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How to... select a funding body

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Finding the right funding body

The temptation when doing research is to focus on your topic to the exclusion of all else. However, research is all about collaboration, with your partners, and also with those who give you the money. It is particularly important, therefore, when seeking funding, to ensure that your research can benefit the funding programme, and to do background research into the funding body.

Many grant applications fail not because the research, or even for that matter the application, is poor, but because the wrong funding body is targeted. Here are some questions which are helpful to address in this process:

  • What are their objectives and criteria?
  • What will they offer?
  • What types of programme are they offering?
  • Who are their stakeholders?
  • Who are their peer reviewers?
  • Will you have the freedom to publish and what about ownership of intellectual property?
  • What strings are attached?

What are their objectives and criteria?

Study their website, and read and re-read their brief and their mission statement very carefully. Key questions to consider are:

  • Is my project eligible? For example, the Welcome Foundation for Medicine is unlikely to fund a project on Computer Science, unless the study relates to a medical related topic, such as how computers can benefit the brain.
  • Am I eligible? Many funders have criteria for applicants, related to age, qualifications, whether or not you hold an established post, what type of organization etc. Others specify that you must be established in the field, whilst some programmes are aimed particularly at post-doctoral researchers.

What will they offer?

Many organizations specify a maximum amount: will this be sufficient? For a small grant, will the reporting requirements be so time-consuming as to outweigh the benefits of the grant? Will the grant cover institutional overheads? Will there be sufficient to cover travel and meetings?

What types of programmes are they offering?

Many funding bodies offer a specific invitation to tender for a particular award, with a particular deadline. Such calls usually have very specific criteria:

The Equipment Leasing and Finance Foundation in the USA offers annual research grants of $10,000 to encourage academics in all fields of scholarship to study topics of interest to the equipment leasing and finance industry.

The Economic and Social Research Council in the UK offered – on a competitive basis, closing date September 2004 – grants over ten years for research centres, defined as "national focal points for social science where academics can collaborate on long-term projects".

The US Library of Congress advertised its Coca-Cola Fellowship for the Study of Advertising and World Cultures to be awarded annually for a period of four years, beginning in 2003, to research the interrelationships among advertising, culture, commerce and the media, beginning in the 20th century. The award is offered to post-doctoral students, is for $20,000, and involves a three-month residency in Washington.

Other organizations may offer funding on a more general basis, such as the UK Research Councils. In such cases it may be worth submitting cold proposals , which should take particular account of the organization's mission statement or chosen funding themes.

The UK's Economic and Social Research Council states the following in its New Strategic Framework:

"The past year has seen a series of changes at the ESRC, driven by a desire to create a more efficient, effective and responsive organisation. As part of this process, the Council conducted a review of the Thematic Priorities and decided, in October, to develop a new strategic framework which would include a new range of key priorities not exclusively limited to substantive areas of social science. This represents a significant development both for the ESRC and the social science community".

Although the ESRC claims not to be limited by these, anyone seriously seeking funding would to well to study them.

At other times, you may be seeking funding which is not connected to a particular funding stream but which may be business or industry related and based on your understanding of a particular industry need, for example you may have been doing some work on their project management systems, as a way of testing out a particular theory. In which case, try and make direct contact with the business community.

Who are their stakeholders?

The stakeholders are the people that the funding body needs to satisfy: the research community, those who use the research, their own policy makers, the media and the wider public (from the all-important PR angle), beneficiaries in the case of charities, shareholders in the case of private companies. You need to analyse their needs in order to understand how your research can benefit the programme.

Who are their peer reviewers?

The word "peer review" can strike fear and fury into the heart of many an academic, but these are just people who are part of the academic community committed to furthering research, and who are incidentally quite likely to have had their own proposals rejected.

Some funding proposals will be weeded out immediately on the grounds that the idea for the proposal is weak, the proposal itself is prepared in a slapdash fashion, or that it bears no relation to the funding body. Other proposals will be subjected to a process of peer review.

You can prepare yourself for this by finding out from someone at the funding body, or from their web site, the composition of the panel (best not to ask for names, or you may be suspected of lobbying!), how many referees will be selected, forms for referees reports, etc.

In the UK-based Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, it is possible to apply for funding in what is termed "responsive mode", which is applications that can be accepted at any time for research grants and research fellowships. Referee comments will be sought and two strongly supportive referee comments are needed before a proposal goes to a panel. The referees are given prompts which include:

  • the quality and methodology of the research.
  • "adventure in research" – the EPSRC welcomes unconventional, adventurous research proposals, which may be high risk but high return.
  • what impact will the research have?
  • is it collaborative?
  • how will the results be disseminated?
  • how will the research be project managed?
  • how are the resources justified?

Will you have the freedom to publish? What about intellectual property?

Particularly in the case of partnership with industry, you want to make sure that the funder of the research does not have the right to veto publication of anything which he or she finds inconvenient. Another issue is ownership of any intellectual property that arises from the findings; as a researcher you should be entitled to a share. Commercialization rights are another issue: charities, for example, may wish to retain these.

What strings are attached?

Are the sponsor's objectives compatible with the mission and values of your research group/department/university or are there any possible conflicts?

At an early stage of writing the proposal, make sure that the organization is one that your university would be happy to have as a partner, and that you can obtain its full backing. You should check with your university grants office that the type of conditions likely to be imposed are not ones which are likely to make life for your research group difficult.

If you are part of a research group or consortium, you should also check with them that the organization is not one that would cause a conflict of values. If you obtain research from diverse sources, there may be conflicts in terms of ownership of results for linked projects, or even controversy over the results themselves.

Image: warningDo not lose sight of your research focus.

While it is important to consider funding criteria and to tailor the application accordingly, avoid the temptation to mould your project entirely to meet funding requirements. You will stand a better chance of research success if you have a reputation in the area, which can be better done if you have a clear vision.