can help you with this – it is usually easier to talk the ideas through with someone else as this can give you greater clarity and definition to your research and your options.

Shout about your research!

I’ve talked before about some different aspects of networking and how this can raise your profile as a researcher in addition to the role it can play in helping you grow your networks and ultimately lead to more collaborations and funding opportunities. Well this blog is a shameless plug for two academics I work with at Leeds Trinity and Newman Universities who have both recently published interesting articles on-line relating to their own research or their experience as researchers in the UK. Both are well worth a read and I’ve provided links below.

Dr Helen Hannah from Leeds Trinity University has recently been undertaking research in South Africa looking at the ways in which teachers can help migrant children feel more included in the classroom. Helen provides useful insights into different approaches that can be taken, not all of which may be the first thought for teachers.  You can read all about her research here.

Dr Helen Lees at Newman has written an interesting piece in the Times Higher about the impacts of contract and permanent jobs have had on her research career, her personal wellbeing and the overall impact that this may have on research undertaken UK universities. More permanent contracts needed? Helen can be contacted on Twitter @DrHelenELees

Writing blogs for The Conversation, Times Higher and other on-line news and opinion sites can be a great way of raising your profile. In addition, if you are after more tips about how to raise your profile through social media then I’d recommend Mark Carrigan’s new book, Social Media for Academics as a useful, insightful and well written resource.

The Grant Camp Experience

After a period of planning, booking rooms and promotion I ran my first ever grant camps during the last two weeks. The first of these was at Leeds Trinity University and the second at Newman University. Each camp was slightly different but both were modelled on the camp ideas outlined by the Research Whisperer in their really useful blog.

So, what did we do?

The first camp at Leeds Trinity was focused on researchers who were looking to apply to the next round of the BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grants round although one person who came was applying for funding from a different source. The sessions were split to address the specifics of that scheme and there were six 20 minute writing blocks separated by five minute breaks and a longer half hour break in the middle. We decided to hold the camp on campus although we went across to the library and used a room there. We hoped this would provide a good environment for the academics in terms of minimising potential distractions (including being found by students!).

The second camp at Newman took a slightly different approach. The people who came had an idea but weren’t sure of the right funder to go to. In order to accommodate this I modified the structure from the previous week to help focus the writing onto key general areas that any funder may be interested in. As such we looked at issues around background and context, research questions and objectives, methodological approach, the time-line and plan for delivery, outputs, outcomes and the role of collaborators and/or team members. We also went off campus completely in order to help minimise distractions. The local conference centre provided a stress free environment for people to work in and had ample tea, coffee and water to keep people going!

So given the slight differences what did we learn? The first thing to say is that both camps were received positively. Both institutions are predominantly teaching-led and therefore one of the key complaints I hear is the lack of time to dedicate to research grant writing. Both camps provided the structure and availability of immediate advice which enabled people to get on with the writing without getting distracted. This approach may be worth noting for other smaller or teaching-led institutions as a way of getting the dreaded first draft done! Other learning points included:

  1. There was a significant amount of exchanging of ideas and mutual support and interest during the breaks. In both camps people exchanged tips and advice, including pointing people to relevant literature or previous studies. Most impressively this exchange took place across disciplinary boundaries which was really encouraging. I will really encourage this in future camps.
  2. Participants felt like their research mattered. They were in an environment with other researchers and research support staff who were able to answers questions and provide advice in breaks. This was important to them as research can sometimes get lost amongst teaching and other day to day university pressures.
  3. There was value in running the camp even for those who only had an idea but didn’t know where to go for funding. Although some questions may have been harder to answer than others (as some questions require tailoring depending on the funder) there was merit in getting people to think about writing style, accessibility of their research and what funders might be interested in.
  4. Six writing sessions may have been too much, especially for those who haven’t written a grant application before. Most people had run out of steam after five sessions. This could be tailored to meet the needs of the audience.
  5. Getting away from campus was really valuable. As long as people don’t check their emails (!) it provides a focused space in which to work – it was great listening to the purr of the keyboards!

The next step will be translating the writing done at both camps into strong research funding applications. And after that there will be more camps, perhaps with more experimentation in regards to length, venue and whether they remain generic or tailored specifically to funding calls.

