Applying for research funding – is it worth it?

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight on 6th March 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

Success rates are low and applications are more and more time consuming to write. Is it worth it? Here’s a quick list of considerations that might help you reach a better decision.

While the latest success rates from UK research councils showed a very modest overall improvement after five consecutive annual falls, most observers regard this as a blip rather than as a sign of better times to come. Outside the Research Councils, success rates are often even lower, with some social science/humanities fellowship schemes having single digit success rates.

While success rates have fallen, demands on applicants have steadily risen. The impact agenda has brought first the impact summary and then the pathways to impact statement, and more recently we’ve seen greater emphasis on data management plans and on detailed letters of support from project partners that require significant coordination to obtain. It would be one thing if it were just a question of volume – if you want a six or seven figure sum of what’s ultimately public money, it’s not unreasonable to be asked to work for it. But it’s not just that, it’s also the fiddly nature of using JeS and understanding funder requirements. I’m forever having to explain the difference between the pathways to impact and the impact summary, and there are lots of little quirks and hidden sections that can trip people up.

But beyond even that, there’s the institutional effort of internal peer review from research development staff and senior and very busy academic staff. Whether that’s an internal review mandated by the research council – shifting the burden of review onto institutions – or introduced as a means of improving quality, it’s another cost.

Given the low success rates, the effort and time required, and the opportunity costs of doing so, are we wasting our time? And how would we know?

The research

  • Do you need funding to do the research? If not, might it be a better idea just to get on with it, rather than spend a month writing an application and six months waiting for a response? And if you only need a small amount of funding, consider a smaller scheme with a less onerous application process.
  • Do you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve? If you can’t identify some clear research questions, and what your project will deliver, the chances are it needs more thinking through before it’s ready to be turned into an application.
  • Are you and your team passionate and enthused and excited about your proposal? If you’re not, why should anyone else be?
  • Is your research idea competitive? That’s not the same question as ‘is it good’? To quote a research director from a Canadian Research Council – it’s not a test, it’s a contest. Lots and lots and lots of good ideas go unfunded. Just because you could get something in that’s in scope and has at least some text in every box doesn’t mean you should.
  • Is your research idea significant? In other words, does it pass the ‘so what, who cares’ test? My experience on an NIHR funding panel is that once the flawed are eliminated, funding is a battle of significance. Is your research idea significant, would others outside your field regard it as significant, and can you communicate its significance?

Your motivations

  • Are they intrinsic to the research – to do with the research and what you and your team want to discover and achieve and contribute…. or are they extrinsic?
  • Are you applying for funding because you want promotion? When you come and talk to me and my colleagues about ‘applying for funding’ but have less a coherent project and more of a list of random keywords, don’t think we don’t know.
  • Is it because you/your research group/school is being pressured to bring in more funding? Football manager Harry Redknapp’s tactical instructions to a substitute apparently once consisted of “just flipping run around a bit” (I paraphrase) and I sometimes worry that in some parts of some institutions that’s what passes for a grant capture strategy that values activity over outcomes.
  • Is it because you want to keep researchers on fixed term contracts/your promising PhD student in work? That’s a laudable aim, but without the right application and idea, you risk giving them false hope if the application is just to do more of the same with the same people.

Practical considerations

  • Do you have the time you need to write a competitive application? Just as importantly, do your team? Will they be able to deliver on the bits of the application they’ll need to write? As Yoda said, “do or do not, there is no try” (Lucas, 1980). If you can’t turn your idea into a really well written, competitive, proposal in time, perhaps don’t.
  • Do you have your ducks in a row? Your collaborators and co-Is, your industry, government, or third sector partners lined up and on board? Are your impact plans ready? Or are you still scratching around for project partners while your competitors are polishing the fourth iteration of the complete application? Who are your rivals for this funding? Not relevant for ‘open’ calls, but for targeting schemes, who else is likely to be going for this?
  • Does what you want to do fit the call you’re considering applying for? Read the call, read it again, and then speak to your friendly neighbourhood Research Development professional and see if your understanding of the call matches hers. Why? Because it’s hard for researchers to read a call for proposals without seeing it through the lens of their own research priorities. Make sure others think it’s a good fit – don’t trust yourself or your co-Is to make that decision alone.
  • Is this the best use of your time right now? Might your time be better spent on impact, publishing papers from the last project, revising a dated module, running professional development courses?

A companion piece on the costs and benefits to researchers of applying for funding will be republished here next week.

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4 Responses to Applying for research funding – is it worth it?

  1. Really useful advice as always. There are lots of things to consider when looking to develop a funding application. One thing which you alluded to above but is sometimes forgotten by reseaerchers, especially when they are under pressure from their university or department/school to apply, is the actual act of delivering the research. If you win it you need to deliver it so make sure it really is something you are passionate about. I’ve worked with someone in the past who put in a bid because they were pressured to – and yes they won it and they really struggled to deliver it. So motivation needs to be there for the writing process, the waiting period (which can be months!) and then the delivery phase. Thanks for the other tips – all very relevant and should be factored into the grant writing process.

    • Adam says:

      I think that’s spot on – considering the consequences of success is really important. The second part of the post (which should be up next week sometime) has a bit more to say about that.

  2. Pingback: Applying for research funding – is it worth it? | MMU Research and Knowledge Exchange Blog

  3. Pingback: Applying for research funding – is it worth it? Part II – Costs and Benefits | Cash for Questions: social science research funding, policy, and development

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