A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in November 2021 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.
Originally published in two parts, I’ve merged them into one and lightly edited to update and (in the case of EU funding) to try to future-proof!
This article is intended for researchers who have moved to UK academia recently (welcome!) and for UK researchers in the very early stages of their careers. My aim is to give a very brief tour of the UK research funding landscape and help you get to grips with some of the terminology. In part one, I’ll look at government or public funding and say a bit about different funding models for research. In part two I’ll touch on research charities, learned societies, EU funding, and conclude with some general advice on finding research funding opportunities.
The ‘Dual Support’ system for Research and QR Funding
The UK has a dual support system for the public funding of research. The first element is a ‘block grant’—basically a huge chunk of cash—given to UK universities to spend on research as they see fit. The second (which I’ll come to shortly) is support for specific research projects through competitive peer-review processes.
Most of this block grant is Quality-Related (QR) funding, which is allocated to universities on the basis of their research performance as measured through the last Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is a huge evaluation exercise that takes place every seven or so years, most recently in 2021. Although we’re well into what would be the new ‘REF cycle’, we don’t yet know what the rules will be for this round, and things could be radically different. Or very similar. At the time of writing, we don’t know.
Universities can spend QR funding on pretty much any research purpose. Typically, it’s used to support academic salaries, research infrastructure, and internal ‘seed funding’ (for smaller, early-stage research projects). It’s a vital source of stable, predictable, flexible core funding for research. Its importance shouldn’t be underestimated.
Although everyone approves of QR funding, you’ll struggle to find many people with a good word about the REF. I did have a go at a partial defence once, pointing out some of the inconsistencies in some of the critiques, which is still the case. Although it’s primarily about the distribution of QR funding, the REF is also used within universities to check up on the performance of constituent schools and research groups. Individual researchers’ contributions towards the ‘REF return’ are also often assessed.
While the REF has many detractors, there is little agreement about what might take its place. The REF deserves its own article, but as yet another review is underway at the time of writing, there’s no point in writing it.
Competitive funding for projects – UKRI
Competitive funding awarded for specific projects or programmes of work are the second arm of the ‘dual funding’ system. Most publicly funded competitions for academic research grants in the UK are run via an organisation called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) which is made up of nine funding bodies: seven research councils, a body called Innovate UK which is involved with R&D in commercial contexts, and another called Research England which, among other activities, helps develop and implement the REF.
Of those nine constituent bodies, the research councils are probably the most important for academic researchers to learn about and understand.
The research councils are:
- Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
- Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
- Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
- Medical Research Council (MRC)
- Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
- Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
As you can tell, each of the seven councils has a disciplinary remit that it carries in its name, except for the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which supports research in astronomy and space-related science. It’s also worth mentioning that academic researchers might be involved in grant bids to Innovate UK, but these projects will need to be industry-led or have strong industrial partnerships.
Until 2018, each council was a largely separate identity with a small coordinating/umbrella body called Research Councils UK. Partially in order to encourage interdisciplinary research, UKRI was created with a remit for more active stewardship and coordination.
Each council runs its own funding calls for specific projects, usually a mixture of directed calls on specific issues and responsive mode funding which is open to any discipline within their remit. Each council will have a more-or-less predictable annual cycle of schemes alongside one-off or occasional calls on specific priorities. Some schemes will have specific deadlines, while others will be ‘open call’ – accepting applications at any time. Confusingly, the phrase ‘open call’ is also sometimes used to mean responsive move – open to any topic. The research councils have the most money and should be your first port of call when looking for funding.
Under the long-established Haldane principle, funding decisions on individual research projects are taken by experts, not by government. Although the government has a role in strategic direction and budget allocations, the research councils are autonomous. UKRI is an ‘arms-length body’—that is, government is supposed to keep a safe distance away from its day-to-day functioning, and therefore UKRI’s funding decisions never have to be signed off by a government minister.
In theory, it shouldn’t be possible for proposals to fall between different research councils with neither willing to take ownership. Remit checks are available, and you should take advantage of this if your work could interest two or more Councils or if you are unsure where it fits. Frequently different research councils will collaborate on grant calls with a specific interdisciplinary purpose.
Funders Future, Funders Past
You might hear about the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria),
which I’ve not included in the council list on the grounds that it doesn’t exist yet, and if/when it does exist, it’s likely to be independent of UKRI. which now does exist and is indeed independent of UKRI. The ambition for Aria is to be a UK equivalent of Darpa in the US, funding “high risk, high reward” research. It’ll do this by appointing academic programme directors to run particular themed funding calls. While those working in universities welcome more research funding, opinion is divided about the merits and demerits of proposed governance arrangements and whether Aria really needs to be a separate organisation.
Speaking of things that don’t exist, you might also hear about the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). This was programme of applied research to support international development, funded from the UK’s international aid budget. But government cuts to the budget brought the scheme to a juddering halt, leading to the curtailment or cancellation of key research projects in some of the world’s poorest countries. Government reneging on funding commitments is widely regarded by researchers as a national disgrace. Even if GCRF returns, trust has been shattered.
UKRI funding is highly prized by UK universities because it pays Full Economic Costs (fEC). I’ve written a separate article detailing how fEC works, but all you need to know for now is that it’s the most attractive financial deal for research because, as the name implies, it means that all the costs of undertaking the research are considered. It’s important to note that a successful grant application will not directly affect your personal salary, though bringing in research funding will strengthen any case for promotion.
Other funders such as charities tend not to pay overheads (contributions towards the costs of running a university) or salary costs for investigators, funding only the directly incurred costs of the research. Fortunately, the government makes an award worth approximately 19% of award value for eligible charity funding through a separate budget line of QR funding.
