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Internal Covid-19 funding: Short deadlines all round

A university funder and grantee on the pressures of quick bids and processes

Top tips:

  • Projects submitted to rapid-response funding schemes must be simple and should rely on the applicant’s core expertise.
  • The support and expertise of the team is paramount—no matter how simple the project there will always be elements and requirements that need checking thoroughly.
  • Ensure you know the submission requirements of the bid very well at the start.

In common with many other universities in the UK, the University of Bristol unlocked its funding coffers in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The university’s Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research launched a scheme in March for researchers at the university to apply for funds of between £500 to £5,000 to support coronavirus-related projects.

Emma Anderson (pictured above), a senior research associate in health psychology, was part of the scheme’s first batch of grant recipients, while Rachael Gooberman-Hill, director of the institute, helped construct the scheme. Here both discuss their experiences operating under tight deadlines.

Interview: Emma Anderson

Tell me about your research.

I’m a health psychologist by background. I work in the Centre for Academic Child Health at the Bristol Medical School. I worked at Bristol University for a year on child studies looking at behavioural and psychological interventions. I research chronic fatigue syndrome and vaccine uptake. I’m interested in behavioural science and development and testing of interventions to improve people’s experiences in clinical care health, generally in the NHS.

Why did you decide to apply for this grant?

When the pandemic happened I was able to do my research from home. I wanted to do something helpful and apply my research skills. The whole Covid-19 situation is something we haven’t seen before. I thought—this is huge and so much of it is about behaviour. Then I saw the call come out. I sent a message to my group to ask if anyone would be interested in putting together a proposal, so a small group of us put our heads together.

What got you started on the idea?

Vulnerable groups in the pandemic had been identified: elderly people, people with certain health conditions, and pregnant women. I wondered what it’s like being in one of those categories and being asked to do social distancing. I was interested in what was being asked of people, how easy it is for them to adhere to recommendations, what sort of impact this has on them.

How much time did you have to put the bid together?

The email went around a couple of weeks before the deadline, which was on 25 March, and I got my team together a week or less before it. We had videoconference meetings and whipped together a quick application. It was the quickest application I’ve ever been part of. It’s testament to people stepping up, working to turn things around quickly—the people I emailed jumped at the chance to do this and most of us are offering time for free.

When did you learn you had won?

We found out ten days after applying. We were one of 25 projects. Again, I’ve never been part of something that’s been so successful so quickly.

What was it like constructing a bid at short notice?

A challenge. We were so eager to get this going because we wanted to get into this while it was all happening. It’s a changing situation and we didn’t want to miss the chance. The downside is, we were trying to do everything so quickly we didn’t have the luxury of time to sit down and check everything. The ethical review did point out a typo here or there.

Was it an active choice to do this research without partnering with the NHS?

Yes. We’re used to doing research in the NHS and going through NHS channels. But we didn’t want to burden any people in NHS at this time, and also doing this alone made applying faster. We just needed a university ethics review to do the project.

How long was the application? What were the parts?

It was a simple form—about four pages of filling in boxes, basically to outline objectives, plan, outputs, list people involved and a timetable. We also had to fill in an ethics document and provide material, for instance consent forms, and send that in for review. We had to have ethics approval and insurance in place before getting going. Our finances also had to be approved by a finance team. Once we had the grant offer, we had to provide a timetable and a couple more documents, and then they approved the grant for us. Fortunately, we had a lot of documents from previous applications that we could adapt and draw on, so it wasn’t like writing it from scratch.

What did you find most challenging?

Our project timeframe was somewhat unknown. We were ambitious with our timing saying we could put the project together quickly and have rapid output. We’re not far off the mark, as we’ve now collected all our data. We’ve interviewed 31 women in two weeks and are producing summary results. Timing has been the main factor in this for all of us, because a lot of us are doing this around other commitments and still want to produce something timely and useful.

Do you hope to get a paper out of this?

That’s the plan, but £5,000 wouldn’t cover a publication fee. However, I think we’ll be able to find other money to cover that. We’re producing a detailed qualitative analysis, but it will take a couple of months to get that to a point where we can publish.

Do you have any tips for others putting together an application on fly?

Be careful about processes and check you’re not missing any steps. For instance, one of things we hadn’t factored in is that we needed a university insurance letter. Since we were speaking to pregnant women, the study fell into a slightly different category there, which could have tripped us up. You need to make sure that if there are any items to check off, you do them right away so the ball can get rolling from the start. We had to wait one or two days because of that initial oversight.

With such tight deadlines, it helps to have strong experience in your team. However simple you may think your project is, checks and advice from support people will always be valuable.

Do you think this experience will change your approach to other applications or the speed at which you can turn them around?

You can’t rush a complex controlled trial intervention or clinical intervention, so I wouldn’t want to do anything more involved in such short timeframe. Our study for this grant was fairly simple and we had experience in these areas, so we felt well-equipped to turn this around quickly. Similarly, I was impressed by all the dedicated support we received from the funder and research support team and others in the process. I wouldn’t want to expect that level of dedication in any grant—it really is unique to this situation, I wouldn’t want to shift expectation on people to work in their free time.

Do you think this sort of call may lead to a more streamlined grant application process in the future?

I do wonder if this whole process has made people review what is actually necessary in terms of applications and processes. I wonder if there might be some general learning about cutting out any unnecessary middle steps. It might be that we all collectively learn to be more efficient.


Interview: Rachael Gooberman-Hill

How many applications did you receive to this call?

We received more than 50 applications initially. We’ve kept the call open on a rolling basis and have now been able to support 40 projects representing disciplines across the university. We’ve funded lab work on testing and social science research, as well as projects from the engineering department and anthropological studies.

What did the selection process look like?

It’s important to get the discipline mix right. We set up a peer review panel of experts from different disciplines and faculties at the university. They reviewed applications and scored according to criteria on our site. After the initial call, we held a panel meeting and made final decisions. When we continued the call on a rolling basis, we allocated each incoming application to expert peer reviewers.

Did you lighten the process to accommodate short deadlines?

We streamlined the application form, leaving the core questions only and reducing the maximum wordcount for each of the sections. We wanted to give researchers the greatest chance to tell us about a good idea without them spending weeks designing the narrative. We thought that a shorter application form would still give researchers space to tell us about a project and give the required amount of detail to peer reviewers.

Was the peer review process any different from what you’d usually do?

It was as we would normally do but quicker. We did have to rely on peer reviewers to do the work quickly, which they very kindly did. To help, we gave them advance notice of when to expect review.

Do you consider this scheme as providing seed funding for bids to the research councils or larger funders?

Yes, it can do. It supports standalone projects but it’s also priming projects that will be able to move forward to larger research projects and applications to external funders. We assess the projects on their impact, so we were looking for things that would make a difference quickly.

Is there a possibility the call will be extended?

At the moment, the call is open on a rolling basis. Since the initial deadline in March we’ve kept it open. We’re thinking hard about how we help support research focus on the future.