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Opportunity profile: Move fast to combat modern slavery

Image: Alan Levine [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

An AHRC rapid-response scheme will examine the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery

Top tips:

  • Applicants are encouraged to submit their proposals as soon as possible
  • Bids must be collaborative with teams drawn from across and outside research organisations
  • Impact is of paramount importance
  • Reviewers will include practitioners and policymakers so make sure your bid speaks to their needs too

The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre is inviting bids to help discern how the Covid-19 pandemic affects modern slavery and how policy might respond to that challenge. Grants are worth up to £150,000, at 80 per cent of full economic cost, over six months. As the scheme is tied to the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic, there is no deadline and projects should not run beyond March 2021.

Laura Mason, head of public policy at the AHRC, explains why impact is of paramount importance in this scheme.

Can you introduce the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre for those who may be less familiar with it?

It was set up with £10 million from UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund with the aim of enhancing our understanding of modern slavery as well as informing and enhancing the policy response to it. The centre brings together academics, policymakers, businesses, civil society and survivors on a scale we haven’t seen before.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected its work?

We have been hearing from researchers and frontline workers of the impact that Covid-19 is having on modern slavery and the fight against it. Lockdown is thought to be affecting the movement of victims and resulting in fewer people coming forward. There has also been a drop in referrals of victims to support services through the Home Office’s national referral mechanism which again is thought to be linked to Covid-19 but we don’t know for sure. As a result, we thought it was important to get more evidence on the interaction between Covid-19 and modern slavery.

What is the aim of this specific call?

The call has three aims. First, we want to identify new vulnerabilities to modern slavery that might be emerging as a result of Covid-19 and the changes it has caused to the international labour market. Secondly, we are looking to investigate the effectiveness of support services provided to victims, how these might have had to change or adapt during the pandemic and what this means for survivors. Finally, we want to identify opportunities for international cooperation that might address the health risks posed by trafficking through displaced communities and humanitarian settings in particular. It is really important that this research has real impact so the aim is to collaborate from the outset with NGOs, survivors and government, as well as the usual academic channels.

Are there any domains within modern slavery that you are particularly keen to see examined?

No, we are open to applications to investigate pretty much any live and pressing issue of modern slavery providing there is a clear and recognised need for research. We’ve got no borders around interdisciplinarity either. What matters is that the research works and that they are relevant and actionable to our main audiences, so policymakers and legislators. We want bids to be collaborative with teams drawn from across and outside the research organisations. We are particularly keen to see proposals that engage non-academic partners with relevant expertise from the outset.

On what criteria are applications assessed?

We have six specific criteria. We will be looking at topicality; the bid must examine a live and pressing issue in the modern slavery landscape. We are also looking for relevance; it must be relevant and useful to our main stakeholders—policymakers, legislators, society, international organisations and so on. It should also be collaborative. We’re also looking for evidence of outreach; bids that engage with relevant non-academic partners for the lifespan of the project from the outset. Most importantly, we are looking for impact on the modern slavery landscape. Finally, it needs additionality; in other words, it must only be possible with funding assistance from us.

What are your top tips for applicants?

First, the sooner you get your proposal in the better with this one. We are looking to turn around our reviews as quickly as possible because we know that this research is needed now. Second, make the most of the opportunity for a really interdisciplinary bid. Think creatively about what methods and approaches are most appropriate to the problem and what expertise from within and beyond academia you can bring along. Third, reviewers will include both practitioners and policymakers so work to make sure the bid speaks to their needs as well as the requirements for quality and value for money that academic reviewers will expect to see.

Does the fact that you’re looking for projects that can start soon have any other implications?

Yes, there is no definitive deadline because we don’t know how long the pandemic is going to last. But what I would say is that the funding should be used within this financial year so we wouldn’t expect proposals to be continued beyond March 2021.

Are there any potential pitfalls for applicants?

I can’t stress enough that this scheme is about impact. If you are not demonstrating impact beyond academia at an early stage then your bid will struggle to compete. Equally, we are looking for proposals that can influence change throughout the life of the project using briefings, blogs and regular updates. That said, proposals that overpromise should be avoided. Think about what is achievable with such a small-scale, short-term award. We’ve got other funding mechanisms available for work that might require a larger award and longer time frame, such as our Support for Victims and Survivors of Modern Slavery scheme. So be realistic in your ambitions.

What level of experience do you expect from applicants?

Our principal investigators should be of postdoctoral standing at least. It’s important that they demonstrate the ability to lead and manage a project of the scale they propose and ideally have some experience in doing so. Co-investigators can be from academic or non-academic organisations but if they are academic, we would ideally want them to be of postdoctoral standing also. However, they can be a new investigator. In all cases, we are looking for principals to find opportunities to involve early-career colleagues—including doctoral students where appropriate.

How many awards do you intend to make?

At this stage we don’t know precisely. The number of awards we give out is going to depend on the number of applications we receive and also how long the pandemic continues to influence the modern slavery landscape. I can say that we’ve seen strong interest—especially among our NGO partners who are keen to see work done in this space.