Advice on applying to funding schemes, by Dr Claire McNulty

The following article was written for Research Fortnight by Dr Claire McNulty, Director Science and Research at the British Council, and provides advice on applying to funding schemes with particular relevance to the current call for workshop proposals under Researcher Links. This article first appeared in Funding Insight on March 18, 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

Funding for international collaborations

Collaborating internationally, or spending some time on a research visit abroad, can be very beneficial to a researcher’s career. As well as the added impact and reach that internationally authored articles garner, a period spent abroad can give researchers access to expertise, facilities, and research environments that significantly broaden their experience and networks and, particularly for early career researchers, support their career development. A recent report commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills showed not only that a large percentage (72%) of UK researchers had been internationally mobile over the period 1996-2012, but also that internationally mobile researchers are relatively more productive.

There are a wide variety of funding sources for international collaboration – a good place to start looking is the Euraxess website (www.euraxess.org.uk), which has a searchable funding database for international opportunities – but once you have identified a potential source of funding, how should you go about writing the ideal application? One scheme which the British Council has recently launched, in partnership with research councils and funders in many countries all over the world, is the Researcher Links initiative, which focusses on providing opportunities for researchers to make links via workshops and travel grants. This can provide a potential springboard for future collaborations, and below are a few tips for researchers wanting to apply for funding under this, or similar schemes:

Read the guidelines carefully!

It sounds simple, but it’s surprising how many people don’t seem to do this. Read all the guidance notes before starting your application and if there are eligibility criteria, make sure that you meet these, or you will be wasting your time in applying. If there are priority research areas, consider whether your work can fit into these, or how you could adapt it if possible by making new interdisciplinary connections. Under Researcher Links we often encourage interdisciplinary connections, but these need to be for a real added value, not just as a box-ticking exercise. 

If something is not clear – then ask for advice.

Unfortunately, it’s also true that sometimes guidelines are unclear or have a degree of ambiguity. This could be because the various eventualities, or different interpretations, have not been considered by the authors of the guidelines, or there could be a deliberate flexibility built in. In either case it is best to ask for guidance directly from the funder and in many cases there will be an email address, or contact number which you can get in touch with to answer any questions. For Researcher Links we have a dedicated email address for enquiries of this nature, and we want to ensure the highest possible number of quality applications.

Understand the motivation of the funder, and design your project and write your proposal accordingly.

Sometimes schemes which look similar from the outside may have different end goals and desired outcomes. For instance, one travel grant scheme may be focussed on enhancing the excellence of UK researchers through access to the best facilities or field study opportunities overseas, whilst another may be focussed on building up relationships for longer term collaborations, and mutual benefit for both the UK and the partner country. The Researcher Links initiative is firmly in the latter arena, and so when thinking about applying for a travel grant you should design a project with this in mind, and emphasise the mutual benefit and capacity building aspects of your research visit. Research visits which are just about field work and do not bring any benefit to the partner country, or lead to longer term relationships, are unlikely to be funded. For the workshops strand, where the applications must come jointly from senior researchers (one UK; one partner country), it is important to understand that the goal of the workshops is not simply about sharing research with other senior researchers, or indeed about a standard research seminar with a one way flow of information from senior to junior researchers. Rather, the focus should be on capacity building of early career researchers, and providing a space for them to share their research, build their skills for working internationally, and establish links for the future.

Make sure the objectives of your proposals are realistic and feasible.

Very often funders receive project proposal that are excellent in terms of the research quality but that stand no chance of being funded simply because they are overambitious and not commensurate to the grant offered. It is important to keep an eye on the longer term plans, but at the same time it is essential to think about feasible and realistic objectives that can be achieved within the requested budget and the lifetime of the grant. This does mean that only proposals with an appropriate budget and achievable goals are likely to be funded. For example, you might want to request funds for a preparatory project/activity that will lead to a larger and more ambitious project. Competition for funding high, and funders want to make sure that their money is spent well! 

Think about the lay reader and the bigger picture.

Often researchers become so absorbed in their own area that they forget to think about or articulate the bigger picture. If a section in a proposal asks for a lay-person’s summary, try to ensure that this really is understandable to someone outside of research (you could try it out on a friend or family member…). These summaries need to get across the idea that your research is important, whether it is about pure ‘discovery’ science, which pushes the boundaries of human knowledge, or more applied research which has the potential for societal or economic benefit down the line. There’s no need for hyperbole, or making wild claims about solving world hunger as an outcome of a three month research visit, but a simple explanation of how your research project will advance knowledge or create impact is often essential. For Researcher Links, in many countries we have priority areas which have been identified by our partner countries as important for their development, and a concrete explanation of how your work fits within these priority areas and will support the development of the partner country will greatly enhance your chance of success.

Think about the long term plan.

Most funders want to see the benefits last beyond the lifetime of the project. Particularly for things like travel grants and workshops, which happen over a short period, it is important to think about the longer term plan, and how you will ensure the sustainability of any links or collaborations that have been catalysed by the funded activity. For the Researcher Links travel grants we are looking for proposals which demonstrate that the applicants have investigated the potential ‘next steps’ in a collaboration; this could be through identifying potential sources of funding to bid for longer term collaborations, or embedding links within an institutional strategy for example. We want our funding to be the ‘first rung on the ladder’, and to know that you have thought about how to make the next steps.

Dissemination of results is important!

This is always true, also when funders do not explicitly request a dissemination plan. It is important to demonstrate that a wider group of people will benefit from the results of your project. Think about how you can maximise the impact of your research, how your project can trigger further activities carried out by others and how you can reach out to the people and organisations the results of your projects may be interesting and relevant to. Funders want to make sure that they generate benefits beyond the duration and the direct beneficiaries of the project.

Don’t get discouraged if you are unsuccessful!

The success rates for different schemes vary enormously, but don’t get discouraged if you don’t get selected. If possible ask for feedback, as this could help you improve your next submission to the same or similar schemes. 

 If you would like to know more about the Researcher Links initiative, visit our webpages or contact us via email. The 2014 call for proposals is now open - see here for the guidelines.