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Five signs of an unhealthy bid

Why prevention is better than cure

I am a site lead in Kent for the National Institute for Health Research’s Research Design Service South East. Translated into acrynomic, I’m SL for the NIHR RDSSE. Translated into English, this means I assist health and social care researchers who are looking to improve or sharpen their NIHR bids or to get advice on previously unsuccessful ones.

This means I’ve become familiar with the most common mistakes in proposals. These are mostly preventable, so I present this list of the five main ones like a dentist telling you to floss, or your GP saying you should get some exercise. I’m being annoying but it’s for your own good.

1. Unfocused aims 

Any misalignment in the trinity of aims, objectives and research questions can sink a bid. Frequent missteps include the specific aims being unfocused and goals unclear, and the objectives being overly ambitious, with far too much work proposed within the project timeframe.

Similarly, research questions that are ill defined leave panel assessors with little understanding of what the study aims to answer. Selecting a research question can be time-consuming in health research, but it is essential. Clinical studies usually have an overall primary research question, with attendant secondary research. Demonstrating how the two are connected is key to conveying what your study seeks to address.

Feedback on research questions from colleagues, both within and outside your area of expertise, is essential. But you must also look beyond colleagues: you cannot prioritise the issues that are important to patients without their input.

2. The wrong team

Funding applications that lack involvement from the relevant disciplinary or specialty experts will not go far. Early career healthcare researchers have the capability to develop a technique or intervention—nobody doubts this—but it is paramount that they demonstrate they are working in an environment that can support their study to completion, and that experts will provide supervision and feedback when needed.

Leading collaborators are most commonly involved as joint lead co-applicants, consultants or members of the study’s steering committee. Their commitment to the study must be demonstrable and their time and resources suitably costed. Funding committees are intensely alert to distinguished academics being included on a bid with next to no evidence of their involvement when they have been invited to fulfil the need for a ‘big name’ to lend credence to the proposal.

3. Patient benefit not explained

Grant applicants advocating the use of a novel intervention simply cannot assume the funding committee will be bowled over by the promise of a snazzy treatment. You must explain the improvements in clinical outcomes and consider the wider benefits to patients and the NHS. This all requires solid rationale.

Remember that while patient benefit may appear self-evident to you, it can be considerably less so to an external reviewer. Showing that the study idea was developed and designed with strong public and patient involvement can go a long way to closing this gap. Ensuring that the public and patients continue to be involved over the life course of the project also sends a clear message that patient benefit is embedded throughout.

4. Lack of future trajectory

Despite the limitations of some application forms, when applying for smaller pots of money such as seed funding it is worth setting out what the next steps for your research will be should your project prove successful. It’s also important to outline how you would measure success or failure with your study—or in clinical trial terms, your ‘stop-go criteria’—to help decide whether that next step is warranted.

5. Budget not justified

Budgeting is a major undertaking. It usually requires costs from different partners—NHS bodies, academic institutions, commercial partners—and the funding rationales for each organisation can differ. It is worth ensuring that their finance teams are in communication to pull together costs, and you should build in extra time to revisit the budget before submission. 

The ‘justification of costs’ section on a grant form is often mistakenly completed with a breakdown of costs, rather than a rationale outlining the reasons for requesting the funds. This section requires information on staff time—who and how much as full-time equivalents—and what the non-staff budget will be spent on, plus an explanation of what the estates and indirect costs are. After all the hard work that goes into any grant application, it would be a massive shame to drop the ball on this last section. Remember this warning! 

Ferhana Hashem is a reader in health services research at the University of Kent and site lead for the NIHR Research Design Service South East

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