Applying for funding in the UK

Your institution is going to have certain expectations for what you accomplish during your probation period (typically your first 3-5 years of employment). Once upon a time (like, 5 years ago!) probation was a formality – these days it’s taken far more seriously. You’ll likely have a meeting early on where you have to outline a broad plan of action. One of the main things your institution cares about is your ability to bring in funding, so one of the key things you should be doing is trying to get funding. At the start of my first lecturing post I was pretty cynical about this, but have since come to realize that I can get much more meaningful work done with the resources and personnel that a grant provides. This post is aimed more at the logistics of grant application rather than being able to write a good grant (for which I’m not really well-qualified). For that, I’d recommend this excellent post by Kate Jeffery.

First, some background about why your institution wants to you bring in grant money. It’s (generally) got very little to do with the science. Small grants (<£10,000) will build your profile and help you be competitive for medium-sized grants (<£100,000) and give you a shot for a career-making, promotion-securing large grant funded by one of the UK research councils (RCUK, made up of the BBSRC, MRC, EPSRC, ESRC, AHRC, NERC) or the European Research Council (ERC). These latter grants are the ones which really contribute to the university’s income by (1) buying out a chunk of your time and (2) paying for estates costs, infrastructure costs, and mysterious ‘indirect costs’. For a big RCUK grant application, you could be getting less than 50% of the money you end up applying for to spend yourself on thing like personnel, equipment etc, so take note of the upper limit. Worry not though – it’s all a weird balancing act because (amusingly) the funding councils will only pony up 80% of the total costs of the application to the institution (this 80%-FEC term you’ll be getting acquainted with), leaving the university to reap 20-30% of your grant-total profit. I suspect these figures vary wildly across disciplines, so take them with a pinch of salt.

My personal aim (which you shouldn’t feel is my advice, and may not be at all appropriate for your way of working, scientific discipline, or work/life situation) is to apply for one large grant per year. These will almost all be rejected (all my big ones have been so far), but rejection is good for the soul and feedback/practice makes for better grants (right? right??!). In my first year as a lecturer, the (eventually-rejected) RCUK application I made was a postdoctoral fellowship which I’d re-worked, so pretty easy to write. This was sent to the early-career/new-investigator pathway for the research council. Even if you have a good plan of what you want to to, don’t tackle this process on your own – try to get hold of a successful or just a complete version of someone else’s application to this agency. The content of each section in each funder is esoteric and opaque, and seeing how a few other people else filled these in this can save you a lot of worrying. When writing the main part of the grant (usually called the ‘case for support’), don’t piss about with the font sizes to save space – these documents have to read by people, and people like documents to be easy to read. Similarly, figures and bullet points can be powerful – often to greater effect than the extra few hundred words of block paragraph text you could have squeezed into that space (or so I’m told by more experienced colleagues). Before you submit, get feedback from experienced colleagues. They may seem busy (they are), and you don’t want to bother the,. but they have a duty to help you in your early days, and it might have the added benefit of facilitating them building connections with other researchers on your behalf.

As I’ve alluded to, most of us aren’t going to get any RCUK (or equivalent) funding in the first few years of being a lecturer. I like to tell myself this is because the funding councils like to see a good track record of funding being used effectively, and this can only be built up over time. There’s also a lottery element to the whole thing – some reviewers just won’t like your stuff and others will love it. So prepare yourself to keep riding the roundabout until one of your applications sticks – and they will be getting better year after year. But to get real money in the bank, I always am on the look out for small or medium-sized grants to apply for to (1) build up that section of my CV and (2) get some help in the lab for a year. Annoyingly, these are often just as much hard work at the big-money grants, and don’t get you quite as much prestige with your institution, but you’ve got a much better shot of getting funding with them. This dual-pronged approach of applying for 1 big grant, and 2-3 /medium grants per year is starting to yield dividends for me.

Now, let’s talk finances. Don’t try to do the financial stuff on your own. There will typically be an internal spreadsheet thing to fill out to help you calculate stuff, and then an awkward half-day of button pressing, box filling in nonsense on a poorly-designed grant submission system. Even after 5 years at this, and over 20 applications to various places, I can only do a small fraction of the finance stuff. Figure out what toys you need to buy, how long you want a postdoc for, and % of time you want to pretend to spend on the grant (20-40% is a good number, although you want to make this smaller if you are applying to a source which won’t cover your salary – urrrgh why this is so confusing!?). Once you have those numbers, email someone in finance to help you. Play the ‘dumb new person’ for as long as you can, as your time is precious.

Some miscellaneous thoughts

  1. There’s been a big recent shift toward collaborative work, either with international or industrial partners. So try to build up an Avengers-style dream team when applying for larger grants.
  2. Twitter is a good way to stay abreast of one-off funding opportunities – follow all the relevant councils and charities.
  3. You are early career, so should apply for as much early career money as possible. Usually it ups your chances of success considerably.
  4. Get finance/your departmental research application team/central research services involved early early early. There will usually be internal paperwork which has to be submitted before the grant can go in, and they will likely be the ones pressing the ‘submit’ button on your behalf anyway. If you only tell them several days before the submission deadline, you will be making a lot of people behind the scenes very stressed and unhappy.
  5. You will probably write your grant on a word document and then transcribe it onto the grant submission form. But don’t underestimate how long this process will take. And how buggy the system can be, especially the word count boxes. Have a dry run before submitting.


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