Even with QR funding and fEC overheads, funding for university research doesn’t come near to covering its share of the costs. In practice, university research is subsidised from other sources, such as teaching income (especially overseas students) and conference and other commercial income.
It’s also worth drawing a distinction between two different categories of research funding – project grants and fellowships. Many funders offer both. Projects are about a particular programme of work, often with multiple co-investigators. Fellowships are about the research too, but they’re also more focused on the individual researcher. At earlier career stages they focus on the personal and professional development of the fellow as well as producing the research findings. At mid and later career stages, they can be about a range of projects or activities carried out by the fellow. Fellowships may involve mentors and collaborators, but usually not co-investigators.
In part two, I’ll touch on NIHR, research charities, learned societies, EU funding, and conclude with some general advice on finding research funding.
European Funding – Horizon Europe
Although the UK has left the European Union, the UK and the EU have agreed that the UK will continue to participate in the EU’s research funding schemes as an ‘Associated Country’. There are already several Associated Country participants including Norway, Turkey, and Switzerland. At the time of writing, the details have yet to be finalised. The UK government has set aside a budget which will fund UK participation in Horizon Europe schemes, including the European Research Council (for frontier research) and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (researcher training and development).
Whatever I write here risks being out of date by the time I press ‘publish’, but at the moment it looks like the UK is back on track to rejoin Horizon Europe after progress was finally made on the Northern Ireland protocol. There are still complex negotiations to take place about funding shares, but prospects are looking much brighter than before, where some nebulous ‘Plan B’ alternative was being discussed.
In the weeks and months after Brexit, there were fears that Brexit might have a ‘chilling effect’. While remaining technically eligible, the initial concern was that applications led from the UK or involving the UK would be reviewed less favourably. However, there’s been no evidence of this and in fact the UK continued to vie with Germany as host of most prestigious ERC grants in the final calls under Horizon 2020 at a time when Brexit was in full flow, with the UK’s success rates improving in this competition.
However, there may yet be an effect: if UK-based researchers stop applying for funding, there is a risk that it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if the politics have changed, geography hasn’t. The UK is still a major research powerhouse and our European colleagues still want to work with us.
Major Charitable Trusts
The ‘trusts’ are sometimes regarded as quasi-research councils such is the amount of money they have to spend. Both Trusts are funded by investment income – for Leverhulme, a large shareholding in Unilever, and for Wellcome from a portfolio purchased with the proceeds of the sale of Wellcome PLC to what is now GlaxoSmithKline. Both run their own schemes and partner with other funders.
The Leverhulme Trust funds research in any academic discipline apart from medical research and are a particularly important funder for humanities and social sciences. The Trust offers a suite of standard schemes including project grants and Fellowships at various career stages, which run on an annual basis. They are particularly interested in fundamental/basic/blue skies research and interdisciplinary research. If your project falls between two or more disciplinary stools, is a passion project, is heterodox, and high-risk high-reward, the Leverhulme Trust is well worth a look. Leverhulme also runs larger strategic schemes every few years to which each university can only submit a single application,
The Wellcome Trust funds research into health and wellbeing, including humanities and social science research. They fund work into fundamental biological processes; complexities of human health and disease; and tools, technologies and techniques to benefit health research. They don’t fund translational research or developing/testing/implementing treatments or interventions. With their new strategy, Wellcome have moved to funding longer and more expensive Fellowships and Projects, which has in turn raised their expectations for successful projects.
Wellcome are also partners in a separate, US-based organisation called Wellcome Leap, which (a little like ARIA) draws inspiration from DARPA and funds use-inspired research in the field of human health. They issue complex calls with hyper-short deadlines and turnaround times, usually setting out a programme to be achieved and inviting expressions of interest to participate and contribute towards specific programme goals.
Learned Societies and Academies
These are scholarly societies with royal charters and charitable status which offer research funding, either from private investments, donations, or government funding. The Royal Society funds natural sciences, the British Academy funds humanities and social sciences. The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences have remits that are more easily guessable.
While they don’t have much money compared to UKRI, they’re often good for Fellowships and for funding for smaller projects which may fall below the minimum funding floor of the relevant research council.
National Institute of Health Research (NIHR)
The NIHR spends public money on research for the benefit of the UK National Health Service (NHS), public health, and social care. More applied and translational than both the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, the NIHR has a wide range of programmes including Health Services and Delivery; Health Technology Assessment; Research for Patient Benefit; and Efficacy and Mechanism Evaluation.
Most charities that fund research are medical charities, including Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation, and Versus Arthritis. But there are a lot of smaller charities too, and it’s a complex picture. A good starting point is the membership list of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC). They’re an umbrella body that supports member charities, and require certain standards of peer review, transparency in decision making etc of their members.
If your institution subscribes to Research Professional, you should set up an email funding alert based on your interests. There are a lot of niche/discipline specific funders that I’ve not mentioned here, and this is an excellent way of finding them. You should also sign up to newsletters from key funders in your discipline area, and/or follow them on Twitter.
You should also talk to your local Research Development Manager and to your new colleagues. You’re not alone in your quest for research funding – they’ll have a lot of experience and could save you a lot of time in finding the best funder and scheme for your ideas.
In the UK, as elsewhere, success rates for grant applications tend to be low. They obviously vary, but generally 25% is regarded as pretty good. There are a lot more good ideas than there is funding available. Putting together a competitive grant application is a major undertaking, so it’s important to consider all of the available options to find the most appropriate funder and scheme. It’s tempting to pounce on the first scheme you see. Don’t. Take your time and get advice to find the right one for you.