This blog was written by Peter Kettlewell:
For nine years of the previous decade, my own research took a back-seat whilst I devoted most of my working time to helping develop research at a small, specialist university. At that time, we were a University College, and the newly-appointed Principal (later Vice-Chancellor) recognised that research would need to expand in order to support the strategic aim of becoming a University – among other reasons this would avoid the confusion overseas about the educational level of a University College. Because most of the QR allocation from HEFCE (now Research England) was already budgeted for e.g. on salaries of research support staff, the only practical way to grow research was through external income. So a major focus was on working with staff to increase the number and quality of contract and grant applications, as well as further developing support for Principal Investigators. During this time, external research income rose sevenfold.
The role involved supporting about 100 research-active academic staff at a very wide range of levels, from lecturers with a Bachelor’s degree keen to get funding for their own part-time PhD study, to Professors with extensive funding track-records. I also engaged with research directors, academics and their research support staff in many other universities in the UK and in a wide range of other countries. Since we already had a good track-record with industry funding, researchers in businesses were a crucial link. I supported many small and large funding applications, which allowed me to see what makes a researcher successful with grant applications. These ranged from a few hundred pounds travel grant for attending a workshop to a five year multi-national €18 million project.
What did I learn about success with funding? Achieving the award of a large grant seems to require a strategy of working in a very trendy and fast-developing subject. This will be in an area which many governments have identified as a priority for long-term economic development and inevitably already involving many researchers around the world. An example might be integration of robotics, sensors and data to find solutions to widespread problems and drive economic productivity.
Success in this very competitive environment needs a researcher, not only with a novel idea, but with a skill set that makes them stand out from the crowd. The main skills are probably those involved in leadership in any sphere, and include:
Articulating a clear vision. This vision has to use simple jargon-free English so that a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds can understand it. It has to inspire the desired collaborators to join the consortium and the grant reviewers to believe it worthy of investigation.
Formulating a pragmatic workplan. This must convince reviewers that it is the best way to achieve the vision for the resources requested.
Building long-term relationships. Good social skills and emotional intelligence are the key to bringing on-board the best potential collaborators and to networking with influential funders and policymakers.
Listening to others, assessing their views, and incorporating the best suggestions into the vision and plan
Persisting – treating failure as a learning experience, not a demotivator, to help improve the project ideas and to plan for the next grant application.
The combination of all these skills may take many years to develop, and for those yet to develop all these skills, an alternative strategy can be equally successful with small grants. This is the opposite approach to the above, and involves keeping well away from the trendy topics and working in a niche area where there is little or no competition. It is important that the researcher has good grounds for the belief that the niche topic will one day be recognised by many as very significant.
The important skill is then finding a funder who can be persuaded by the proposal to share this belief. This approach possibly requires more persistence to keep going when no-one else thinks the subject is of interest or value, until a funder can be persuaded. Now that I have stepped down from my Research Co-ordinator role, I am focusing on my own research. Unlike most earlier career stage researchers, I don’t need to bring in a lot of money from large grants to support most of my salary, because I have the luxury of pensions. So I can safely follow my niche interests and adopt the second strategy.
Peter Kettlewell is a professor in the Agriculture and Environment Department at Harper Adams University.