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Social science steps up


The ESRC is looking to boost researchers’ influence on environmental action

The Access project, which started in 2022, is a five-year climate and environment initiative funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. On 8 March, it opened applications to the first round of grants from its Flex Fund.

The fund will support initiatives that advance the impact of the social sciences in support of sustainability, biodiversity and the net zero transition.

A total of £1 million is available, with around £250,000 to be disbursed in the first round. Between 8 and 10 grants of up to £30,000 (funded at 100 per cent of the full economic cost) will be awarded for projects lasting for 3 to 12 months. Bids led by early career social scientists are encouraged. The deadline is 23 June.

Larger-scale applications to the fund will follow in the second round. Applicants at that stage will not be limited to grantees from the first round, although Access says that “round two can offer a pathway to larger grant funding for project ideas that are funded in round one”.

Patrick Devine-Wright, professor of geography at the University of Exeter and director of Access, discusses the ins and outs of the call.

How should people view the Flex Fund?

It’s not substantially about creating new knowledge; it’s more about what happens next after knowledge has been created via research. This call is looking for new ideas—risky, exciting proposals—that might create frameworks or tools or build new networks to develop impactful visibility of social science on environmental problems. That includes within policy.

When policymakers in the global north are opening new fossil fuel concessions, against the evidence given to them by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, what avenues for impact remain unexplored? 

To give one example, the diversity of social science expertise isn’t well connected to networks of decision-makers. People might know an excellent economist or be aware of some behavioural science, but there’s much more to the social sciences, across anthropology, sociology and human geography. To what extent are stakeholders aware of that multiplicity?

Also, we’re not looking for small, incremental contributions to current approaches; we’re looking for something that’s a bit more of a departure. That is, radical transformations of existing practices, ways of thinking and tools. I would stress being innovative and ambitious. These might look like small projects but this kind of scheme, which prioritises networks, provides the opportunity to think big. 

What else will you look for in bids?

There must be genuine collaboration visible in the application. That’s one of our guiding principles in the Access network for how social science should operate in relation to environmental problems—we’re talking about co-production, hence the emphasis on collaborative submissions.

Our second principle is sustainability, so we’re not looking for proposals that involve, say, long-haul flights to the west coast of the US.

The third relates to equality, diversity and inclusion. We want proposals to be diverse and we’re assessing bids accordingly. We use blind peer review, for example, and early career researchers were involved in the call’s creation and will be involved in the assessment process.

Tell me more about the blind peer review.

We are doing this because we’re less interested in what people have done before; we’re interested in what they want to do in the future. The best way to assess that is to ignore labels, signifiers and what university you’re from. We’re therefore asking applicants to avoid personal labelling in the proposal.

Is there a preference for older, established partnerships?

We will be looking for evidence of genuine collaboration in working up the bid, but we don’t expect early career researchers to have developed significant networks already. It makes sense to build on pre-existing collaborations where they fit, but that won’t be a condition for funding. If applicants can show strong engagement from partners, that’s enough. 

We’re using matchmaking tools to help and enable collaborations between organisations or individuals or disciplines, so people should look out for that.

Also, this scheme isn’t just about ties with external stakeholders; it can include ties with academics from different disciplinary backgrounds.

What advice do you have for the younger researchers who will be leading on bids?

We’re deliberately giving people a longer run-up to the deadline, so make good use of the time you have. Early career applicants may be unfamiliar with many aspects of leading bids. Working through the finance aspects, conversations with research support staff, partnership building—these things are necessary and take time.

We have tried to make the application form as short and accessible as possible, but it is often harder to write a shorter proposal because of the need to distil your ideas and, in this case, hit the five key criteria on which we will judge the call. Again, that will take time—so start early. 

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