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Part 2: What are funders looking for?

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

What kind of research?

To engage in the debate about research funding, many people will first pause and ask: what kind of research are funders looking for? Research about what and for whom? How will it be used? Who decides whether it is good research or not, and against what criteria?

These are all important questions to which there is no single answer. Indeed, seeking a single answer or definition betrays the whole point of effective research funding strategies. Different funders and different researchers will put different values on research questions and their conclusions.

That's the bad news: there is no single formula or strategy, just as there is no single topic for a good research project.

The good news is that there are common strands which we can use to pull research funding strategies together.

Here, we'll take a look at what different people mean by research and how they share a common ethos.

The value of research

It tends to make more sense to discuss research in terms of its "value" rather than whether it is good or bad. Research that satisfies the criteria of, say, a university-based MA may not be of value to anyone other than the student hoping to achieve top marks. Funders, however, are looking for impact outside the researcher's individual milieu.

In a funding context, the concept of "value" is usually reduced to three letters: VFM. This stands for "value for money" and indicates that funders are making an investment and want to see a return.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is rather pointed about VFM. It states that every year it "invests" more than £48 million in "funding the highest quality research and developing the resources that underpin the UK's social science base".

It doesn't say it gives money away, or offers hand-outs to impoverished academics: it invests money. It states that the four characteristics of all successful ESRC research grants are that they:

  • promise excellent research
  • are of value to potential users outside or within the research community
  • convince the reviewers of the researchers" ability to conduct the research properly
  • demonstrate value for money ("not necessarily the same as cheapness)".

You would be mistaken to think that means funders are looking for the cheapest price. Under-estimating the value of your research may demonstrate not only a lack of confidence, but it suggests that you may not be capable of conducting the research. If you have not allocated sufficient time and resources to the project, how will your funder know you can complete it?

One research project was nearly rejected by a funding body precisely because of that reason, as one of its directors explains:

"One of the referees recommended against acceptance because it appeared we had over-estimated our ability to complete the project in 18 months. We reviewed that feedback and agreed we had not devoted enough time to it, considering what we wanted to do. We expanded the project to two years, asked for £15,000 more and got it".

Less is not always more

Funding organizations do not reject research proposals because they cost money. Spending money is not an unfortunate by-product of a funding organization's work: making an investment is their work; it is what they do.

The Higher Education and Research Opportunities (HERO) website offers guidance for new researchers and specifically addresses the importance of making a contribution to the community. This shapes what they think "value" is:

"Good research practices are necessary if you are to produce professional and rigorous work. Attention to detail in your methodologies and administration is vital for your findings to be valid and make a real contribution to your discipline. This can be intimidating for new researchers, but there are many resources available for reference and help".

The idea of adding value to the academic community strongly influences a funder's view of your worth. Steve Morgan, head of corporate projects and evaluation with the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) stresses the importance of articulating how your research affects your research community:

"We look at the vitality and vibrancy of the community as a whole. The way in which we get to that value is to fund individual activities, with the individual seen as part of the community".

It's academic

What academics think about research has a significant impact on what funding bodies think: the funders, for the most part, have academics on their panels and review boards.

A study I undertook amongst social scientists revealed different orientations to research.

One definition, from a professor of the "quantitative" school, is that good research is rigorous, systematic, integrated, focused and objective:

"Research which meets criteria of rigour, a systematic kind of modelling in its articulation and which ties back its process to a solid grounding in what we know about the area that we're being researched, so that there is a total integration of varying viewpoints in the grounding of the research design. Then in my mind for it to be good, it must then be very focused".

Another academic eschewed the notion of "good research" in favour of "ideal research":

"For me, the challenge is to do research that is well-rooted in theoretical debates and conceptual discussion.. Research can only be good if it stands on a firm footing. It has to be clear about the concepts".

The idea of imagination is introduced by another academic:

"In recent years we've seen develop a multiplicity of research methods surveys and techniques to try to tease out meaning. Good qualitative research is consistent with the data, theoretically exciting, imaginative, convincing. It's able to extend or develop or modify a theoretical notion that's around in a literature".

And engagement and application is most important to a fourth:

"It's empirically based. It uses current ideas and methods appropriately. It has a degree of imagination and creative thinking. It engages not only the person doing research, but those reading it. My orientation is applied. It needs to be accessible to all sorts of people... in my personal opinion, it's important to be interdisciplinary".

This definition contains an interesting assertion, and one we will return to; that good research is accessible to all sorts of people and engages people. The involvement of the person, perhaps even a non-scholar, reading the research is now part of what makes it good.

That goal, perhaps more than any other, is what links academics and funders. Research which is financed by either a private or public money needs to be accessible to others in the academic and wider communities.

Underpinning government funding is the results from the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). You can find out more about their work at http://www.hero.ac.uk/rae. The RAE defines research rather broadly, including work which contributes to the body of knowledge as well as that which contributes to commerce and industry.

Outputs and outcomes

Funders often talk about outcomes and outputs. Some researchers find these terms problematic, worrying that debases or commodifies knowledge. What funders are really saying is not, how can your research become a highly profitable product, but what will happen as a result?

Why is the issue important and to whom? This is the great "so what?" question that needs to be answered in simple, clear terms. What will happen because of your work? Why should anyone, including yourself, invest time and money in researching it?

Contributing to the body of knowledge through a published paper, participating in a conference, writing a report, creating an archive or a dictionary – all these are important and have value to someone. Funders may differ in how they value such contributions, but all agree that a contribution of some kind must happen. Potential researchers must therefore be particular about specifying what contribution they will make.

What do we mean by outputs and outcomes?

An output is what is tangibly presented to a client (in this case, a funding body or individual) during or at the conclusion of your research. An output is put out from your research. Every funded research project must have tangible outputs. A specified output or outputs might be, for example:

  • a book
  • one or more learned journal papers
  • a confidential report for the funder only
  • a generally accessible summary posted on a website
  • a 10,000 word report intended to be available in the public domain
  • a TV series or
  • any combination of those and other outputs.

An outcome comes out as a result of your research. As such, it is normally much less certain than an output. Any competent researcher working to a brief can produce a specified output. But an outcome – something which happens as a result of your research – depends on others finding the work accessible, credible and valuable enough to use it. An outcome might provoke change or inform policy in the wider world, such as research on child poverty, third world debt or global warming. Or in, for example, the private sector it may contribute to market research for product development.

Most funding bodies, all accountable in some way or other, take the idea of "so what?" very seriously indeed, and so make sure that the recipients of funding answer the question carefully and clearly.

In conclusion

From all of the above emerge several common themes. Funders want research that:

  • Shows a return on their investment
  • Is accessible to broad groups of people
  • Is professional and rigorous
  • Can compete with the best nationally and internationally
  • Has measurable outputs and defined outcomes

The challenge for prospective researchers is not simply to know these requirements, but to articulate them. How we do so will depend on the prospective relationship with a particular funder. In the next instalment we explore how to identify your ideal funding partner.

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