Home again

So, the first RDS National Grant Writing Retreat is over and the delegates and Research Design Service (RDS) staff have returned home. Everyone is once again juggling their research with their day jobs.

The week was a full on affair, with every team working incredibly hard. There were a huge array of topics covered: in my own cluster of teams we had projects on mental health, diabetes, and dementia, with outcomes ranging from disease prevention and symptom reduction right through to optimising health service organisation and the delivery of care. As I found from my time at a similar Retreat in Wales, the work of advising these teams was both challenging and satisfying. Four projects, all at different stages of development and aimed at different funding programmes, is quite a lot to keep in your head at once. Often, a discussion with one team would finish only for a different one with another team to start. Yet it was this constant progression of ideas and plans that made the week so productive. With nothing else to distract them from their research plans, teams could take onboard one set of advice, think and act on it immediately, and then be ready to discuss the next set of ideas a couple of hours later.

Interestingly, we found that it was this discussion, dissection and then re-assembly of research plans and ideas that took up most of the week. Research planning is iterative by nature: you end up designing and re-designing all aspects of your project – from the argument you make for it’s priority to the methods you’ll be using to the analyses you’ll be carrying out – many times over before you have a project ready to submit for funding. For many of the teams, it was on this part of the process that the Retreat focused. Drafting an NIHR funding application which adequately addresses the myriad of issues required to obtain funding is something of an art form. One of the unique selling points of the Research Design Service, which I’ve written about at greater length here, is our collective experience of literally hundreds of NIHR applications. This experience was something we could use to help teams plan their research and so make a start on their applications in a strong position.

I have no doubt that the progress teams made over the course of the week will be invaluable to them. As I’ve said in previous posts, the week itself represents many months of advising work in the ‘real world’. The challenge now will be for teams to keep up the momentum gained during the Retreat. I look forward to hearing what happens to each team’s research applications. Hopefully most, if not all, will be submitted to one of the NIHR funding programmes. And, of these, some will be successful.

Regardless of the final outcome of any one particular project, the lessons learned and experiences gained by the researchers on the Retreat are something which will help them plan every project of their research careers. And, ultimately, this is what will be of most use – knowledge gained, shared and used by researchers of the future.

The first National RDS Grant Writing Retreat

Today is the start of the NIHR Research Design Service’s (RDS) first national Grant Writing Retreat. It’s a week dedicated to helping research teams who are pulling together a research application, with a crack team of RDS methodologists on hand to offer advice and support. The idea is that, over the course of the week, a research idea which was in the early stages of development would be fleshed out, focussed, and take the form of a completed application near-ready for submission to a funding body.

I’ve been fortunate in the past to attend a similar event, held in South East Wales and hosted by their wonderful Research Design and Conduct Service. I wrote about my experiences here and my most striking memory was how far the research teams progressed over the course of just 3 days.

Many researchers, especially those applying to one of the NIHR’s funding programmes are busy clinicians with heavy clinical loads. Once you’ve had a research idea, finding the time and energy to dedicate to crafting a research proposal can be a challenge. Yet this ‘Time to Write’ is essential if you’re to pull together a research proposal that has any chance of being funded. Anyone who has filled in an NIHR research application knows they are lengthy forms, with sections that seem to spring into being, hydra-like, just as you think you’ve completed the final one. Time is, therefore, an essential aspect, not just to come up with the idea for your study and its design, but of ‘Telling your Research Story’ in your application in a way that will convince a funding panel it is research worth supporting.

Yet, time isn’t the only issue. You also need to have ‘the right team’ of people around you. Often I review research applications that address an important area, but which lack clarity because they have been cobbled together by various contributors with no time spent ensuring the over-arching message is coherent. Similarly, I also see applications where it is clear that there has only been a single author and, as such, important aspects are missing because that person, quite understandably, lacks the expertise needed to cover all the issues. This is where the RDS comes in – providing not only our own expertise in a wide range of methodologies, but also in match-making between researchers. And, now, there is also the chance to have a whole week with your research team members dedicated to completing that all-important application, with freely-available RDS adviser input.

From an RDS perspective, I’m excited to be participating as an adviser. As the Retreat is a national initiative, it is being staffed by advisers from across England. We tend to be very regional in our outlook – I’m an adviser for the RDS South East and, under normal circumstances, have little contact with my fellow advisers in other regions. That said, I have managed to visit both RDS London (which you can read about here) and RDS East Midlands (which you can read about here) and have found the opportunity to observe other RDSs in action, and meet with other advisers, has helped me tremendously as well as boosting my enthusiasm for a job I love. I now have another opportunity to meet and work alongside my colleagues in other RDSs.

All in all, at the start of the first RDS National Grant Writing Retreat, I find myself feeling positive. I’ve read all the research plan summaries for the teams attending and am excited by the prospect of helping bring these important projects to their full potential.

Stay tuned for more thoughts as the week progresses. And, if you’re at the Retreat in any capacity, do please comment and tweet about your experiences.