National Institute for Health Research – Research Design Service

The NIHR Research Design Service (RDS) offers a free, confidential service to new and experienced research teams that supports clinicians, health and social care professionals and academics to develop high-quality, competitive funding applications for applied health, global health, public health, and social care research. The RDS are represented across the 10 regions in England and offer a range of support, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Designing a study
  • Research methods (qualitative and quantitative)
  • Medical statistics
  • Health economics
  • Advice on common pitfalls
  • Involving patients and public in research

The RDS provide tailored support to applicants and have a proven track record in supporting high quality applications for funding bodies. We spoke to Catherine DeLacy, based at RDS London, who answers some of our questions about how the RDS can help applicants:

Do applicants who consult with the RDS have a higher chance of obtaining research funding?

Yes. We can double your chances of success.

Data collected across the ten RDS regions in 2021 showed that we support over 3,100 research teams each year, and that the average yearly value of successful applications is more than £243 million.

An independent survey found that RDS users were satisfied with our support, and that their expectations had been either ‘fully met’ (56%) or ‘exceeded’ (23%). 87% reported a high level of improvement in their research applications, with similar ratings for those who self-categorised as ‘just starting’, ‘developing’, or ‘experienced’ in research or as having ‘substantial experience’.

More than 90% were likely to recommend the RDS to their colleagues.

What is the most common feedback or advice you give to early career researchers developing their funding application?

We encourage researchers to contact us as soon as possible to get the most in-depth support!

Early career researchers commonly approach the RDS for support on their Fellowship applications. As Fellowships are about creating the research leaders of the future, applicants need to demonstrate how the Fellowship will help develop their career. We support ECRs not only with their proposals, but encourage them to include well-developed training plans that build their research, leadership, communication and engagement skills.

Our Top tips for funding success video provides a good summary of common advice areas.

[NB that we support researchers at all levels, not just early career researchers.]

What are some of the issues that applicants need to be aware of when developing a funding bid?

In addition to our Q1 answers…

At RDS London, we explain to researchers that when an applications for funding is rejected, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they did not develop a good proposal. Perhaps it just wasn’t the right day, or maybe the funding programme didn’t have enough budget to fund all the good proposals – there is an element of luck to the funding process. It’s important to try to not to get too disheartened by rejection – don’t take it personally, take a critical look at your proposal, learn from the feedback and try again.

We help researchers interpret feedback and we support resubmissions.

Does the RDS have experts available to review any methodology outlined in an application?

At RDS London, along with our General Advisers, we have specialist advisers in:

  • Statistics
  • Data Science
  • Qualitative research methods
  • Health economics
  • Health psychology
  • Epidemiology
  • Ethics
  • Patient and public involvement

We offer advice on Social Care, Public Health and Local Authority research. And if we are unable to offer a particular service in-house, we will refer you to the right support through the NIHR and our other research networks.

What do you expect from applicants who seek support from the RDS, in order to make the most of the support offered? How should applicants prepare for a meeting with the RDS?

To get the best service from us, we ask that you:

  • approach us well in advance of application deadlines
  • where possible, familiarise yourselves with the scope and eligibility of your targeted funder
  • inform us of the outcome of your application
  • provide feedback through our post-advice surveys

Are you able to sign-post early career researchers to alternative avenues of support or guidance for developing a funding bid?

The RDS has established links with other parts of the NIHR infrastructure and research networks. This allows us to expedite the additional support that researchers need. Close working between the RDS and Clinical Trials Units ensures that the highest level of advice and guidance is offered on trial design; researchers are signposted to the Health Research Authority for additional guidance on research ethics and IRAS approval; the NIHR CRN Study Support Service for the exploration of recruitment pathways and site identification; and Trust R&D and University R&D departments for support on approvals and costings.

For applicants based outside of England ineligible for RDS support, please refer to the links below for further advice:

Northern Ireland: https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/

Scotland: https://www.cso.scot.nhs.uk/

Wales: https://gov.wales/health-and-care-research-wales

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