Supporting researchers, supporting research: Reflections on the CREDS ECR Flexible Fund Call

16 October, 2023

Janine Morley

Reading time: 7 minutes

Janine Morley reflects on the pivotal difference the CREDS funding has made to her career.

In 2019, CREDS launched its Early Career Research (ECR) Flexible Fund Call. It was open to anyone identifying as an early career researcher, so long as they had not previously led a project of over £100,000. Importantly for me, this included those on non-permanent contracts. A later evaluation provided evidence that the call was well-received, and that better support for early career researchers could potentially improve diversity in the research community.

I was fortunate to receive a grant from the ECR Flexible Fund call. For me, that opportunity came at a time when my research career was in doubt and when my personal circumstances demanded more stability and security than ever before. In this blog, I reflect on the difference that the grant made. It is an anecdote; a personal story. But I share it here because I think it is connected to a wider story of systematic precarity and the kind of research community that ultimately results from this.

A well-designed and well-timed opportunity

When I applied to the CREDS ECR Flexible Fund Call in 2019, I had five years of research experience post-PhD but no research position. My ‘post-doctoral’ position(s) in the DEMAND Centre, one of the Centres that preceded CREDS, had come to end in June 2019. No other relevant research posts had come up at the university where I worked. I had a 1.5 year old son and I was struggling with sleep deprivation, a recent bereavement and other difficult personal circumstances. My partner had a job locally. We had relatively recently climbed onto the housing ladder (my first time!). Whilst I had previously moved multiple times for work, my family and I needed stability more than anything at that time. So rather than face unemployment or a relocation, I took on a project support job that came up through the redeployment listings and, later, another flexible hours research assistant post in a different field of research, each for a handful of hours a week.

The grant from the CREDS ECR Flexible Fund Call meant that for another day of the week, alongside these jobs, I was also paid to do research. Importantly, it was my own research, designed to build on my expertise as developed through the course of my PhD and previous research positions. It also happened to be in an innovative, under-researched area. And whilst it was a small grant, it led to further opportunities for funding from within CREDS, and thereby ongoing employment. This, in turn, eventually put me in a good position to apply to participate as a Researcher Co-Investigator in the bid for the next energy demand research centre, EDRC, in which I’m now working.

Without the award from the CREDS ECR Flexible Fund Call, I wouldn’t be where I am today: still working in my own field of research whilst also living with my family in the same location. Without doubt, it has made a pivotal difference. It also means that the expertise that I developed throughout my PhD and involvement with the previous two rounds of UKRI end-use energy demand funding can also continue to be consolidated and built on.

The design of the funding call was key to this. Firstly, as noted, it was open to those who did not hold permanent positions. Secondly, it included (but was not limited to) a streamlined process for small grants under £20k, which made it realistic for me to apply, stretched as I was at the time. Thirdly, the scheme included a long call duration populated with opportunities to ask questions about the fund and to participate in mentoring circles. This also proved crucial because it helped me reflect on the practical and administrative challenges I faced in getting an application through my university. It also sparked a conversation with another potential applicant, which helped clarify and define my project idea. Researchers on fixed-term contracts can easily become marginalised and isolated, without peers simply to talk to, especially when contracts have come to an end. Until that conversation, I had not realised I was missing this, or just how important it was. The opportunity to participate in a network was, for me, a surprisingly important aspect of the design of the CREDS Flexible Fund Call.

Who can afford precarity?

I would argue that incorporating similar features in other funding schemes would help a wider diversity of researchers progress further in academia. The gender imbalance in academia is well-known: the majority of UKRI funds are awarded to men (71% by value in 2018-19, pdfOpens in a new tab), there is decline in gender balanceOpens in a new tab with seniority in academia, and there is a persistent, if narrowing, gender pay gapOpens in a new tab. Research points to the ‘motherhood penalty’Opens in a new tab and the fact that women, especially those of ethnic minorities, are more likely to leave academiaOpens in a new tab and have shorter academic careers. So, as much as I like to see myself as a unique individual, I am also a sociologist who sees connections between the personal and the social. I am a data point in a wider trend. Thanks to the intersection of demographics, the geographical distribution of universities and the nature of academic career paths, I cannot be alone in ‘choosing’ to take up non-academic work instead of relocating, particularly during early parenthood. This is not to disparage non-academic careers, but rather to say that points of departure from the research community should be of concern in so far as they disproportionately affect demographics that are already under-represented and, on average, under-paid.

Motherhood aside, I have enjoyed many advantages over the course of my life and I am conscious of how important these are in weathering the precarity and adversity of being a researcher. Without them, I’m not sure if I could have financially or mentally afforded to navigate a course that has, for the time being, allowed me to remain in research. The casually missed salary payments, the sustained drop in income, the contractual delays, the institutional exclusion and marginalisation might have been too much. Just as unpaid internships privilege those who can afford not to be paid, it is important to ask who has the social and financial resources to survive as a contract researcher, a challenge which is not limited only to those in their early careers.

Such problems as faced by research staff are well-recognised, to which the common answer is career developmentOpens in a new tab. However, the tendency is to think of that as a question of personal growth, better skills and decision-making. It is, but it is also – and more urgently – structural and systemic. It is about opportunity: the opportunity to take on responsibility and leadership, to be able to apply for funding to do one’s own research, to be supported in this and recognised for it, including opportunities for promotion. Whilst other changes could improve the experience of research staff and, I believe, improve the resulting diversity in academia, improved access to funding opportunities for those without access to job security would be transformative. Through greater exposure to researchers as fund holders and project leaders in their own right (not just resources for academics’ projects), such funding could help unlock institutional change, raising the value of research staff whilst also helping universities deliver on the so-called ‘indefinite’ contracts that many now offer.

At a personal level, I am very grateful to have received an award from the CREDS ECR Flexible Fund Call, and for its inception and design. My experience shows how much difference even a small amount of funding at the right time can make. But beyond this, I hope the fund indicates the value of financially supporting researchers in their own right, whilst also demonstrating the feasibility of doing so.

Banner photo credit: Olha Yarova on Unsplash