Through my role as an adviser for the Research Design Service South East (RDS SE), I most often find myself working with clinicians in the NHS. To me, this is one of the most important roles the RDS – to offer busy clinicians advice and support on how to design, conduct and gain funding for research on issues that they see in their everyday practice. However, I have found myself working with academic researchers based primarily in universities more frequently of late. Perhaps this is an indication of the growing competition for research funds as the research councils, the traditional funders of university-based research, reduce their budgets and become more specific about the types of research they will fund. It is also a reflection of the growing commitment to health research within the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Whatever the cause, I’ve been interested to note the differences in expectation of researchers from these very different backgrounds.
One of the main differences I find between the two centres around expectations of the type of research team funders are looking for when assessing applications. When I advise clinical researchers, they are very open and appreciative of larger research teams, where every individual has their own area of expertise to bring to the table. This is something which the NIHR requires. If you’re planning to conduct a clinical trial, the NIHR want to see involvement from methodologists, statisticians, health economists and service users. All of this, in addition to the clinical expertise of the team in terms of the specific subject area. And brokering these collaborations is something with which RDSs can help.
By contrast, this notion of a large research team is something that can be less familiar in academic circles. I met with an academic researcher a few weeks ago who summed it up quite nicely. ‘We’re too used to doing everything ourselves,’ he said. ‘If a new skill is required for a project, then I’ll teach it to myself.’
This is a notion I recognize. From the earliest stages of academic research – the PhD – many researchers are left on their own to get on with their projects. You get some tips from your supervisor and maybe a post-doc in your group, but if something needs to be done, then it’s up to you to make sure that it is.
However, from the perspective of many funders, this is a waste of time and money. If your project involves collecting vast amounts of data, the funder wants to see that you have someone on your research team with a proven track record of analyzing such data. Otherwise, this represents a risk. Therefore, for every task you have highlighted, you should have someone on your team dedicated to complete it and with the necessary knowledge, experience and/or supervision to do so.
At the end of the day, the thing that all involved care about is that the research is successful. Therefore, maximize your chances of success. When it comes to your research team, think carefully about who’s on your team and make sure you’ve got the support to see your project through to successful completion.