Competition for research funding has grown acute in recent years. Adjustments to the QR (quality-related) research funding allocations awarded by HEFCE on the basis of results from the 2014 Research Excellence Framework have meant belt-tightening for some, while there have been reports of soaring rejection rates for grant applications. Put this in the context of the loss of direct funding for teaching (replaced by tuition fees), the forthcoming Teaching Excellence Framework or TEF, which will create a market that will create winners and losers in teaching funding, and the potential loss of European funding streams with Brexit, and you can see why the pressure is on academics to maximise their success not only with QR (via the REF) but with research income from the funding councils.
There’s no denying that this is a tall order. But universities are now finding ways to institutionalize their success by creating specialised units, divisions or centres for advanced research, the aim of which is to build capacity and grow expertise across an institution. Such centres function in many ways. They often hold archives of past bids for staff to draw upon and learn from; they have staff with different areas of expertise, who specialise in the specific requirements of the different awarding bodies; they may offer detailed technical expertise; they can facilitate internal peer review networks and put in place pre-application vetting procedures; and finally, they may act on behalf of the institution itself as a form of gate-keeper, ensuring that the standard of application is sufficiently robust before it can be submitted.
So how can the individual academic make best use of his or her advanced centre?
The research development team of any university will usually run a comprehensive set of training sessions designed to inform you about the awards available to you. If these sessions are not immediately obvious to you via your department, take the initiative and contact your advanced research development centre to find out what may be best for you. These sessions may offer invaluable insights into the funding process, including talks by successful award holders, representatives of the funding councils themselves, and detailed guidance on key dates for applications.
Plan, plan, plan…
… and plan well in advance! Your research development centre may well have a set of internal deadlines that must be met before your application can be submitted (indeed, it is often the case that applications can be submitted only via the research development team office, having been signed off internally). Inform yourself of these internal hurdles, and make sure you leave enough time in your schedule to do so. Internal vetting procedures may involve peer reviewers (i.e. fellow academics across the university); like you, they will have intensive demands on their time, so try to get your draft application submitted as early in the cycle as possible. In addition, make sure you leave yourself enough time to respond to feedback.
Get advice on costings and technical matters
Your research development team is expert in working out the costings for any grant application, and will need to sign off your calculations before the application can proceed. Make sure your assessment of what will be required is in line with the funding body’s specifications, and is as detailed as possible (don’t forget about equipment costs, travel, staff buy-outs, and any possible collaborator costs) so that your research division can make as accurate a calculation as possible. Furthermore, if you’re proposing the creation of a digital resource in your project, consult with your research development team: they will either have an expert to hand who will write the appendix for you, or they will provide comprehensive advice on the specifications you need to include.
Beyond funding: networks and building the future
Advanced research centres may have many other functions in addition to maximising grant success. They may be actively engaged in promoting research in particular areas, through direct R&D engagement, conferences, postgraduate training, and even publication outlets. By getting to know your research development centre you will be better placed to take advantage of these opportunities in the future and develop your career more broadly, beyond any single grant application process.