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Funding landscape for Early Career Researchers

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28 November, 2019

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Taking your first steps towards getting funding as an Early Career Researcher (ECR) is difficult and requires determination. Our guide will help you to navigate the options, though bear in mind that the funding landscape is constantly shifting.

Taking your first steps towards getting funding as an Early Career Researcher (ECR) is difficult and requires determination. However, although extremely competitive, there is a lot of funding out there. Our guide will help you to navigate the options, though bear in mind that the funding landscape is constantly shifting.

Summary

  • It is important to appreciate the critical characteristics of the ECR grant context, for example,  the length of time since you did your PhD or the particular focus of the grant in question.
  • Each funder and scheme has different objectives and expectations, so it is important to choose the appropriate funder and scheme for you and your research.
  • What is considered to be post doctoral research varies and may be measured from the submission of your PhD, your viva or the date your PhD was finally awarded, so check carefully.
  • If non-academic impact is important to your project, then you must take it seriously from the start and choose a grant that supports an impact focus. Developing a successful grant application takes time and a team of people!

Things to consider

  • Funding is competitive – Leverhulme has a success rate of around 7% and others range between 20-25%.
  • Develop your research profile
  • Funders are interested in you as well as your research, particularly for fellowships
  • Start thinking about grants and your research project early! It takes 9 months to think about a research project and 3 months to write and review it.
  • Think about individual and collaborative models and what is appropriate for your research
  • Consult “Engaged scholarship” (Hambleton; 2006) – but there are different ideas of engagement by different funders. The British Academy, for example, demands less impact than ESRC.

Full Economic Costs

  • This is a UK based accounting method used by all universities in the UK and will be needed by your finance team. Note that overseas grants may use a different system.
  • Talk to your finance team early! Different funders pay different costs and some departments don’t support certain grants.
  • Work with your department on these:
    • Costs of allocating resource – to the project, already available (cannot receipt, such as PI time)
    • Costs incurred – because you are performing this project (have a receipt, such as salaries and consumables)
  • These unit costs are automatically worked out and can be quite significant but are not always paid:
    • Indirect costs – are non-specific costs charged across all the projects based on the estimates that are not otherwise directly identified (admin, ITS, HR)
    • Estates costs – are non-specific costs, charges against the proportion of FTE undertaking the project
  • Implications for:
    • Departments
    • Research expenses

  • Grants often require that you pay for papers to be open access (REF requires open access papers for example)
  • Increasingly data will be required to be open access
  • UK funders such as UKRI and Wellcome Trust provide block grants for this but overseas funders may not. Nevertheless, these costs can be charged to them.
  • The flow chart below will guide you through the process.

Gold open access

An author publishes their article in an online open access journal.

Green open access

An author publishes their article in any journal and then self-archives a copy in a freely accessible institutional or specialist online repository, or on a website.

Open access decision tree

Image: Open access decision tree – the route to publishing your work.

The usual suspects

  • Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF)
  • Leverhulme Trust
  • British Academy
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • UKRI Economic and Social Research Council
  • UKRI UK Research and Innovation
  • UKRI Natural Environment Research Council
  • UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • University of Oxford: Social Sciences

Choose funder and scheme wisely

Each funder has their own mission, objectives, values and preferences.

  • By discipline, type of research, type of impact, costing
  • If proposal does not match these, it will not get funded

At the same time, different schemes delivered by a funder will have different eligibility criteria and expectations, for example, the scope of UKRI FLFs, which is for late early career or mid-career researchers.

British Academy

The BA are interested in pure academic scholarship and less interested in impact. Grants are reviewed by senior academics. The grant has a reputation for ‘safer’ research with realistic timelines. They are strong on research excellence. Subjects they cover include:

  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology
  • Business and Management Studies
  • Classics and Ancient History
  • Communications and Media Studies
  • Economics
  • Education
  • English Language and Literature
  • Geography
  • History
  • History of Art
  • Law
  • Linguistics
  • Medieval Studies
  • Modern Languages
  • Music
  • Oriental and African Studies
  • Philosophy
  • Politics
  • Psychology
  • Religious Studies
  • Sociology

The Leverhulme Trust

Leverhulme is interested in original research but has no strategic priorities so covers all disciplines except Medical and clinical science. They have a strong interdisciplinary focus.

The assessment panel is selected from Unilever’s Executive and so is comprised of business people – it is therefore important not to use jargon (in fact a good tip for all grant applications).

They actively fund riskier projects and innovation and are not particularly interested in impact. They are definitely not interested in policy.

