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Part 1: Shaping your funding strategy


Your step-by-step guide to winning research funding – by Abby Day

Managing luck

My research for Winning Research Funding centred on interviewing major funders and successful researchers. This, combined with in-

depth analysis of funders' publications and websites, led to a few startling conclusions.

At first, it became obvious that common sense and courtesy were necessary conditions of a successful funding application or proposal. I learned quickly that there was a standard checklist for a good research proposal:

  • Articulates problem accurately
  • Provides appropriate background
  • Manageable within the time
  • Cost-effective
  • Linked to defined outcomes
  • Clear methodology
  • Seen to make a contribution to the field
  • Concise writing
  • Demonstrates right team approach
  • Has credible academic supervision

That seemed to be an obvious list, although I was constantly surprised to learn that many people do not follow it. Many researchers leave out important information or do too much at the last possible minute, causing silly errors to creep in.

"Can't academics read?" sighed one senior member of a major funding agency.

"It's because we don't have time!" cried many academics I interviewed. It therefore began to occur to me that if all literate time-pressured academics filled out the same application forms for the same funding opportunities, it should be almost impossible to choose from amongst them.

And it is. It is a tough, competitive world. Everyone is trying to fill out proposals, teach courses, mark assignments, research, write papers, attend conferences – how can anyone be expected to do all those activities well and with equal success? More urgently, why do some people consistently do it better? I suspected the answer would involve more than simply reading instructions carefully and filling in the right boxes. Why were some people successful and others were not?

Just luck?

"It's just luck", my first interviewee told me. Having just been commissioned by my publisher, Gower/Ashgate, to write a book about research funding I wondered how I would write 80,000 words on "it's just luck".

"There must be something more", I suggested. Pleaded, nearly. She sighed and looked out of the window for a minute and then slowly began talking about all the good researchers in the academic community, about how everyone tried very hard and how it was difficult to say why some should be better than others...

So, that was it: conventional politeness and concern for other colleagues in the community prevent people from publicizing their success. That is why the knowledge about successful funding applications remains hidden, like an arcane wisdom only available to those who can decipher an ancient code. No one wants to say that they do things any better than anyone else. That wouldn't be fitting, not congenial. I let her ramble on a few minutes more and then interrupted.

"Sorry, but I don't believe you. I honestly do not believe you are sitting here telling me that it was all just a coincidence. That's the best you can offer new researchers, young people trying to break into the field?".

That did it. It always seems when you prod them a little, all good academics will melt at the thought of helping newcomers, of mentoring, of teaching.

"Well, there is something else I think might have mattered..." she began, and so the story unfolded.

Over the next few months I learned that people who win research funding and the people who fund it agree that most of the time it is not luck they depend on.

People who win research funding consistently take a different and measurably better approach than those who do not. That "approach" is something more complex than simply following the above checklist. Those tips are the necessary, but often insufficient, conditions of success.

Most successful researchers talk more about relationships, proactivity and partnerships than they do about applications and proposals. This means that researchers need to choose a prospective funder who matches their needs and interests. To work effectively, the relationship needs to be symmetric and symbiotic: each party needs to give and receive equally.

Benefits of research funding partnerships

Having established that all funding centres on relationships, it is equally true that not all relationships are equal. Some are warm and collaborative while others are more distant and formal. Each has non-negotiable aspects imposed by either party's institutions or government.

Most partnerships will have a particular character with its own particular benefits. These generally fall into three types: the contractual, the learning partnership and the positioning partnership.

The contractual aspect, within any funding relationship, means that outputs are specified, timescales stated and budgets agreed and adhered to. These, or parts of these, may be negotiable at the outset while others may be strictly imposed. The benefit is that everyone knows where they stand and what they expect.

Funding relationships which are seen more as learning partnerships will mean that both parties may be exploring unfamiliar and innovative territory. A bold funding partner interested in a true learning partnership can be highly rewarding for a researcher. Just as likely, some funders committed to policy or practice change need researchers who are willing to undertake research in a new area, with an unfamiliar problem with real implications.

As one researcher involved in an area of public policy confessed: "There is a real risk of failure here and if it fails it will be very public". Not everyone is willing to assume such risk and responsibility, but for others it is the reason they are in their field.

Another kind of partnership may be the positioning partnership, which is where all parties are seeking to gain significant profile from the partnership. This obviously requires parties to be explicit about what they want from the relationship and how they expect the profile to be gained.

And yet, no matter what type of partnership funders and researchers want, two significant benefits seem to apply to all: collaboration and community.

Collaboration

Too many researchers rush around looking for a funding partner in a panic-stricken attempt to find money. Many do not find one or, worse (in the long run), find one who is not suitable. They look at their research idea as a problem which needs a quick fix rather than as an opportunity which can be explored in different ways. What do you really want, and who will want you?

A notable difference between successful and unsuccessful applicants is their attitude towards money. Somewhat ironically, successful researchers talk least about money, as if it is not really the point. They talk about synergies, advice, partnerships, collaboration and community; cash is just one fuel that keeps the project running.

Professor Mohamed Zairi, Director of the European Centre for Total Quality Management at Bradford University, says it is wrapped up in the role of the academic scholar:

It's not just a question of process, about how to do it, how you go about getting access to companies and putting bids for monies and getting funded posts like a Chair or a lectureship. It's not about process. I think it's about relationships first of all, and in order to make relationships work I think we need to become humble and fundamentally re-examine our role as academics. It's about integrity, pride, partnerships and the principle of value.

Researchers and their funders who enjoy relationships based on the idea of partnership say most often that the greatest benefit is the opportunity to keep developing, growing and learning.

The people who lead universities – the vice-chancellors – take the idea of partnerships seriously. Their organization, Universities UK, (formerly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals), articulates this in its strategic plan: "Vision, mission and goals 2001-2004" (see the Universities UK homepage). Here, it explicitly states that it expects "Partnerships with a diverse range of private funders to continue to flourish and increase in number".

While competition both nationally and internationally will undoubtedly increase among universities, the vice-chancellors note that some people may choose to see this as an opportunity for collaboration and strategic partnerships both within the UK and internationally.

One of the benefits of partnership is the knowledge that you are being supported. Particularly for academics venturing into new, unexplored territory this can be a strong attraction. As one researcher put it –- "It's lonely in the dark".

Community

Partnerships offer unique ways to build connections and reputations among the academic community. For example, the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) actively encourages award holders to remain involved with the board. News of their current and emerging research remains of interest to the board, reflecting their commitment to the academic community as a whole.

Sometimes, they invite current or past award holders to speak at a seminar or lead an information workshop on the agency's behalf. On other occasions, the AHRB is asked to recommend speakers to other organizations and can draw on their network of award-holders.

Take a look at their newsletter, Arcady, which features stories about researchers. This helps create greater awareness of the researchers' particular work and the AHRB in general.

Another example of continuing relationships is the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) database, Regard. This not only provides summaries of all ESRC funded research since 1985, but also contains updates on research projects. This illustrates the important point that research is not a one-off, static event but a continuous activity where outputs multiply and publications flourish.

In the next instalment, we will explore more specifically what funders are looking for. Knowing this enables researchers to find the right funder not only to pay them money, but to pay attention and tribute to their vision and hard work.


This exclusive series, written by Abby Day, is based on her book, Winning Research Funding, published by Gower/Ashgate, 2003.