I know these camps have been run successfully in Australia and maybe this is the first time they have been run in the UK (if not, I’d love to hear about your experiences!) but I think they have merit and are a great tool to develop initial drafts of grant funding applications. What do you think?

Research management in small institutions – ARMA here we come!

Research management in small institutions can present unique challenges. I have talked about some of the positives before and now I am pleased to report that I, and a couple of colleagues from St Mary’s and Sussex Universities, will be presenting a workshop at the ARMA Annual Conference in June exploring the challenges of Research Management within smaller institutions. Below is the title, abstract and learning aim for the workshop:

Title: Research Management in Small Institutions: Lessons for growing research cultures


With the ever growing competitiveness of the research funding landscape smaller institutions are recognising the need to be innovative in order to increase their share of research funding. Many have started to professionalise their research support through implementation of new approaches to resource sharing and collaboration as well as building internal research infrastructure that is more common to larger institutions. But how can you drive these changes when resources are restricted and institutions have been predominately teaching-led in the past? This workshop, led by Leeds Trinity and St Mary’s Universities with input from other smaller institutions including Newman and Bishop Grosseteste Universities, will provide a unique insight into developing and implementing research strategies and culture when budgets are tight and you are starting from a low base.  The workshop will outline examples of research development structures whilst also describing a number of practical approaches to developing research culture, using examples of grant development support, research management systems and career development support for researchers. These approaches may be of benefit particularly to staff operating at departmental/faculty level across a range of institutions.

Learning outcome:

“Participants will, through a greater appreciation of research development in smaller institutions, be equipped with ideas and examples of how research culture can be developed and income can be grown from a low base.”

If you are coming to the conference then you would be more than welcome to join our session. The new conference website has just gone live. You can find out all about the conference on it and specific information about our session here. Hope to see you in Birmingham!

Who cares? You need to convince the funder that they should care

About three years ago I attended a funding workshop where an external speaker presented their take on how to structure, pitch and write a funding proposal. I think the focus was on European funding but many of the messages were applicable across a range of funding schemes both within and outside the UK. There was one message though that came from that session which has stayed with me since and that involves one key question (and a number of sub questions) you should be asking yourself as you develop an application.

That question? Well it’s a simple one – ask yourself ‘Who cares?’ To help think through a question like this I find it helpful to imagine describing your research idea to a member of your family, or perhaps a friend who is unfamiliar with your research and then think about how you would answer the ‘Who cares?’ question that they pose at the end of your description. If you can convince your friend or family member that they should not only care but take an interest in your research (part way to impact already….!) then you should be in a position to build a strong case to a funder.

What I particularly like about this question is that it is abrupt and shocking. Most people are experienced at explaining their research (although some are better at this than others!) but being challenged with an abrupt question like ‘Who cares?’ can catch you off guard and should make you think quickly and on your feet about why your research is important and why people should care. In my own work, supporting academics across a number of institutions, I will sometimes challenge research ideas in exactly this way. Getting your head around the question and making sure that your answer is convincing, credible and robust is a great first step in creating an effective argument to a funder.

If being so blunt is too jarring first thing on a Monday morning or early on in the drafting process then you might want to consider the following questions and make sure that you can answer them. The answers to all of these should appear in your application and are sub-questions of ‘Who Cares?’:

  1. Why this research question/s? (Remember, just because something hasn’t been asked or investigated before it doesn’t mean that it is important or worthwhile)
  2. Why you? (Why are you the best person or the best team to lead this research? Think about who your competition is and make sure you present a strong case for you)
  3. Why now? (Some funders might love your idea but not be convinced that now is the time to fund the research. They might find other proposals more convincing when it comes to the timeliness of the research. Make sure you are clear as to why this research needs to be done now)
  4. Why this funder? (Thinking about who is best placed to fund your research is really important. Think carefully about how your research aligns not only with eligibility criteria but also with strategic goals or research themes of the funder).

I love the ‘Who cares?’ approach. It can really help sharpen thinking and give you a great platform to build a strong funding application. Make sure you are asking yourself this, and the sub-questions, at every stage of the application.

Writing a research application? Make best use of university resources

Research Offices and support staff in institutions have lots of resources available to help researchers identify funding, draft applications and make sure that their application is approved (and hopefully successful!). Support is usually at the end of the phone or email or you may be able to pop into a dedicated research office. Much time is normally spent by the research office making sure that the right resources are publicised widely and that people are aware of them but we know that we may not always get this right and that you may forget (or not know) what is out there as that important email is buried at the bottom of the in-box.

