I meet with a lot of NHS clinicians to talk about research questions and study design. Our region covers many different Trusts and the level of clinical expertise is immense. These meetings are always interesting and challenging. I have to confess, however, that I don’t usually have the first clue about the specifics of the topic area we’re discussing.
When I first started as research adviser, this bothered me greatly. It was what made me most nervous about meeting a clinical researcher for the first time. However, I’ve now learned that there is actually benefit in not knowing all the ins and outs of the topic area. After all, it’s the clinician who is the expert and it’s not clinical expertise they need.
Far better to let the clinician explain the research topic to me. I can then ask the simple and obvious questions that help elucidate the research question. This discussion usually forms the basis for the argument for why the research needs to be done. And determining the priority of the research topic is the very first thing a funder will do. For NIHR commissioned calls, this prioritisation process has already been at least partially done. However, for the plethora of researcher–led funding streams – both NIHR and otherwise – the argument about the importance of the research topic is the first one you must make.
The fact that I’m at a distance from the research topic means that I can play devil’s advocate. I have a tendency to cover draft protocols in comments and track changes and send emails full of questions to researchers who send me initial project proposals. It’s much better for me to be the one to do it than a funding panel who will ultimately reject a proposal if there are too many unanswered questions.
It’s difficult to know exactly who will be present at a given panel meeting where the funding decision will be made. Even though lists of members are available – and they are definitely worth a look – actual attendance varies. And, when it comes to RfPB, which panel will assess your application can vary too. Relatively recently, a bunch of ‘South East’ applications where discussed at a panel meeting in a different area entirely.
When it comes to the day of the actual meeting of the funding panel, there may be someone there just as experienced, or even more experienced, than the PI. But, then again, there may not. You also can’t predict which direction the discussion will take. Will the panel be focusing more on the priority of the topic area or will it be the design or the plan of analysis that takes up the bulk of time during the discussion? The discussion time will be tiny relative to the time that has gone in to preparing the application and so there’s simply no way of knowing which aspect in particular will capture the panel’s attention.
It’s my job to try to cover every possible angle.
Many RDSs offer researchers the opportunity to put their application forward for a ‘dry run’. At the RDS SE, we hold a regular ‘pre-submission panel’, where we all get together and try to replicate an NIHR funding panel meeting. As a group, we cover a range of specialities, both methodologically and with regards to specific health topics. We have lay representatives who attend and even use the RfPB programme’s assessment criteria to rate each submission. It’s a useful exercise for both the adviser and the researcher. From my perspective, I find it fascinating to see how my comments fit in with those of my colleagues and it’s reassuring to have actual proof that we’re all pretty much on the same page when it comes time to assess the proposals. And, from a researcher’s perspective, they get a lot of feedback on their proposal, far more than the few bullet points of doom that accompany the formal NIHR letters informing PIs about funding decisions.
I’ve come to embrace my role as the eternal outsider when it comes to the majority of specific health research topics. I believe it allows me to offer researchers a far more honest assessment of their research proposal and gives me the tools to push researchers to improve the quality of their applications. It’s also a strength of the RDS as a whole, allowing us to attempt to replicate funding panels for researchers.
If you are preparing an application for NIHR funding, it is worth talking to your local RDS and benefit from our expertise… and our lack of it.