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Hassle-free funding

Image: Pietro Tranchida [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

How can we all help calls be as applicant-friendly as possible?

In the previous edition of Research Fortnight, I discussed how the government might best fulfil its desire to reduce the administrative burden on researchers applying for funding. Now, I want to examine what those of us involved in shaping funding calls can do. 

These tips are for anybody with any say in how a call might run, whether you’re overseeing an internal university pump-priming grant or giving input into a major international scheme. They are based on my experiences as both funding poacher and gamekeeper; I’ve supported researchers in applying for internal and external funding, organised selection processes and served as a patient representative on a National Institute for Health Research panel.

Success rates

What’s a good success rate for your scheme? Too low means wasted effort. Too high risks funding poor-quality science. For an internal university scheme, I would expect success rates to be high: ideally at least 50 per cent.

For any scheme, if success rates dip below 33 per cent then something probably needs to be done. This could be as simple as adding better guidance about goals and expectations to help applicants self-filter their ideas; or perhaps introducing an outline stage, tighter eligibility criteria or more informal conversations prior to application. You could also provide more but smaller awards—or find more money.

If success rates climb higher than 75 per cent and you’re starting to worry about quality, you could attract more applications by relaxing eligibility criteria, raising the funding award limit and publicising the high success rate. But if the quality is high, why not fund them all?

Fewer questions

Ask lots of questions and you’ll get lots of repetition—either direct cutting and pasting or reiterations of the same content. Instead, I’d advise giving applicants as much freedom as possible to use the available space to their best advantage. Set a total page limit for a core case for support, rather than having lots of separate questions with individual word counts. However, a steer in the form of suggested (or compulsory) section headings is required to help researchers give the information that reviewers will need. Without this steer, researchers with less experience will find the application harder to write and may default to journal-style academic writing.

Specific sections 

If a particular question is crucial to funding decisions or to the goals of the scheme, it’s worth including a specific section with a protected word count. This is especially worthwhile if you want applicants to be more specific on that point, or if you want to highlight its importance to the call. Otherwise, it’s probably not worth it. 

If you do include specific sections, try to incorporate the guidance notes into the form so that everything is in one document. State the question in one box, offer brief guidance in another, and have one below for the response. Don’t put the guidance in the response box in italics, because it will be deleted as soon as the applicant starts writing. And of course, avoid ambiguous or misleading questions and be strict about any word or page counts you set.

Secondary review stage

You could consider postponing project management information and detailed costings to a ‘secondary review’ stage, which would take place after a decision to fund in principle has been made by the panel. On the one hand, project management and costings speak to the feasibility of a project. On the other, it might be more efficient to view these as vital parts of pre-project planning, to be undertaken just before the start of the project, rather than as less interesting elements of a bid.

The first page

Reviewers should be able to pick up an application form and see the most important info—title, applicant details, lay summary—on the first page.

Unnecessary information

An internal form I completed recently asked for my full name, email address, job title, payroll number and department. No need. At least three of those are unique identifiers within my organisation. Also, don’t ask for any information on the application form that could be more efficiently provided on a two-page CV, and if letters of support are not important to your decision-making processes, just ask for a tick-box confirmation of support from the relevant person. 

Get feedback

Before launching your form, send it to a small number of potential applicants, as well as reviewers, panel members and research development managers. To be an effective funding gamekeeper, you need the perspective of a poacher.

Adam Golberg is research development manager (charities) at the University of Nottingham

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com.