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Applying for funding

How to go about applying for research funding and useful pointers and tips.
A woman sits by a laptop and writes while thinking
© Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

During this week, you have had the opportunity to learn about and explore the diverse range of funding bodies and opportunities available in the UK for health and social care research. You will have also heard from early-stage and established researchers who shared their experiences of applying for funding. To end this week, we reflect on how to go able applying for funding and share some useful pointers and tips.

Each funding body and programme will have its own application system and process, for example, an online submission system, a downloadable form to be completed and returned via email, an open call for CV and research plans (largely unstructured). Due to this large variation, we will not cover this process in much detail, instead we will focus on transferable knowledge that can be applied to most funding application processes and scenarios.

We provide tips on:

  1. Planning your first steps into research funding
  2. What to do before you search for funding
  3. What to do when you think you have found a relevant funder
  4. How to give yourself the best chance of success when writing your funding application.

Planning your first steps into research funding

If you are new to research funding and thinking of applying for your first grant, now is an ideal opportunity to establish a strategy to support your funding ambitions and future grant success.

It is unlikely, though not entirely impossible, to secure a large funding grant (i.e. above £150,000) at your very first attempt and with no prior evidence of grant success or management. On the whole, only around 1-in-5 applications are successful. This success rate will vary between different funders and can sometimes be much lower, for example, closer to 1-in-100.

If applying for larger grants, a funder will pay close attention to an applicant’s history of funding. If an applicant can demonstrate a track record in obtaining funding and delivering funded work to a specific deadline, this will help strengthen an applicant’s case for funding. Securing smaller grants (i.e. below £10,000) first, will help to strengthen your case for larger grants in the future.

It is helpful to think of this approach as a series of stepping-stones. One stone (a successful application) can help support you to reach the next stone (the next funding application).

Before applying for a larger grant you may want to investigate smaller funding opportunities:

  • Conference or travel bursaries
  • Patient and public involvement and engagement support costs
  • Small research project funding or “seed corn” grants
  • Local service evaluation grants

Check your relevant professional bodies and relevant societies for similar funding opportunities and awards.

Alternatively, you may be able to support a research team working to develop their grant application. Being a named co-applicant on a research grant led by an individual working in your organisation or for an external partner will also help to establish your funding profile.

Before you begin your search for funding

To inform your search for funding it is helpful to reflect on why you are seeking funding in the first place. This information can be vital when targeting your search and filtering through the wide range of funding opportunities that you find. Ask yourself the following questions:

What is your research project/idea?
Starting with a well-developed research idea and structure for a project is crucial. Producing a short summary (500-1000 words) is often helpful to summarise existing research in your chosen area, aim of your intended research, methods, implications. This document can help focus your attention on what it is you are looking to do.

Are you seeking funding for an individual or team?
Some funding opportunities specify whether they are individual awards or project/team awards.

Where is the individual or team based?
Some funding opportunities are open to certain organisations (e.g. NHS, higher education, charity sector) and/or professional groups.

Is your research project for education or scholarship?
Some funding opportunities may include/exclude research as part of education (e.g. completing research for a postgraduate thesis).

Are you seeking funding for the whole project or a distinct part?
Some funding opportunities will fund all parts of a project, others may be aimed at specific aspects (e.g. patient and public involvement [refer to week 7], dissemination [refer to week 8]). Some funding opportunities may limit what they will support (e.g. staff costs, publication fees, overheads).

At what stage of career are you?
Some funding opportunities may specify stage of career in relation to research (e.g. student, early-stage career, established researcher) or your other professional role (e.g. practitioner trainees may be excluded from some funding opportunities).

Where might the research fit?
Some funding opportunities will be aimed at health, public health or social work/care topics (as highlighted in the funding landscape). You may also want to think about what academic discipline your research fits into (e.g. social science, humanities, medicine). Different funding opportunities may be aligned to specific disciplines and research councils.

It is important to take some time to think about your responses to these questions as this will help you to focus your search for funding. This will also help you to avoid selecting an inappropriate funding opportunity, which may waste time in the longer term.

You can contact your local NHS Research and Development Office or relevant academic department for advice on searching for funding. Some offices may have access to specialist funding databases and search engines. A simple internet search using keywords can also be an effective means of identifying potential funders; use information provided on the funding landscape as a starting point.

Think you have found a relevant funding opportunity?

