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Applying for funding: A Research Manager’s perspective

Our Research Manager, Desh Mofidi, offers his insights into the grant review process and some of the things he would advise prospective applicants to consider.

It is almost 5 years since I started working as Research Manager for Pharmacy Research UK (PRUK), having managed the administration of our funding calls, created new schemes, and updated our existing review processes to ensure they remain compliant with the Association of Medical Research Charities’ (AMRC) guidelines. Before joining PRUK I worked in the Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB) funding programme in the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) for three years, learning from the ground-up about the importance of funding administration and the application review process. In this blog, I wish to outline some of my experiences and include general advice for any applicants who wish to apply for research funding.

My first experience of the research funding process was diving into the world of peer review for the RfPB body. I remember being told that each application should have 4-5 scientific peer reviews, with a minimum of 2 reviews required on each application. This task was handed to me in my first week working as Assistant Programme Manager. I remember finishing the week having obtained 50% of expected reviews, with 11 more weeks remaining for the peer review process. This received a lot of attention from my superiors who were impressed with the rate I managed to obtain confirmed reviews. But what I learned later was the importance of ensuring reviews were balanced and this is something I did not consider at the time (which explains how I managed to get so many reviews so quickly!). My manager said to me “Think of the bigger picture.”  What he meant by this was to think about the entire process and what impact each process has for the entire scheme. I have since refined the process and bought this knowledge with me into PRUK.

At PRUK, we similarly require a minimum of 2 peer reviews, but we aim to obtain 4-5 reviews for each application. We encourage those who are new to peer review to sign-up as a volunteer to peer review for us, however we always endeavour for reviews to be balanced by experience, content knowledge and methodological expertise. This balance assists our Scientific Advisory Panel in reviewing applications, as they can refer to peer reviews to offer them a sense of how strong the application is in many different areas. This is one of the key factors to ensuring that applications are assessed robustly. As always, we welcome researchers from a wide range of pharmacy and health service research backgrounds to peer review for us. Further information can be found on this page.

If you are thinking about putting together a proposal for funding, then it is worth considering how the proposal will be assessed. If peer review is involved and you know that your proposal will be sent to content and methodological experts, then it is worth consulting experts in those fields to read through your proposal before submitting. Do not just rely on your primary supervisor, but instead ask colleagues and peers for a proofread. There is benefit to gaining different perspectives as you may come across something that would have been missed. It may also benefit you to seek mentorship to improve your writing skills when putting a bid together, as your proposal will undergo scrutiny from peer reviewers and the funding panel it is sent to. The more you prepare, the more you can anticipate potential issues or questions being flagged by the panel.

In preparing for your application, you must be clear who you wish to apply to and what the funder’s requirements are. In PRUK, we send applications for external peer review and in the case of our Research Development Awards and Level 3 Bursaries, we also interview applicants in addition to the standard panel and peer review. So, it is important to be aware of what will be expected throughout the process, as this will give you a better sense of what the panel will be expecting from an application. For information on our funding process, refer to this page.

In addition to the preparation required when putting together an application, many applicants do not seek support that is available to them. For instance, PRUK is an NIHR non-commercial partner, meaning that our applicants can benefit from support from the Research Design Service or utilise resources from the NIHR Clinical Research Network. Dr Debi Bhattacharya provides her thoughts on the support available in her blog on this page. If you are a pharmacist and member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, then you may wish to consult their support service where you can seek input into developing your application or research project. Further information on this service is available on this page.

Patient and public involvement (PPI) is worth mentioning separately, as many applicants still seem to get this wrong. While we ask for a plain English summary of the proposal in the application, PPI is not only limited to this section. PPI is integral to the entire project and patients should be involved in the development of the research question (to help ensure the project remains relevant to patients), as well as assisting to ensure sufficient PPI is included throughout the bid and that the application is easy to understand. I have seen panel members comment on numerous occasions that they are able to tell whether an application has received input from patients/public representatives, as the proposal is clearer and easier to follow. That is how an application should be structured. Further information on improving PPI can be found on this page, as our PPI members offer their insights into the process.

When applying to us, my main recommendations are:

  • ensure you understand the funders review processes, consult their guidance and criteria on what they are expecting from the application
  • speak with your supervisors and ensure you have adequate support in place when undertaking your main research activities (including consulting with a methodological expert and having ongoing supervision in key areas)
  • assess your capabilities and the time you can commit to the research: are you promising to do too much? Read more about this here
  • be honest; carry out an assessment of your training needs and ensure you sign-up for opportunities to increase your knowledge and strengthen your research skills
  • Seek mentorship throughout your research journey, not just for the research you are doing, but to also ensure you are heading in the right direction for your own research career
  • Ask peers and experts to read your application through: if it does not make sense to them, then it likely will not make sense to peer reviewers
  • Maximise the support available to you, through mentorship and supervision, as well as support from the RPS and NIHR.

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