UKRI Economic and Social Research Council

This is government funding so it must have a strong impact outside of the Academy. They are very interested in innovation, real world challenges and impact on policy and/ or business.

Between 2016–2020 UKRI will invest in areas of national priority, mobilising social science evidence to address significant social and economic challenges. They fund quantitative and qualitative research. Their initial priority areas for investment are:

  • Mental health
  • Housing
  • Productivity
  • Understanding the macroeconomy macro economy
  • Climate change
  • Innovation in health and social care
  • Trust and global governance in a turbulent age

The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is harnessing the UK’s scientific expertise to tackle some of the world’s most pressing development challenges (health, clean energy, conflict, humanitarian action, foundations for economic development, sustainable agriculture)

UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council

AHRC are increasingly having to justify their funding and favour real-world, practice based work. They prefer qualitative methods.

“The UK’s reputation as a creative powerhouse rests on the new knowledge and cultural experiences generated by the Arts and Humanities” (AHRC, 2019)

Can do practice-based research.

  • Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities Examines the potential of digital technologies to transform research in the arts and humanities
  • Science in Culture – Aims to encourage interdisciplinary working between researchers in the sciences, and arts and humanities
  • Translating Cultures – Examine the role of translation between and across diverse cultures
  • Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) – Examining the crucial role that languages play within the arts and humanities and on a wider scale
  • Care for the Future – thinking forward through the past Generating new understandings of the past-future relationship to address challenges in the present.

UKRI Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

EPSRC funds a lot more than just engineering work and is a key funder for energy research.

  • Digital Economy: The vision for the Digital Economy Theme is for the research we sponsor to rapidly realise the transformational impact of digital technologies on: community life, cultural experiences, future society, and the economy.
  • Global Uncertainties: The Research Councils UK Global Uncertainties programme is examining the causes of insecurity and how security risks and threats can be predicted, prevented and managed.
  • ICT: The vision for ICT capability is to support UK scientists to deliver the very best research and training to meet the future scientific needs across the science base.
  • Living with Environmental Change: Living with Environment Change is a major interdisciplinary research and policy partnership to tackle environmental change and the societal challenges it poses.
  • Energy: The vision for the Energy theme is for the research we sponsor to help solve some of the most serious challenges facing the UK today and in the future.
  • Engineering: The vision for Engineering capability is to identify and tackle fundamental engineering research challenges with the potential for lasting benefit to the UK.
  • Healthcare Technologies: The Healthcare Technologies theme supports research across EPSRC’s remit with the aim of accelerating translation to healthcare applications.

UKRI Natural Environment Research Council

Like EPSRC, NERC has a similarly broad scope and has junior schemes where you don’t need to be permanently employed. Remit includes terrestrial, marine, freshwater, science-based archaeology, atmospheric and polar sciences, and Earth observation.

The focus on 3 Societal challenges:

  • Benefitting from natural resources: control of resource availability, using resources responsibly, recycle safely
  • Resilience to environmental hazards: natural and man-made, manage vulnerability, risk, response and recovery
  • Managing environmental change: whole earth system from global to local, from ancient to modern and future.

UKRI UK Research and Innovation

UK Research and Innovation works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish.

UK Research and Innovation brings together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and a new organisation, Research England.

  • Global Challenges Research Fund (ODA compliant research in partnership addressing UN SDGs, (£1.5bn over 5 years)
  • Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (R&D with industry around defined challenges, £4.7bn over 4 years). This fund is looking to expand over the coming years by leveraging with business
  • UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships – known as the ‘fluffs’

Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust likes to talk to applicants before they submit proposals. Being an independent charity like Leverhulme, they are less accountable to the public. Note that they don’t pay overheads.

They fund society, well-being and culture, the Humanities and Social Sciences.

  • Advances in biomedical research accompanied by advances in understanding of social, cultural and historical context of medicine, health and wellbeing
  • Addresses the practical, political, ethical challenges raised by the global burden of illness, disease and health disparity
  • Conceptual, applied, normative or empirical research supported.

European Research Council (ERC)

This is the kite mark of excellence – having it on your CV is prestigious. Applications must come from a host country/ associate country so UK is currently eligible until the end of 2020 (though this is subject to how Brexit progresses). Applicants must spend at least 50% of their time on the project and at least 50% of their time in the EU.

They like blue-sky, theoretical rather than real world research and, in fact, candidates can be marked down for describing impact.

The ERC panel structure consists of 25 panels, covering the entire spectrum of science, engineering and scholarship:

  • Social sciences and Humanities (SH 1–6)
  • Life sciences (LS 1–9)
  • Physical and Engineering Sciences (PE 1–10).