Once you have identified a potential funder or funders, you will need to take time to review the guidance information provided by the funding body. Funders will usually provide a guidance document for prospective applicants to consider and apply when drafting their funding application. There are some simply things that you can do at this stage to check that you and your research are a good fit for the funder; this will optimise your chances of writing a successful application:

Take some time to review the following things:

Guidance documents and eligibility criteria
Each of which will clearly set out who is permitted to apply and which themes/types of research are likely to be looked upon favourably.

Organisational objectives and priorities
You can usually find these on the funder website and can help you to frame your application to speak to the specific funding opportunity, but also the wider organisation and context.

Funding timetable and processes
Funding opportunities will usually have a submission deadline (a date by which you should apply). Funders will also outline the applications process, which may come in several stages (e.g. expression of interest, full application, panel interview).

List of previously funded projects
Funders should provide publicly available information about research projects and organisation that have previously been awarded funding. It can be useful to review this list to understand who and what the funder has funded in the past. Previous awardees may also have produced testimonials to describe their experiences of applying for funding, you may find it helpful to review these.

In addition to these activities, you may find it helpful to engage with your local research network (research and development offices in the NHS, academic departments) to identify researchers that have previously applied for the funding you are intending to. Previous applicants may be able to provide feedback on their own experiences.

Developing your funding application

When developing your funding application ensure that you have given yourself and others, if working as part of a team or expecting feedback, sufficient time to write your application. Remember to identify if the funding opportunity that you intend to apply for has a deadline date. The time it takes to develop a funding application will vary depending on the application process and scale of the proposed research. It is not uncommon for a funding application to take several months to prepare. Plan as far ahead as you can – do not leave it all to the last minute!

As suggested above, it is useful when first developing a funding application to write a short summary (500-1000 words) to describe your research project. This document will provide a useful framework from which you can develop your thinking and a foundation on which to draft your full application. A short summary is also a useful resource when inviting others, such as subject matter experts, who may be able to provide feedback to further refine your thinking and your application.

Below we provide some helpful tips on the sorts of things that funding application reviewers will look when reviewing funding application. Incorporating these tips into your funding application could enhance your chances of success, though success is never guaranteed. A good application will usually satisfy the following things:

Theme Detail
Clarity Writing funding applications is a skill. Ensure that you take time to review, reflect and gather feedback from others on your application. It is vital that your research is explained clearly in your application, using the appropriate level of language. Many funding applications ask for scientific and plain English summaries of the proposed research. Seek out relevant and appropriate people to review your writing to assess clarity.
Credibility The credibility of the lead applicant, the team and the wider organisation(s) will be examined by reviewers. A reviewer may consider whether or not the applicant(s) has sufficient expertise and capability to deliver the research as proposed. If you are in the early stages of your research career, then you need to ensure that you have experienced people around you to support your application. Other people can be named on your application either as joint or co-applicants, collaborators or advisors; check the submission guidelines.
Collaboration Collaboration with other individuals, groups and organisations may be expected by funders, particularly where a research topic crosses interdisciplinary boundaries. It is therefore vital to establish positive and mutual collaborations with other key stakeholders. Selecting the ‘right’ stakeholders is important as is describing the role of each collaborator in the proposed research. Take some time to identify and make contact with subject matter experts who can advise and support you to develop your funding application.
Feasibility Reviewers will assess whether the proposed research is feasible. The plan of work, the intended milestones (progress objectives) and the proposed timeframe for completion of a piece of research all therefore need to be realistic and achievable.
Justification Suitable evidence should be presented to justify the proposed research against all the dimensions in this table. The scientific merit of the proposed research should be justified by published evidence (e.g. citing relevant literature rather than individually-held opinions). A justification of costs will usually form part of the application. This provides applicants with an opportunity to explain why certain items (e.g. staff costs, research costs, materials) are being requested.
Potential for Impact A reviewer may consider the potential impact that a piece of research can achieve. This may include impact on the public (service users, caregivers), professional practice, policy, or the academic community (refer to week 8 for further consideration of research impact). Whilst all original research should generate opportunities to achieve impact, some types of research and topic areas may generate greater impact than others.
Value Value for money is a key aspect of any review process. Reviewers will assess how much funding is being requested and what will be delivered for the money in terms of outputs and potential impact. Beyond economic value, it is crucial that your application reflects the values and ethos of the funder. Engage with information about the funder (e.g. website, policy documents, submission guidelines) to understand what the funder values.

Following the tips described above will help increase your chances of success when applying for funding.

Patient and public involvement in research is increasingly becoming a required aspect of any health and social care research application. Learn more about patient and public involvement in research in week 7.

Further reading

NIHR Making a strong application:

Wellcome: How to write a Wellcome grant application

© Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust
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