Academic Life: Seeking Funding

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

This article describes some of the many ways that academics can seek outside funding for their various projects and activities and the reasons why they would choose to do so. Not only does this activity form a large part of an academic's working life, but successfully submitting bids for research money can also significantly increase your chances of getting a better job.

Why would you need research funding?

There are many different activities that academics do on a regular basis that require external funding. These research projects can be large or small, long- or short-term. For example, you might need help to pay for a flight to a prestigious overseas conference at which you have been invited to give a paper. Alternatively you might want to spend some time studying at a library or with other colleagues at a different institution. You may have an idea for a large research project based at your home institution but one that needs you to employ extra staff or buy costly equipment.

So why doesn't my university pay?

You might think that because all these activities are part of an academic's usual working life that their university or research establishment should pay for these activities. Unfortunately the money simply isn't there in the UK higher education system to do this. Furthermore, universities and individual scholars are rated on the amount of external research funding they attract so it is advantageous to all concerned for you to seek external sources of money. Perhaps your university will offer to ‘match fund' your project, that is, equal any offers of money made by outside bodies. The university may also provide you with equipment, laboratory or office space, support staff and so on, as it is in their long-term interests to support successful researchers. In order to find out what your institution could offer, talk to your head of department, or manager of research team. Many universities now have a separate administrative department that supports research activities, so it's worth approaching them early on to start negotiations.

How much do I want?

Costing research projects is a complete minefield and if you are a novice in this area you will need to get advice and support from colleagues or else you will find your applications are being rejected simply because your figures don't add up. If you ask for too much or too little or if your project simply isn't do-able in the time allocated, then you will be rejected outright. Firstly you need to decide what it is you want the funding for. Some of the obvious answers are:

-         travel

-         subsistence/expenses while away

-         buying out of teaching (i.e. providing money to pay someone else to do your teaching for you)

-         buying equipment

-         hiring other members of staff

-         running workshops/conferences

Your institution will have formulae to allow you to calculate how much money is required for these factors and therefore how much money to request in your bid.

Putting the bid together

It is important to research carefully which organisations you will apply to. There are different options depending on your field. The research councils are an obvious source, especially if your work happens to fit nicely with one of the current themes they are pursuing, for example, projects investigating the link between science and heritage funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The research councils receive large numbers of bids and each round is very competitive so it is worth checking out other sources of money as well. Each funding body will have different criteria so make sure you read the small print; for example the Leverhulme Trust is a charity, so will not fund on the full economic costing' model that most bodies use and that includes institutional overhead costs.

Allow plenty of time to write the research bid because the forms are often long and complicated and you want to allow time for others to proof read and offer feedback. You will also have to get the agreement of your head of department or faculty and research support office, so make sure you allow time to do this. Submissions that miss the deadline will not be looked on favourably.

Don't give up

For some funding bodies, the rate of success is about one in four, while for others it is even less, so if you are not initially successful then don't give up. It can be very dispiriting to realise that much of the time of research-active academics is taken up with writing funding proposals. However, if you make full use of the wealth of experience and expertise around you in the form of academic and administrative colleagues to ensure that the project is feasible and has been costed correctly, your application has every chance of succeeding. And then the hard work really begins!

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