Multi- and inter-disciplinary projects are strongly encouraged and evaluated by the ERC’s regular panels with the appropriate external expertise.

Emphasis on scientific and career excellence!

Early Career Fellowships

British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship

Outline, early October

  • Very competitive – 7–8% success rate.
  • Not permanent employment contract and no residency stipulations
  • Focused on contribution to academia
  • Very early career: Maximum 3 years post doctoral experience, PhD from UK or UK/EEA national
  • Cover 100% salary, up to total of £6k research expenses, and mentor time – 100% FEC
  • 3 year project

Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship

Early March

  • Across all disciplines
  • About a 10% success rate
  • Not permanent employment contract but must be a UK citizen, with PhD from UK and a contractual relationship with a UK university
  • Maximum 4 years post doctoral experience
  • Degree from UK HEI or fixed-term academic position in UK
  • No similar Fellowship/Award held so far – though can have held an ESRC grant
  • Covers only 50% salary, up to £6k research expenses per year and won’t pay indirect or estate costs
  • 3-year project.

EPSRC Post-doctoral Fellowship

Open call, currently accepting fellowships only in priority areas, for example, robotics and autonomous systems.

Although these are open calls, applications for each thematic priority area are submitted at different times throughout the year. Please check the EPSRC website for further information.

  • Have PhD, but no rules for years of postdoc experience or whether hold a permanent post
  • Delivery of outstanding research and indication of impact
  • Aspiration to cross boundaries and conduct high risk research
  • Evidence of aptitude to lead and inspire, pushing boundaries
  • Maximum 36 month project, up to 100% salary, T&S, VR, Cons, PCT.

EPSRC Early career Fellowship

Open call, currently accepting fellowships only in priority areas, for example, robotics and autonomous systems.

Although these are open calls, applications for each thematic priority area are submitted at different times throughout the year. Please check the EPSRC website for further information.

  • They are interested in impact and in particular how the research impacts on UK productivity.
  • Have PhD, track record of outstanding research and impact, strong awareness of international context. Timescale from PhD not stipulated so can be late or early career
  • Evidence of showing leadership, pushing boundaries
  • Maximum 60 month project, 50-100% salary, T&S, VR, Cons, DI staff, PC activity.

Although these are open calls, applications for each thematic priority area are submitted at different times throughout the year. Please check the EPSRC website for further information.

UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships

FLFs move a stage beyond the previous grants and look for research vision extending up to 10 years. They are looking for ambitious, even disruptive projects and successful applicants are given time to learn about new disciplines or work in new areas. Partnerships are key from and early stage – they look for networks beyond the Academy.

  • Support early career researchers and innovators with outstanding potential
  • Seven years support between UKRI and host institution on a 4+3 model
  • Must demonstrate research vision/programme
  • Flexible funding to tackle novel challenges and support adventurous, ambitious programmes
  • Strongly encourage interdisciplinarity, and working with business and other partners
  • Provide career boost, training and career development are key!
  • Six calls for fellowships over 3 years
  • Resources reflect the needs of the research/innovation proposed (£1.2m in first 4 years).
  • Proportion of funding from departments must increase so submissions require strong departmental support.

Early career routes

The key difference between fellowships and grants is that the former are all about you and support you to work with others.

Note that many universities run fund management schemes whereby the manage the number of applicants from each institution. There may therefore be an internal competitive process before you can apply so check with your department and grant support team.

AHRC Leadership Fellows Early career route

Open call

  • Contracted employment with HEI must outlast project
  • Minimum 2, maximum 8 years post doctoral experience OR maximum 6 years academic post
  • 6–24 month project, if over 12m must include part time element
  • Maximum 12 month 100%FTE, minimum average commitment 50%FTE
  • £50–250k full economic cost, can include up to 12m PDRA time, Mentors DA time
  • Maximum £1 million grant
  • Clear articulation of leadership development activities.

AHRC Research Grant Early career route

Open call

  • Contractual arrangement with HEI
  • Minimum 2, maximum 8 years post doctoral experience OR maximum 6 years academic post
  • Maximum 60 month project, £50–250k full economic cost, requires Co-I collaboration. Note that this may not stretch very far so it is recommended this cover a maximum of 40% of your time (2 days a week).

ESRC New Investigator Grant

This grant aims to give you experience of managing a team and encourages you to spend time in another institution.

