Thoughts and advice from a Newton Fund panel reviewer

Dr Adam Taylor shares what the British Council panel reviewers look for in applications to the Newton Fund

As researchers, we’ve all been at meetings/conferences and met people who would be interesting collaborators, but for a variety of reasons it just isn’t feasible; costs, distance, or just an appropriate funding stream that provides the opportunity. The Newton Fund presents these opportunities, to engage in research and build long term collaborative links that benefit all involved, with the ultimate goal of aiding those most in need in developing countries.

As a reviewer for the British Council on their biomed review panel, I wanted to share my thoughts and insights which hopefully provide practical advice to those thinking of applying.

What’s it all about.

The Newton fund is all about bringing scientists together from 16 partner countries to work with UK counterparts, and build collaborative projects that promote the economic development and social welfare of the partner countries. It is managed by the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, and delivered through 15 UK delivery partners, including the British Council.

There is something for everyone.

Whether you’re a PhD student looking to add a collaborative/overseaes aspect to your project, an early career researcher looking to build a collaborative network, or an experienced researcher wanting to collaborate and exchange knowledge with other like-minded scientists; the Newton Fund has a strand for you to apply to. 

What are the reviewers looking for?

It varies, however there are some common themes that appear throughout which I will attempt to summarise here.

  1. Who benefits from the project? Is it relevant to economic development and social welfare?

    The underlying aim of the Newton Fund is to support research that has the ability to lead to a positive impact on the lives of people on low incomes, and contribute to the economic development and social welfare of the partner country in a reasonable timeframe.This criteria is potentially one of the weakest areas that applicants score in, either because it is not clearly articulated in their application how they are going to do this, or they just don’t articulate it at all.

    As reviewers we are realistic about the science and research contained in the application, and we don’t expect that they will right all of the existing problems overnight. However, a plausible pathway will contain details that suggest that both the UK and partner country applicants have a clear understanding of the size of the problem that they are trying to address, and how their research and results will lead to change and improvements. Again, “realistically” is the keyword, the timeframe for these benefits to work their way through this is 3-15 years.

  2. Strength of the partnership 

    Following on from this we look at the partnership in the application, and whether this represents a viable match to accomplish what is proposed.  Partnerships can be the commencement of a new collaboration all together, or they can build from an existing collaboration, in which case they must clearly further existing links. Partnerships must also be a logical match; one side might have the technical expertise, and the other the access to data, samples or resources to be analysed.  
  3. Project design and budgets 

    As ever, a clear study design and timeline of what is expected to be achieved always helps! Where appropriate a clear budget and costing will help add weight to the project you are proposing, and show whether the outputs and objectives are realistic. Any offer of in-kind or matched funding is always welcome. This can be institutionally or from third parties, and just needs to be clearly articulated, particularly in the case of what the third party is bringing to the research.
  4. Institutional support

    There has to be support from both the UK and partner-country institutions for the project and the individual involved. Some applications detail what resources the institutions will make available and how they will help the applicants achieve the objectives – this is welcome.
  5. Capacity building and sustainability

    Although they may sound vague, ‘capacity and sustainability building’ are key strategic requirements of the Newton Fund. Reviewers look for clear descriptors of how this initial funding will sustain their collaboration over the longer term, beyond the initial grant period. 

    Linked to this is the development of individuals involved; what does the individual gain and how will this be of benefit to them? And, how are others going to benefit in the longer term? This may be as simple as the learning and utilisation of new techniques to aid in front line diagnosis of a common disease found in the partner country. Longer term, this knowledge may then help to quickly diagnose many people who will then be in a position to contribute economically to the country. There are many ways that this capacity building and sustainability may appear, but it is fundamental that they are clearly articulated.

Projects to date and open opportunities

The Newton Fund is now in its 2nd year and has already funded a large number of projects. If you want an idea of what the British Council has already funded then I suggest you check out the information at: https://www.britishcouncil.org/education/science/newton/grants-awarded 

The Newton Fund is something that is unique both in terms of what it is looking to achieve and the research that it supports, it’s more than just the science. I urge you to think about applying and building a network beyond that which you already enjoy. The potential to have a positive impact on people’s careers, individuals’ lives and the economic development and social welfare is an opportunity not to be missed. You can apply for Researcher Links and Institutional Links grants now: https://www.britishcouncil.org/education/science/current-opportunities