For Centres with a Flexible Fund, our guidance will help to establish principles for managing the fund.
A Flexible Fund forms an important part of many Centres. It should be used in a manner that is consistent with the aims of the Centre and that provides good value for use of public money. These imply:
- Respecting decisions made at the point of the Centre being agreed and set up, including any guidelines for use the Fund set out in the Centre proposal
- Consulting on use of the fund within affected parties, e.g. funders, advisory groups, staff and external stakeholders
- Clarity and transparency about allocation and any changes to it as the Centre progresses
- Ensuring decisions are consistent with the governance arrangements of the Centre, e.g. that important decisions are made by the responsible bodies identified in the award letter and collaboration agreement
- Ensuring financial accountability, e.g. by setting maximum values for contracts agreed without explicit reference to key decision making bodies.
Within these principles, there are a number of ways Flexible Funds can be used. These include:
- Projects to fill research gaps identified as important by the Centre and its stakeholders
- Projects led by researchers with leadership capability, but who would otherwise get limited project leadership opportunities
- Projects designed to promote integration across the Centre and/or with others
- Projects designed to support the work of the wider research community, where the Centre is charged as acting as a ‘hub’
- Additional resources for supporting training and career development
- Additional resources for administrative, knowledge exchange and/or EDI functions, where these are identified as requiring strengthening
- Projects designed to accelerate impact where new opportunities emerge, including ‘rapid response’ where appropriate.
Issues to address
Use of a Flexible Fund inevitably raises process and management issues. Provided the Principles set out above are followed, different approaches may be appropriate. Decisions may need to consider a number of tensions, including:
- How early to commit funding. Early use enables the development of significant projects within the timescales of the Centre, but reduces the scope to respond to external developments. These can be significant, e.g. the Covid and energy affordability crises
- Project scale. Large budgets are more attractive to established researchers and can reduce administrative costs, but reduce the number of potential projects
- Calls for research projects can be open (within the scope of the Centre) or more focused. The former is likely to be appropriate for capacity building calls, but the latter where the aim is to fill specific research gaps
- Funding eligibility. Restricting funding opportunities to consortium members is appropriate in some cases, e.g. integration and impacts acceleration projects, but open processes are generally better for increasing capacity
- Allocation process complexity. For all research proposals, it is important that there is peer review. Independent and anonymous peer review is appropriate for large projects. This can slow the agreement process, and two-stage selection processes are particularly slow. For smaller projects, e.g. for impact acceleration, more streamlined review processes, e.g. using Centre Co-Is (co-investigators) as reviewers, can be appropriate.
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