  • Not necessarily permanent employment contract
  • Not necessarily already employed
  • Maximum 4 years post doctoral experience
  • Not current/former PI on ESRC/RCUK grants (except ESRC post-doc Fellowships, RCUK Fellows PIs on IAA grants)
  • Cover 80% of salary.
  • Projects to last 3–5 years
  • Requires Mentor, Career Development activities and evidence of institutional commitment
  • Maximum of £300k (100% FULL ECONOMIC COST) for the whole project.

NERC Independent Research Fellowships

Early October

  • No permanent position with HEI or equivalent organisation
  • Submit thesis by Apr 2016, no more than 8 years post-doc experience
  • No funding limit, for up to 60 months, including up to 2 years at collaborating institution
  • No Co-I allowed, aim is to develop career and build a research group.

NERC Standard Research Grant for new investigators

January and July

  • Resident in UK and employed by eligible RO, or have existing formal arrangement with the organisation
  • Be within 3 years of first academic position
  • Minimum £65k, maximum £0.8m full economic cost
  • Co-I, PDRA allowed, aim is to develop career and build a research group.

Wellcome Trust Investigator Award

The grants now start to move towards more established researchers. You should be:

  • Employed on permanent, open-ended, long-term rolling contract
  • No more than 5 years from appointment of first established academic post
  • In the range £100–200k per year, typically up to 60 months
  • Research expenses, RAs, T&S, collaborative activities, capacity building, PE.

Wellcome Trust Research Fellowships

  • All stages of career, with PhD, not in established academic post
  • Provide salary plus research expenses
  • Application supported by senior academic in department
  • Include travel to libraries/archives, overseas fieldwork, conferences, seminar, scholarly meetings
  • Maximum 3 years.

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

POST Fellowships

  • A three month position in Parliament converting research into policy briefs
  • A great way of increasing your impact and networks quickly
  • All RCUK and Wellcome Trust sponsor these
  • Contribute to POST activity through production of short briefing note, contribute to longer report, assist select committee enquiry
  • Interact closely with people and activities in both Houses of Parliament.

ERC Starter Grant [Horizon 2020]

October

Another kite mark of excellence. UK universities are currently eligible but this will depend on Brexit so check. These grants are very competitive and need to cover a significant piece of research. The grant is 5 years and pro-rata so if less time is spent, less money will be given.

  • Contractual arrangement with HEI
  • Scientifically independent, 2-7 years post-doc experience
  • 60 month project, €1.5m pro-rata (exceptionally €2m.for example, lab set-up, equipment, NOT datasets)
  • PI must spend at least 50% time on project
  • Can employ PDRA, PhDs, dedicated tech and admin support.

Proposal needs to cover (if applicable):

  • Major international peer-reviewed publications, highlighting 5 representative publications, those without PhD supervisor as co-author, and number of citations attracted
  • Granted patent(s)
  • Invited presentations to peer-reviewed, internationally established conferences and /or international advanced schools
  • Prizes and Awards.

H2020 Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions

September

Experienced Researcher: In possession of a doctoral degree or at least 4 years of research experience

European Fellowships: 12–24 months, held in EU Member States or Associated Countries (therefore depends on Brexit, so check), open to researchers coming to Europe or moving within Europe (researchers must not have resided or carried out work/studies in host country for more than 12 months in the 3 years prior to application – if you’ve been in your institution for over 3 years you will need to move).

Global Fellowships: 12–24 months secondment to a third country, plus mandatory 21-month return period in a European host institution, i.e, up to 36 months in total (researchers must not have resided or carried out work/studies in the country where the initial outgoing phase takes place for more than 12 months in the 3 years prior to application). We may still be eligible for this after Brexit, but you should check.

Costs calculated on research month basis formula.

Research Grants

Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant

Outline open call

  • 2 stage, outline submitted at any time. Starts with a 2 page outline so is relatively little effort in the first stage
  • PI either employed by institution or hold contract research post for duration of grant
  • Cover salaries of DI staff, up to 3 co-investigators (at same or different institution) PhDs (75% of value) and research expenses, one staff must be 50% time in each year of grant
  • £500k up to 60 months duration (not full economic cost).
  • Good for collaborating if you need extra skills from others

British Academy Small Grant

2 calls, October & mid-April

  • Highly competitive so looks good on CV
  • Not necessarily employed by institution, of post-doctoral standing
  • Up to 24 month project from £500 to £10k (not full economic cost)
  • T&S, consumables for clearly defined discrete research with defined outcome

ESRC Grant

Open call

This grant is the ‘full Monty’.

