What is success?

I was part of a lively twitter discussion some time ago where the topic of ‘success’ was raised. What is success? From a researchers perspective, that’s a simple question to answer – success is getting the funding to do your study – but from an RDS perspective, the answer is much more complicated.

The discussion was started by Sarah Seaton, a statistician & RDS adviser for RDS East Midlands, who tweeted that she’d had the good news that a study she’d been advising on had been funded by the HTA programme. A group of us offered our congrats and then the Research Development & Innovation at University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire NHS Trust tweeted to say they were also waiting to hear about some funding outcomes for projects on which they’d advised. This comments sparked a new conversation about how services which support researchers making funding applications often do not hear about the outcome of these applications.

This is something that we at the RDS SE have discussed time and time again and, fortunately, it is something that is slowly changing. We will now hear officially on a regular basis about which projects have been funding by NIHR. This information can only be a good thing, especially in terms of evaluating and improving the advice we offer.

Many of the researchers I work with are ‘regulars’. Over time, we’ve build up a good relationship and whenever they are working on a project they come to me for advice. They’re great about letting me know the outcomes, something about which I love to hear from both a professional and a personal point of view. When you’ve been involved with a project from the early stages, you’re invested in the outcome even if you’re not actually going to be involved in the project itself. I put a lot of work and great number of hours into the projects on which I advise and it gives me a great sense of satisfaction to hear that one of them has been funded. This is, I am certain, true of every RDS adviser.

That said, it’s equally important to me to hear about the projects that have been rejected, especially when a researcher sends me the reviewers’ reports and the comments from the panel. Going through these helps me learn how to improve the advice I give. It also enables the researcher and I together to work out where to go next. As I’ve said before, many projects are funded upon resubmission, undoubtedly stronger for the extra work the initial rejected prompted.

However, I do sometimes work on projects which come in at the last minute and/or with researchers with whom I have not worked before. In these cases, I often don’t hear about the outcome of their applications. Even though I email to ask about the outcome once I know that the funding decisions have been made, I sometimes don’t hear back. It’s tempting in these scenarios to assume that their application has not been successful, but you can’t know for certain.

Hearing officially about the funding outcomes will have a number of benefits. For a start, it would make evaluating ourselves and improving our services much easier and more effective. This would be especially true if we could see the details of the panels and/or reviewers comments on the applications we supported. It will also help with the cohesiveness of the NIHR as a whole and be a great motivator for advisers who put so much time and effort into proposals they may never be involved with again.

It would also help us with our definition of ‘success’. To link this post back to where I originally started, for an RDS ‘success’ can be tricky to define. It isn’t always a case of getting a researcher to submit an application – this is a crude metric that misses out on the subtleties of what we do.

Often, for us, success is the exact opposite. Rather than getting an application submitted, success is getting a researcher to realize that submitting the application is the wrong decision. For many projects it would be far better to keep working on improving the research plan and wait until the next deadline. With many NIHR programmes, that’s only a 4 month delay. If you rush and submit a less than perfect project, you’ve then got a wait of usually 6 months to hear the outcome. And, if it’s a rejection, with many NIHR programmes there’s a 12-month waiting period before you can resubmit.

So, to sum this all up, I’d like to leave you with a couple of points. First, when you hear about a funding outcome, please do let your RDS (and whoever else helped you with the application) know and, if possible, let them see the feedback the submission received. This way, they can celebrate with you if the application was successful. And, if it wasn’t, then they can learn from the feedback, just as you can, and help you with the decision of where to go from here.

Secondly, do keep in mind that rushing to submit for that funding deadline isn’t always the best thing to do. Sometimes success is waiting in the short-term to enable you to get to the longer-term success of actually running your project.

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