As I have travelled around various different institutions (from the large and prestigious to the smaller with less resources) providing training for academics interested in research I have been struck by just how many of them don’t know that they have access to a huge range of resources at their fingertips and that most of it will provide all the basic information they need to start the journey towards a successful grant application. These range from search tools to find funding, advice from successful applicants and making sure their on-line profile is up to scratch!

So if you have an idea but don’t know where to go for support then you may want to start with the following:

  1. Go on-line from a university networked computer and see if you can search on one of the two most prominent research funding databases, Research Professional or Research Connect. These are mines of information and can help you identify the right funding opportunity without having to resort to Google or other search engines. Most universities subscribe to one of the two and both are very easy to use. You can set up your own account on these websites and get the latest funding opportunities sent straight to your in-box.
  2. It is always worth looking at your own universities research pages. These may be on the internet (but may be restricted to the Intranet) and they will usually outline what internal support will be available to support research.For example, if your institution runs internal research support or sabbatical schemes then you will find details of these here. These schemes can be ideal for testing out collaborations, research ideas and to undertake pilot data collection which can give any future external funding applications a boost.
  3. Speak to your colleagues, especially if you are aware of them having received research support funding. Ask them about their experiences and how they identified the right funder. This can be a really productive way of finding out some useful hints and tips and they may even share their successful application with you.

Okay, so these next two aren’t strictly related to your university but they should be easy to do and useful when navigating the world of research funding.

  1. Are you a member of any academic societies, external research groups or organisations or subscribe to particular journals within your field? If you do it is worth checking out their websites as they may have specific resources that apply only to your field or may be accessible to members only. If there is a group or society you always thought you should join but haven’t got around to yet then now might be a good time to engage with them and join up.
  2. Twitter and the power of social media. If you are already on-line and have a Twitter account then make sure you are following those funders that are relevant to your field. Funding organisations tend to tweet the latest opportunities and it is a great way to find out first what new opportunities are out there. In fact, making sure your digital identity is up to date and contains relevant information that potential funders and collaborators might be looking for is really important. To help you achieve this you may want to undertake a Digital Identity Health Check. This is easy to do and can help to increase your visibility on-line. In addition you may want to try and engage more widely with social media and if that is the case then the following book exploring social media for academics is a great starting point.

These five things will help you access plenty of resources that are out there and waiting to be tapped in to. All of these things can be (and should be!) done in conjunction with conversations with your research office. Do people have other tips they would want to share? There are bound to be other approaches and resources out there (including internal ones) that can be simple to implement and help you find out how and where to apply for funding. If so I’d love to hear about them. Good luck with that application!


ISRF Mid-Career Fellowships

Then Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) will launch their new Mid-Career Fellowship funding call in January 2016. The  Foundation wishes to support independent-minded researchers to do interdisciplinary work which is unlikely to be funded by existing funding bodies. It is interested in original research ideas which take new approaches, and suggest new solutions, to real world social problems.

The scheme supports innovative research which breaks with existing explanatory frameworks so as to address afresh empirical problems with no currently adequate theory or investigative methodology. Innovation may also come from controversial theoretical approaches motivated by critical challenge of incumbent theories.

The ISRF will fund up to £60,000 over 12 months which can be used to buy out teaching and administrative responsibilities. ISRF generally expects applicants to be 10 years post PhD and be in a salaried position at an HE institution. Applications close at 4pm on 19th February 2016.

Further details can be found on the ISRF website.  If you are interested in applying for this call then please speak to your university Research Office in the first instance.

Europe in a changing world – inclusive, innovative and reflective societies

The European Commission has recently announced the latest Horizon 2020 work programme and I wanted to draw your attention to a particular strand of calls that should be of interest to academics in the social sciences and humanities. Often seen as the poor cousins in funding and especially some of the European streams this latest call provides an opportunity to develop exciting partnerships and proposals that address some of the biggest challenges facing Europe at this time.

There are four themes that will be of particular interest. Full details will be released along with detailed calls on 26 October but preliminary information can be found on the commission website for the following streams:





It is worth exploring the sub-themes on each page and making a note of priorities and any additional information. If you are interested in exploring a proposal then now is the time to start talking to potential partners and your university research support team.