  • Not necessarily employed by institution, track record of research publication
  • Typically 36 month project from £350k-£1m full economic cost
  • Can include co-investigators, PDRA, PhDs (if DTC), dedicated tech & admin support, consumables

Must account for potential impact of the research either during or after project, enabled through knowledge exchange activities. Impact must be embedded from early in the project.

ESRC-GCRF Challenge calls

  • ODA compliant research with international partnerships
  • Themes around certain issues (for example, PaCCS, TNOC)
  • ECR PI with experienced Co-Investigator is a recognised model

Must account for potential impact of the research either during or after project, enabled through knowledge exchange activities

EPSRC Standard Research Grant

Open call

Another very prestigious grant.

  • Resident in UK and employed by eligible Research Organisation, or have existing formal arrangement with the organisation which will outlast the project
  • No maximum duration or upper funding limit
  • Co-I, Researcher Co-I, PDRA, equipment, consumables, T&S, Visiting Researchers

The EPSRC also offers a “first grant” scheme which is an open call.

NERC Standard Research Grant

Closing date January and July

  • Resident in UK and employed by eligible RO, or have existing formal arrangement with the organisation which will outlast the project
  • Minimum £65k, maximum £0.8m full economic cost
  • Co-I, Researcher Co-I (post-doc experience but not eligible as PI), PDRA, equipment, consumables, T&S Applications are subject to Demand Management procedures and must be approved by the Oxford NERC Strategic Panel.

Remember that you’ll need to demonstrate HOW you’ll achieve impact.

Academic impact

There are different kinds of academic impact you can focus on within or even beyond your discipline, such as:

  • Progressing your career
  • Further understanding
  • Advancing theory
  • Developing new methodologies
  • Creating new datasets
  • Scientific advances within and across disciplines.

Non-academic impact – UKRI

Non-academic impact is generally important when the grant comes from a public source. Impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy – through creating and sharing new knowledge and innovation; inventing ground-breaking new products, companies and jobs; developing new and improving existing public services and policy; enhancing quality of life and health; and many more.

  • Accountability > investing public money
  • Quality > improved quality through engaged research
  • Benefit > shortening time to maximise benefit of research
  • Reputation > UK attractiveness for research and innovation investment.
  • Conceptual impact > contributing to the understanding of policy issues, reframing debates and business practices
  • Instrumental impact > influencing the development of policy, practice or service provision, shaping legislation, altering behaviour
  • Capacity building > through technical and personal skill development. This tends to be forgotten – may be worth looking at Global Capacity Research Fund (GCRC) if you’re interested in this

Planning for impact

Who will benefit?

  • Academia (discipline, UK/international)
  • Public sector (national, regional and local)
  • Business/industry
  • Third sector (voluntary org, charity, social enterprise)
  • General public including schools, young people and children.

How will they benefit?

  • Culturally
  • Commercial/economic
  • Environmental
  • Health and well-being
  • Improving social welfare and public services
  • Influencing public policy and legislation.

What will be done to ensure they will have opportunities to benefit?

  • Co-production of knowledge – working in collaboration
  • Conferences/workshops/lectures
  • Public lectures or dissemination events
  • Advisory committees with membership from research groups/interested parties
  • Policy briefings
  • Workshops with practitioners
  • People exchange – placements/secondments
  • Training/CPD courses
  • Communications – newsletters, publications, website.

It is likely your university runs courses. Find out about them and go to a couple.

  • Situate research in academic context and identify gap/uniqueness
  • Have a main goal and specific questions (SMART)
  • Evidence for significance and timeliness
  • Clear and justified methodology
  • Project and risk management strategies, especially for Council grants
  • Avoid jargon, be concise – panels are often from outside your discipline
  • Read successful applications – it can be hard to get your hands on these because the process is so competitive but your institution may have a Research Applications Library
  • Develop the structure/design/shape.

The 4Rs of success

  • Research convincingly excellent
  • Resourced appropriately – feasible
  • Relevant to the funder and beyond
  • Reviewed by peers.

Presentation is key

  • A poor proposal cannot be hidden by good presentation, but a good proposal can be hidden by poor presentation!
  • What is important is not whether it’s a good proposal, but whether they recognise that it’s a good proposal.

Institutional Research Support

Support varies across institutions so check your own, but you are likely to discover:

  • Support with resources and budget calculation
  • Support with application process
  • Support with academic peer review.

Research Services – Authorisation

You may have staff such as Research Facilitators who will help you:

  • Review the application (from the funders perspective)
  • Provide project advice and funder guidance.

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