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.

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