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UKRI asks how research itself could be improved

UK Research and Innovation’s Metascience Research Grants are part of the UK government’s drive to build a more evidence-based approach to science—a drive that was spurred by Paul Nurse’s independent review of UK research published last year.

The scheme is open now and has £5 million to disburse for projects that can inform and improve research and development practice and policy. Groups and individuals can apply for up to £300,000, funded by UKRI at 80 per cent of full economic cost, for projects lasting up to two years. International collaboration is encouraged.

Although this is a call that draws heavily on social science, UKRI has specified that it welcomes applications from those who have not previously held Economic and Social Research Council grants. The deadline is 16 July.

Stian Westlake, executive chair of the ESRC, shares some pointers for applicants.

How wide is the scope of the Metascience Research Grants? 

We do specify some areas where we’re inviting proposals. But we’ve also said to propose innovative research outside these areas, as long as applicants can explain how their area links back to those specified—there are seven areas in all.

What kinds of project do you envisage supporting?

We want projects that have the potential to inform science policy or funding practice, agencies and research organisations. We’re not just looking for good research but rather a pathway to impact.

We want to see projects that involve collaboration between researchers and organisations, although this isn’t mandatory. We’re particularly looking for organisations that want to modify their practices based on the research, which will most readily apply to research or funding organisations. 

Why are collaborations between UK-based and international researchers encouraged?  

As metascience is such a rapidly changing and evolving field in the UK and elsewhere, there is a great opportunity to encourage international collaboration. 

While there are some questions within social science where local and national context really matters, others are a lot more generalisable. We think there are some interesting potentially generalisable lessons in metascience to be learned from other countries. We’re hoping to identify things that will be scalable and allow researchers and organisations to build on existing partnerships. 

How are grants assessed?  

There are a few criteria: the vision; the approach taken; the applicant team’s capability to deliver; the path to impact; the resources and justification, with value for money obviously important; and ethics, involving responsible research and innovation. We’re recruiting an expert panel to assess applications against the criteria, and they will rank applications and then make funding recommendations.

Is the funding limit flexible?

For the time being, that’s a hard limit. But we hope this is just the beginning of funding in this area. I’d also specify that the £300,000 limit comprises up to £200,000 for UK costs plus up to £100,000 for international collaborative activities or international partnership applications, which must be within the same application. 

Why is UKRI favouring social science methods? 

We are certainly open to a whole range of scientific methods. But social sciences have a big role to play in research on metascience or innovation studies and can inform disciplines that have been working in this area already. The key to strong methodology revolves around inquiry and interviews, and there are interesting things being done in social science there.

What is your top-line advice for applicants? 

Really take to heart the idea of applied rigorous research to inform science policy, funding practices or research practices. Think hard about your audience and what will be novel and transformative for them.

Why might applications get knocked back?

A good thing to look out for is the lessons learned from our Covid grants call, which we’ve published. That was a call that had similar goals to support relatively short-term projects. 

For example, some projects that got knocked back failed to explain why a funder or research organisation should pay attention to the research gap identified. So there was an impact barrier in those projects. Conversely, the strong proposals in that scheme tended to work backwards from a real problem and then design research to address it.

Another thing we saw in some of the weaker proposals was that they often listed research activity milestones that didn’t really explain how the project would deliver impact within the timescale.

This seems like an important scheme for UKRI.

Yes, we’re really excited by it. As UKRI, we’re a funder of £8 billion of research. We want to ensure that with schemes like this, when lessons emerge, we take them on board and share them with other funders. 

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