I’ve done a few short talks recently about the NIHR Research Design Service and the services we offer. It has been an interesting exercise – to try to distill in a short space of time the hours of concentrated effort that RDS advisers put into the applications we support and the variety of guises our advice can take. In many ways, this has been a marketing exercise – detailing the ‘unique selling points’ of the RDSs in a way that would appeal to NHS clinicians who are either already involved in research or are interested in so being.

I’ve talked numerous times before about the support RDS advisers can give, but it has been interesting to really focus in on what is unique about the RDSs. I think it comes down to 3 things: (1) collective experience, (2) peer review, and (3) lay review.

First of all, collectively, we have experience with literally hundreds of funding applications from a wide range of applied health and social care research funders. We’ve seen what works as well as what doesn’t. We’ve worked on bids that have been funded first time around and ones that have been funded fifth time around. We’ve worked on a huge variety of research topics, we know our remit as advisers and our strengths as researchers and methodologists in our own right. And, perhaps most importantly of all, we occupy a unique position of being committed to an applications success and yet not being part of the research team and, as such, not too close to the research idea. Of course, this is not to say that we can therefore guarantee a particular application’s success – but making use of our expertise certainly can’t hurt.

Peer review is, in my opinion, another big USP. As far as I am aware, all of the 10 RDSs in England offer some form of formal peer review. Like many, the RDS SE holds a regular meeting, which we call a ‘pre-submission panel’. Advisers from across our region get together and review funding applications in detail in a way that mirrors as closely as possible the assessment process of the NIHR research programmes. This trial run gives researchers an invaluable opportunity to address any potential weaknesses identified in their application prior to submission. It also allows them to make the, sometimes vital, decision not to submit just yet.

Thirdly, lay review is something that many RDSs offer. At the RDS SE, we offer researchers the opportunity to have their applications reviewed by 2 lay reviewers. This is also linked to the peer review process – where 2 lay reviewers sit on our pre-submission panel. Again, this reflects to some extent the NIHR’s assessment procedure and also allows researchers to hear directly from lay representatives their views on the research question and the research team’s plans to address it.

Now, I don’t in any way believe that consultation with an NIHR RDS will necessarily mean a successful application for funding. Certainly this would be impossible given that, in the South East at any rate, our aim is to provide advice and methodological support for as many projects as possible.

However, this does bring us to a fourth USP: we provide our service to researchers free of charge.

So, my take home message is this: if you are preparing an application for health or social care research funding, come and talk to us.

From frustration to funding

I attended the R&D meeting of one of our local NHS Trusts a few months ago where the main agenda item was the organization of the Trust’s annual research conference. During the meeting, two of the members started a fascinating discussion about the research process, which stayed with me long after the meeting had finished.

They were talking about the very beginning of the research process – about that spark of inspiration that can start an entire programme of research and from where such a spark can come. Interestingly, rather than talking about a fascinating theory or a novel approach, the fantastic force of inspiration they were discussing was that of simple frustration. The sources of this frustration encompassed a wide range of issues – from frustrations with clinical practice, patient progress and lack thereof, right through to frustrations with service organisation and delivery.

I found this a fascinating idea and it is one that is mirrored by the provision of research funding by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). The NIHR is largely a funder of NHS-based research – the funds are held by NHS Trusts rather than HEIs, the principle investigators are usually NHS clinicians, and the research topics prioritised are those which will bring about direct benefit to patients. This focus makes the NIHR unique amongst the variety of other funders of research that exist, including the research councils and numerous charities. The NIHR is all about research for, and from, the NHS. Research topics are prioritised by various panels precisely to ensure that the topics believed to be of greatest import to patients and NHS staff are those that receive funding.

When discussing funding applications with researchers, my colleagues and I often talk about the ‘story’ behind the research. This story is a vital one to tell when making an application for funding. It straddles various parts of the application form – the background and rationale sections, the PPI sections, the outcomes sections. Identifying the source of your spark of inspiration is an important part of telling this story. And, often, this spark is one of frustration with how things currently stand and the desire to change things for the better.

I wrote a blog post a while ago about turning the frustrations associated with poor feedback following funding application rejection into fuel to redesign and reapply. It seems only fitting to now attend to the other end of the spectrum and say that the frustrations felt about any issues of clinical practice can equally be used to inspire research questions. And, as with any research question, your local RDS can help refine and direct these frustrations into a research question appropriate for NIHR funding.

Don’t let frustrations get you down; use them to fuel your research questions and apply for funding to identify solutions. By so doing, you may uncover solutions that will improve care for patients as well as easing the frustrations of staff.


ETA: As Nikki points out below, the NIHR does fund non-NHS research – the Public Health Research programme being a prime example of this.