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Support for applications will make research more equitable


British Academy scheme will target hidden costs that block access to funding, says Simon Swain

The relentless cycle of grant applications, oscillating unpredictably between rejection and success, is a professional peculiarity of academic life. The time commitment required to complete just one grant application is significant—estimates put it at up to several working weeks. But for some researchers, the process carries a hidden financial burden.

For instance, an applicant who has caring responsibilities will face a distinct set of time and resource constraints compared with one who doesn’t have those pressures. A researcher living with sensory impairments may benefit from help to navigate the grant application system. Costs such as these may be a barrier to applying for funding. Particularly in the current economic climate, the expenses and opportunity costs associated with application processes are keenly felt. 

Eliminating disparities

As funders, we must strive to eliminate these disparities in opportunity. No one should be disadvantaged because of circumstances beyond their control.

The British Academy has been looking at how best to tackle these financial inequities. This is why, from 16 February, we are introducing a new £100,000 fund to provide additional support. The fund is open to existing award holders, to ensure that costs for things such as childcare or assistance do not come out of their overall research award. 

Crucially, it is also open to potential applicants. From application to award, and throughout a grant’s duration, our aim is to make the academy’s research funding inclusive to the broadest possible pool of eligible researchers.

The new scheme was conceived in 2020 by a working group tasked with making recommendations for best practice across the academy’s research funding programmes. Since then, there has been much effort behind the scenes to turn those recommendations into action; the launch of this fund signals a milestone in that work.

The initiative is part of the academy’s effort to extend our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion beyond rhetoric and into practice. It builds on recent work, such as a trial of partial randomisation in our Small Research Grants selection process and our partnership in the EDI Caucus, a £3.4 million initiative tasked with identifying, assessing and sharing EDI best practice in the UK’s research and development landscape, and “building an evidence base of what enables marginalised researchers and innovators to thrive in their careers”.

To ensure the new support has the flexibility to adapt to researchers’ needs, the academy will gather feedback during an initial pilot phase and use this to shape the scheme’s future.

The scheme will remain open on a rolling basis for applicants, who must be either planning to, or are in the process of, applying for academy funding, or already hold an award. A review committee will turn applications around in 4-6 weeks; those approved will be confirmed by the British Academy’s research committee. 

Applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis. There is currently no upper limit on how much an individual can request to cover their needs; the fund is there to be used.

We hope this scheme will help alleviate unfair financial burdens on those ­under-represented in the current system. Breaking away from unequal practices in the research community will require taking risks and embracing bold initiatives. 

Simon Swain is vice-president for research and higher education policy at the British Academy and professor of classics and vice-president for engagement at the University of Warwick

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight