Monday, 28 May 2012

Research Funding Toolkit

My colleague Jacqueline Aldridge has collaborated with Prof Andrew Derrington (Executive PVC, Liverpool) to write a brilliant new handbook on how to prepare a successful grant application.

As I'm sure regular readers will know, drafting an application is no walk in the park, and it's easy to take rejection personally. This book gives you practical advice on how to structure and write a proposal so that it has the best chance of success. It offers hints and tips on understanding your audience, helping them to see the importance and urgency of your project, and making sure that your application stands out from the pile.

But enough sales talk. Have a look yourself. There's a sample chapter on the Amazon website, here. Jacqueline and Andrew have also set up a website, complete with blog, here.

A Two Tone Decision on Ska

There was exciting news in the world of astronomy last week. After 9 years of deliberation, a decision had finally been made on where to site the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world's most powerful radio telescope.

As you may know, it was a toss up between South Africa and Australia. And the winner is...both! Yes,the SKA has come down squarely on the fence in a decision that some may see as a classic Brussels-style fudge. But not us.

We agree with  John 'Bob Hoskins' Womersley, STFC Chief and Chairman of the SKA Board. At a conference in the duty free area of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on Friday Bob said that they had decided on a 'dual site approach'. 'The decision was science-motivated,' said Bob, as he stocked up on cut price cigarettes. 'It strengthens the project in the long run. Everyone is in favour of it. SA, Australia, and the SKA Organisation.'

But how will this work? In a statement SKA spelled it out. 'The majority of SKA dishes in Phase 1 will be built in South Africa, combined with MeerKAT. Further SKA dishes will be added to the ASKAP array in Australia. All the dishes and the mid frequency aperture arrays for Phase II of the SKA will be built in Southern Africa while the low frequency aperture array antennas for Phase I and II will be built in Australia /New Zealand.'

All clear? Dishes from South Africa (heading a consortium of eight other countries), antennas from Australia and New Zealand, and six time zones separating them. What could possibly go wrong? Yes, we at Fundermentals Towers fully agree that science is best done at a distance. And preferably on different continents.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Open Access 'Snowball' Continues to Roll


Two interesting news items dropped into my inbox today.

1: The Times Higher reported that the European Commission will back open access publishing in Horizon 2020. Details of the proposal will be published at an event in Brussels on 20 June. The Director General for Research and Innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, was quoted as saying that it could make 'one hell of a difference.'

2: The Guardian reported that Winston Hide, associate editor of the Elsevier journal Genomics, has resigned from the editorial board. 'No longer can I work for a system that provides solid profits for the publisher while effectively denying colleagues in developing countries access to research findings,' he said.

It's an interesting coincidence, and suggests that (to quote Prof Tim Gowers in the THE article) 'the snowball is getting bigger'. However, some (ok, I mean the publishers of paid-for journals) question the desirability of open access. Income from subscriptions, they argue, allows them to spend more on selecting papers, editing and production.

I think this is a fair point, and worth bearing in mind. If funding does not come through subscriptions, they will need to be reimbursed for these costs from other sources. These could well be the funders of the original research, which would, in turn, mean that there is less money available to fund other research.

I'll continue to watch this snowball's progress with interest.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Patient & Public Involvement

At the NIHR Day last week Amanda Bates (Research Design Service South East) and Alison Ford (NIHR Evaluation, Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre) gave an overview of why patients and the public should be involved in the design and management of a research project.

Why involve patients and the public?
Whilst it's an integral and necessary part of any NIHR application, involving those who will be affected by the research has considerable benefits, and you shouldn't see it as just a box-ticking exercise. Patient and public involvement (PPI) could provide different perspectives on the research, and demonstrate the relevance of your research to lives of those affected. It may give you privileged access to valuable experience and expertise, and would demonstrate your willingness to be transparent in your research.

So who are they?
Patients or the public could be anyone; we are all fit into this category. It depends on the focus of your research, of course, but could include:

  • people who provide unpaid care or support;
  • parents or guardians;
  • people who use health and social care services;
  • people with disabilities;
  • members of the public who might be targeted by health promotion, public health or social care;
  • groups asking for research because they believe that they have been exposed to potentially harmful substances or products;
  • organisations that represent people who use health and social care services.

So how do I involve them?
PPI can happen at any time of the research process, from planning (even right at the beginning, when you're identifying the research topic, through to the prioritisation process or designing the project), to conducting the research, collecting the data, analysing it, reporting and disseminating the findings. In terms of getting external people on board, there are a number of ways of identifying those who might be interested:

  • asking patients in clinics, or finding a clinician who will ask for you;
  • using 'word of mouth' amongst colleagues; 
  • via patient or user groups at local GP practices;
  • holding an open event;
  • finding local support groups, charities etc;
  • via the RDS SE (see below).
You should make sure that they know what is expected of them, and that they are properly reimbursed for their time. You should allow time for positive working relationships to develop, and should ensure that the research environment is physically - and intellectually - accessible. For example, make sure that those with physical disabilities can access meetings, and that you avoid or explain any specific language or jargon.

If you want to explore PPI further, you should get in touch with RDS SE. You can even apply for a small award (£350) that will help with the costs of involving people in the design of a study at an early stage.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Tips on Applying to Two NIHR Schemes

Following on from my last post, I wanted to pass on some tips from Angie Borzychowski (of the Central Commissioning Facility) on making a good application to the Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB) programme, and the Programme Grants for Applied Research.

RfPB awards are for £350k, and the total funding for the programme is £25m pa. They are distributed through 10 regional Advisory Committees, and there are three funding rounds per year. In the South East, this Committee is led by Prof Ann Moore, and last year approved 36 awards from 206 applications, giving a 23% success rate. She suggested that one of the key points for the RfPB was to make sure that you consult and involve others. This includes the crucial input from the Research Design Service (RDS), but also the involvement of patients and the public - more on this in a later post. You should also keep the decision criteria in mind, and make sure that your design is coherent and convincing, explaining the context of your study and how the research will benefit the patients. However, you should also be clear about the specific outcomes for the NHS: it's great that your work will benefit patients, but how are you going to make sure that this actually happens?

Programme Grants for Applied Research are much bigger beasts than RfPB. They have three times as much money to distribute, some £75m pa, and offer grants of up to £2m for up to 5 years. With such large amounts at stake, the NIHR wants to make sure that both the person and project are right. Your profile has to fit: you have to be at the right stage of your career and ready to take on the challenge of these programme grants. However, the research has to be 'right', too: it has to be ambitious, coherent, and important, but also addressing major identified challenges. And, as ever with public funding, you need to demonstrate value for money.

If you're planning to apply to the NIHR contact the RDS, who can provide crucial input to the design of your project and application.

Taming the Hydra: Understanding the NIHR


To many the NIHR can seem like a fearsome hydra: many headed, terrifying and difficult to believe in. However, at an all day event last week this scary dragon was discussed and explained, demystified and domesticated. By the end it felt like a logical, tolerant, well trained hound, acceptable in all the finest (research) establishments.

Ann Deehan (Dept of Health) began by sketching out the shape of the beast. Essentially, it has at its heart patients and the public. These are nestled inside NHS Trusts which are, in turn, supported by universities in gathering information and undertaking research. The NIHR supports this relationship by feeding into it in four ways:

  • ‘Faculty’: provides training and fellowship funding;
  • ‘Research’: provides funding for projects and institutes;
  • ‘Systems’: provides support for processes and procedures;
  • ‘Infrastructure’: provides support for networks, centres, facilities and units.

Dawn Biram (Trainees Coordinating Centre – TCC) outlined the work of the NIHR Faculty. NIHR offers a number of fellowships for both clinicians and academics, at all stages of their career. They generally offer a salary for between 3 – 5 years, full tuition fees (for PhD students), research costs, and full support for training and development. If the fellowship is based in the NHS it covers 100% of the costs; if it’s in a university, it’s 80% - in line with the funding offered by the Research Councils.

Angie Borzychowski (Central Commissioning Facility – CFF) and Alison Ford (NIHR Evaluation, Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre – NETSCC) outlined different parts of the NIHR’s Research arm. Alison summed up the difference between the MRC and two of the NIHR’s schemes quite neatly: the MRC funds research to see if a particular intervention is scientifically possible; the Efficacy and MechanismEvaluation Programme (EME) funds research to see if it really does work in practice; and the Health Technology Assessment Programme (HTA) funds research to see if it’s worth it. Can it work; does it work; is it worth it.

Angie, by contrast, looked at funding from the Research for Patient Benefit Scheme (RfPB) and Programme Grants for AppliedResearch (PGAR). These fund projects based in the NHS, but with academic input. They are intended to fund research which will have implications for patients. RfPB funds relatively small scale projects (up to £250k), whereas the PGAR awards are huge: £2m for up to five years. More specific advice on these will be given in later posts, but it’s worth bearing in mind that ‘patient and public involvement’ is crucial, that costs and value for money and examined thoroughly, and that the deadline for submissions will be switching from 5pm to 1pm, so don’t be caught out.

Finally Ian Akers (Comprehensive Local Research Network –CLRN) outlined the work of NIHR Infrastructure. The CLRN grew out of previous, disease-specific networks, such as the National Cancer Research Network (NCRN). It provides help and support for researchers in the NHS, reducing red tape, funding additional people, and advising researchers on how to make their studies work in the NHS. It had had considerable success meeting the particular challenges in Kent and Medway, and had seen a large increase in participation in research over the past four years.

If you want more advice on the NIHR, or help with putting together an application to it, get in touch with the Research Design ServiceSouth East, which is funded by the NIHR to help applicants. Based at the Universities of Kent, Surrey and Sussex, there is help available on your doorstep. 

Friday, 11 May 2012

H2020 Negotiations: a Helpful Diagram


I know you're all itching to know what the timetable will be for the negotiations over the next Framework Programme, Horizon 2020. Well itch no more. Here is a brief run down of the run up to its glorious launch in January 2014. 

  •          May 2012: European Parliament’s Industry, Technology, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee publishes report on H2020.
  •          June 2012: Parliament publishes amendments to the proposals.
  •          July 2012: final calls to FP7.
  •          Nov/Dec 2012: Parliament votes on proposals. The European Council (made up of national science ministers) will vote around the same time.
  •          Dec 2012/Jan 2013: discussion (or, if you will, a trialogue) between the Commission,   Council and Parliament about the proposals and amendments.
  •          June 2013: agreement should have been reached.
  •          Dec 2013: Adoption of legislative acts by Parliament and Council that will bring H2020 into force.
Now that might all sound a bit complicated. Luckily, the Commission have published this useful diagrammatic representation of the process. 


     I think that clears things up, don't you?