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Applying for research funding

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I am relatively new in the world of academia but it is obvious that research and especially the money to pay for it is a big preoccupation in this sector. A great deal of time and energy is spent thinking and talking about research plans and possible grant opportunities. It may well be that public readers of this blog are less familiar with how researchers actually get the money to do their work so I will offer some thoughts.

There are various ways in which you may become aware of funding possibilities. Most health research in England is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), which has several funding streams, e.g. Biomedical Research Centres and Units (BRCs and BRUs), Programme Grants for Applied Research (PGAR), Health Services and Delivery Research (HSDR), Health Technology Assessments (HTA), Efficacy and Mechanism Evaluation (EME). You will note that all of these have longish abbreviations but the winners are the Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care, aka CLAHRCs. There are also Funding Councils, e.g. Medical Research (MRC) and Economic and Social Research (ESRC), and charitable foundations, such as the Wellcome Trust, Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer Research UK. So to find out what’s going on, you can set up alerts from these bodies, or else there are people in the University whose job is to look out for funding opportunities, and you may hear from them. Or else there is word of mouth.

OK, so you hear about something that sounds interesting. You send an email around your close contacts to see who may be interested in collaborating and to start thinking about who else might need to be approached for help. For example, will you need a statistician? A health economist? Somebody from primary care? A systematic reviewer, or an expert in realist enquiry?

There is some interest expressed in the replies you get, so let’s have a meeting. Immediately, the question is about the deadline for applications. Researchers perceive that the funding bodies issue their calls for applications so that the grant writing has to be done over holiday periods. (There’s a grant we’re looking at with a deadline of 29 August. Whoopee.) This may be a deliberate form of mild sadism by the funders, or more likely is to do with their own internal cycle of activities.

Some of these meetings arrive reluctantly at the conclusion not to proceed – the deadline is too tight, we don’t have the necessary experience in this area, usually, however, that we simply lack the capacity to write the application. Otherwise, we lurch forward. Someone volunteers to be the Principal Investigator and a team forms to help write the application.

Applications are done on apparently endless online forms that, paradoxically offer relatively limited space to outline what you are going to do in the project. A recent application for a programme grant consisted of 16 linked projects, which we had to describe in 4 pages or so. If there are several co-applicants, there is a sizeable administrative task as you have to get their permissions to be included and attach their CVs.

And then there’s the money. Attached to University departments are a group of wizards who understand the rules of things like Full Economic Costing and NHS Treatment Costs. They cast spells and the relevant pages of the application are filled with figures that, generally speaking, add up.

As the deadline approaches, things look increasingly hopeless. It will never be ready, bits of information are missing, the host system collapses. So it is impossible, despite the best of intentions, ever to submit a grant bid more than 5 minutes before the actual deadline. Indeed, one grant I was involved with was being loaded when 5pm arrived, and was thus lost for ever. The PI was deeply traumatised.

What happens next – the review process and the agony of the decision – may be for another post but I hope that you may wish to add anecdotes or bare your souls about this topic thus far.

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