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Part 3: Finding potential funders

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

Primary funders

In the United Kingdom, research funding primarily comes from what is known as the "dual support system". Many other countries have similar systems of support.

The main sources of public funding for higher education institutions in the UK are the Higher Education Funding Councils (HEFCs) and the UK Research Councils. The funding councils distribute money to universities for staff, resources and other infrastructure. The research councils fund specific research requirements, ranging from individual projects, through funded programmes co-ordinating a variety of projects to medium and long-term research centres. The research councils were established in 1993 under the Office of Science and Technology, whose website offers valuable links to other government and non-government sources of funding. The research councils are easily accessed through a central website for Research Councils UK:

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC);
  • Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC);
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC);
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC);
  • Medical Research Council (MRC);
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC);
  • Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC).

The British Academy, another major source of funding, is an independent foundation.

Is a research council right?

To establish if a research council is the right funding body for you, begin by reading their guidance notes. The link above will take you to their sites where they give detailed descriptions of precisely the research they fund, and the research they do not fund. Some councils organize their research around thematic priorities, which change regularly. Others cater more for individual research interests, but still aligned to distinct broad objectives.

Successful researchers read the notes and their updates religiously. Then, if they are still in doubt, they pick up the telephone and talk to someone at the council itself.

"Talk to us!" is a plea I frequently heard from funders addressing prospective researchers. Many researchers do not realize that funding councils are approachable, friendly, helpful and, let's face it –- human!

Some (notably unfounded) critics say that research councils are perhaps too human and not independent arbiters of what merits research funding because they are a) funded by government with a political agenda and b) heavily influenced by a handful of academics representing an "old-boy network".

The first concern can be dismissed by understanding the framework for research council funding. The independence of the councils is preserved by what is known as the Haldane Principle, after Richard Burdon Haldane, Viscount Haldane of Cloan (1856-1928). In 1904 he chaired the government committee which recommended creating the Universities Grant Committee to advise government on how to allocate funds. In 1909 he chaired a Royal Commissions on university education which reported in 1918. It was then that what we now call the "Haldane Principle" emerged, namely, that research money derived from government sources would not be linked to government agendae.

The most recent Quinquennial Review of the Research Councils (2001) reaffirmed the primacy of this principle, noting that successive governments have all endorsed the Haldane Principle as one of the prime protectors of the scientific integrity of research.

Old boys and older universities

The second criticism has, undoubtedly, a shade of truth about it, but insufficient to render the councils as ineffectual puppets. As we explored in the first instalment of this series, research funding is weighted towards the older universities who can demonstrate a track record in the field. That is undoubtedly unfair to the newer universities, but inevitable under the current system.

It is not only funding which is affected, but the perception in general about new versus older universities. This may be, however, a generational issue: as younger people come into the system, the demarcation between old and new universities may become less clear.

An interesting paper on this subject in explored this very topic. See "Strategic marketing in a changing environment – are the new UK universities in danger of being 'stuck in the middle'?" (Catherine Bakewell and Monica Gibson-Sweet, International Journal of Educational Management, vol. 12 no. 3).

The councils are aware of the problems and know that, albeit rarely, some academics can harshly judge a new researcher's work which challenges their pre-eminence. That is why councils have panels and advisory boards which represent a wide range of interests. Research council staff are accustomed to reading peer reviews and can easily detect tones which betray an academic's apparent objectivity.

Some critics despair that research funding is also weighted towards men. Does this represent endemic sexism in the councils and, by inference, could there also be systemic racism or other discriminatory practices? A recent study by the National Centre for Social Research, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and research councils, enquired into why men win research funding more often than women do.

The summary report available here, concluded that once applications are received by councils there is no evidence of gender discrimination. Women's applications are approved in comparable ratios to men's. Gender is, however, a determinant of grant application behaviour – women, in general, were applying for fewer research grants than men. This largely reflects institutional sexism within universities themselves, where women are not proportionally represented at senior levels.

Research councils are, therefore, potentially attractive research funders. Breaking into the ranks of successful applicants will be a reflection of a researcher's capacity for diligent analysis of the different funders' requirements, tenacity and creativity.

Charitable funders

The second largest single source of research funding comes from charities. Roughly one-quarter of all research money, or nearly £500 million each year, comes from charities. The main implication for researchers and their institutions is that a charity does not contribute towards the indirect or infrastructure costs of the research project, whereas research councils do.

The single largest funder of social science research outside the research councils is the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. A full list of all registered charities in the UK can be accessed at the Charities Commission website.

Apart from the large charities, smaller charities often fund specific research or part of it. They can also offer assistance that may not be directly realized in hard cash, but has financial implications. A researcher may find, for example, that a charity will provide support at a data gathering stage through access to its networks or archives.

It is worth thinking broadly about the potential of charitable funding. Some science-oriented charities, for example, will fund researchers in the humanities and social sciences for specific projects.

Understanding the broad objectives and ethos of charities is critical to successful relationships. This is something we will explore in detail in the next instalment, "Assessing Needs".

Corporate funding

An increasingly common and attractive source of funding is the private sector. It is the overt strategy of those who lead universities to encourage more private funding, as we explored in the first instalment of this series.

Corporate funding offers researchers opportunities to see how theories work in practice, to resolve real issues and to work in often a fast-paced environment completely different than the academic context. It is one way in which researchers can become increasingly reflexive about their role as researchers and their relationships with those they study.

An interesting exploration of this post-structuralist research approach is offered by a group of Australian researchers published in the Journal of Workplace Learning. See: "Researchers are learners too: collaboration in research on workplace learning" (Nicky Solomon, David Boud, Maria Leontios and Maret Staron, Journal of Workplace Learning , vol. 13 no. 7).

The corporate sector is driven by a thirst for knowledge. Those who dismiss it as a sector requiring only short-term, quick-fix solutions seriously underestimate its combined intelligence and trajectory. The large organizations which pour millions into graduate recruitment programmes are not doing so lightly. As one senior executive dryly commented: "There are probably more PhDs in our organization than most universities".

"The most successful approaches are proactive"

Identifying an ideal corporate partner is not a simple matter of finding an aggregated website where all corporates advertise for researchers. The most successful approach will be proactive. Prospective researchers are advised to look for the organization whose work mirrors areas of research interest.

One of the best ways to do this is to attend the same conferences that corporates attend. Few chief executives will drift into academic conferences of researchers; the researchers must go to them. Another way is to read through their published material and find out who in the company is involved in the area of interest. It will often just take a telephone call to arrange a meeting where needs and potential partnerships can be discussed in more detail.

Many academics worry about how findings will be disseminated following the research. This question should form a key part of the identification process. What kind of ownership should a corporate body have over your work? This is a question of "intellectual property" which will vary according to the client.

Gaining permission to publish is not always a problem, although it should always form part of the negotiation. Find out if the corporate will allow you to publish generalized findings and perhaps discussion of method, even if commercially sensitive findings will be embargoed for some time.

Identifying your prospective funding partner is not difficult, although becoming more familiar with their needs and objectives will be necessary before you can create a winning proposal.

Sites for the most prominent public funders and charities are easily accessed through the Internet. You might also want to take a look at the Emerald research awards section.

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