Face to Face

My tour of the RDSs – which commenced with my trip to Leicester to observe RDS EM’s NIHR Fellowship Day – continued recently with a visit to RDS London. I was invited by Lauren Bell to observe their Proposal Feedback Forum and to meet Lauren and her RDS London colleagues.

It has always been one of my intentions, with this blog, to reach out to other RDS staff and advisers across England. Although we all offer the same type of support and guidance to researchers applying for funding for health and social care research, our different areas are quite distinct – each with its own needs and requirements when it comes to how this support is delivered. RDS London serves, as you might expect, a tremendously research-active part of the country, and I was excited by the opportunity to observe them in action.

I’ve written before about what I view as the main ‘USPs’ of the RDS. Peer review is, in my mind, one at the very top of that list: the fact that researchers, regardless of stage or experience, can access free help and advice from methodological experts in a wide variety of areas. Offering advice on a one-to-one basis is a core part of the way all RDSs do business: a researcher who approaches us asking for advice will typically liaise with a single adviser, who will be their main point of contact with the wider RDS. However, in addition to this lead adviser, researchers can access a breadth of methodological expertise, as required. One of the ways that many of the RDSs choose to expand upon this is to hold meetings where advisers act as a funding panel, reading, assessing and giving feedback to researchers before they submit their applications to be faced with the real deal. This trial run can be tremendously valuable to researchers – allowing them to fine-tune their applications and, on occasion, make the sometimes difficult decision that more work is required before they’re ready to submit for real.

One of the main difficulties faced by researchers who have had applications rejected by funders is the paucity of information about how to improve their applications prior to resubmission. I’m a big believer in re-designing and re-submitting, as I’ve written about before. However, to many clinical researchers who are relative novices when it comes to research, this type of rejection can be devastating and mean that they turn away from research, leaving their important, clinically-driven questions unanswered. This is unfortunate as these are the very researchers that the NIHR is keen to engage and to encourage to conduct research.

In the South East, we hold a regular Pre-submission Panel, where we ask researchers to submit draft funding applications which are reviewed by a large group of our advisers. Our collective advice is then fed back to the researcher by the lead adviser. In essence, we mimic a funding panel but with the added advantage of offering detailed advice on how to improve applications. RDS London do something similar, as do many other RDSs.

In the past couple of years, in addition to this type of review, RDS London have offered the opportunity for researchers to come and present to their panel in person. They still submit their near-to-completion funding application for review, but they also prepare a 10-minute presentation, including any specific questions they want answered, to present to RDS panel prior to a larger discussion of the proposal. This allows for immediate feedback to the researcher about their plans and their questions, and also for a discussion to take place with them about any concerns identified by the panel.

The particular panel I observed had 2 researchers presenting – one an experienced academic researcher with a clinical background and the other a practicing clinician who was a more novice researcher. After each of the of their presentations, they would get comments and questions from a range of methodologists, covering statistics, health economics, Patient & Public Involvement (PPI), qualitative research and health psychology. A discussion would ensue during which various aspects of the question, application and design would be clarified or altered. It was a fascinating process to observe, not least because I could see the benefit of the process to both the experienced researcher and the less experienced. The entire process was positive and encouraging, with an emphasis on making the research application stronger and more competitive. There was no doubt that both researchers left having received valuable feedback which will hopefully translate into successful applications, better research and ultimately benefit to patients.

There is definitely something to be said for having the researcher present to face a panel and answer questions directly. Issues can often be resolved far more easily in this kind of environment when compared to via email or even face-to-face meetings with just a single adviser. It can also help with what is one of my biggest frustrations when working with a researcher: what to do when your advice is ignored. There is something about advisers coming together in this way that makes it harder to brush our advice aside.

It is also a wonderful opportunity of personal development, and RDS London recognise and take advantage of this. It is reassuring for more junior or newly-appointed advisers to observe more experienced colleagues and learn from the type of advice they give.

For my part, there are three take home messages. First, that RDS advice can make a real difference to the competitiveness of research applications regardless of how experienced the researcher may be. Secondly, that the format used by RDS London is something worth exploring in my own patch down in the South East. And, finally, that despite our geographical barriers, we are one RDS, offering the same high-quality advice and support to researchers across England.

If you’re a researcher in London working in health or social care, do get in touch with RDS London. If you can, do ask to present at their Proposal Feedback Forum.

If you’re elsewhere in England – there is an RDS for you! Find out where here.

If you’re in the South East – Surrey, Sussex or Kent – come talk to me and my colleagues!

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