NIHR Fellowships & ‘One NIHR’

I was lucky enough recently to visit my colleagues at the Research Design Service in the East Midlands (RDS EM), in Leicester to be specific. This was a first for me – to actually meet in person other RDS colleagues in their own patch. As I’ve written about before, we have a so-called ‘National Training Day’ the is held roughly every 2 years, but attending that has been, until now, been my only experience of meeting other RDS colleagues.

Social media can be a great enabler of actual face-to-face contact. My very first ‘follower’ on twitter was Sarah Seaton, an RDS adviser and NIHR doctoral fellow. Through twitter we’ve had numerous conversations on a wide range of health-research and RDS-related topics. As I’ve commented on before, the health research community on twitter is lively and varied. This interaction then led up to a hugely enjoyable Google hangout via the NIHR Hub (where there may or may not have been virtual hats involved at various points in proceedings), and finally to us deciding that it would be a good idea to arrange to meet up in person. Although we are badged as ‘one RDS’ and ‘one NIHR’, the fact still remains that many of us on-the-ground advisers don’t really have all that much contact with the wider, national RDS or, indeed, NIHR.

One of the things that Sarah does in RDS EM is to arrange a 2-hour NIHR Fellowship event every year. As she is herself an NIHR fellow, as well as being a RDS adviser, she is in the perfect position to do so. As we in the RDS SE were due to hold our fellowship event, for the first time, in a couple of weeks, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to visit, observe the event, and meet Sarah and her RDS EM colleagues.

Now, I can’t really write this particular post without sharing what I learned from the event. NIHR Fellowships, to quote Dawn Biram from the Trainees Coordinating Centre (TCC) who spoke, fund research and training to develop the research leaders of the future. With a variety of pathways open – for medics, clinically-trained health professionals, and non-clinical health researchers – at a variety of levels – Masters right the way up to Senior Lectureships – they are certainly a something worth considering when planning your research. And, as with all health and social care research applications, they are something on which your local RDS can provide advice, support and guidance.

Sarah had arranged for a range of speakers, all of whom play a different role in the fellowships. There was Dawn from the TCC, the secretariat which manage the fellowship scheme for the NIHR, Matt Bown, a current panel member for the doctoral fellowship pathway, Rhiannon Owen, a current NIHR fellow, Emma Watson, a doctoral fellow with Kidney Research UK, and finally Clare Gilles, an RDS EM adviser.

I was tweeting pretty much continuously during the event as there were so many tips and hints from each of the speakers. I use #NIHRtips, if anyone is interested, as this is a hashtag that I, and others, use for all sorts of NIHR and funding-related advice.

The overwhelming message from all the speakers was just how long it takes to put together a competitive application. These are huge endeavours and require input not just from yourself, but from a range of people both within and outside your NHS Trust or HEI. It is not unexpected for a fellowship application to take 6 months to a year to get right. Make sure you look at the guidance from last year’s competition and use that as a starting place – don’t wait until the new competition opens to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Try to get your hands on a successful fellow’s application form, so you can see what a really good application looks like (and just how long and complex it is!).

Applications are judged on 3 main things: you as an applicant, your research project & training plan and your institution (both NHS and HEI). Each one of these – person, plans, place – will require careful thought and preparation. So, update your CV, get that publication in, and apply for that small pot of funding to kick-start things. Talk to your local RDS about your plans and carry out a PPI consultation on your research ideas and design. Think about what other organisations you should involve – a clinical trials unit, the clinical research network, a charity or patient stakeholder group. Look at your options for HEIs, supervisors, and mentors. Approach the top people in your field and get advice. Get an idea of what training is out there and plan to attend the best there is available. Get your research networks started now.

There were also lots of tips about filling in the actual form. Panel members are only given a couple of weeks to shortlist 15 or so applications, so do whatever you can to make yours stand out. Be neat and careful with your spelling and grammar. Be consistent in your use of numbering and make sure your references are correct. Use bold, italics and underline to make your application clear and easy to read – don’t just have unbroken lines of dense text.

If you’re invited to interview, this is your chance to really demonstrate that you live up to your application in person – candidates are only interviewed if they are potentially fundable on paper. Make sure your presentation is second-perfect and set up as many mock interviews as you possibly can – your local RDS can help you with this. Google your panel and make sure you’re familiar with them, their research interests and their institutions. You can probably work out fairly easily who will be leading your interview, so anticipate what you might be asked. Be ready to defend your research plan, but don’t ignore input from the panel either. These people are experts in their fields, so give in to their greater experience if they suggest things to you. While you’re speaking, be confident and come out and move around the room. Remember, the panel is looking for future research leaders, so show your passion for your topic. Finally, your last slide will be left up during the Q&A portion of you interview, so use it to leave the panel with the message you want to convey.

Such events are invaluable and getting to talk to people directly can be really helpful if you’re planning to apply for an NIHR fellowship. Contact your local RDS and see if they’re doing something. Even if they’re not, they’ll have the experience of working with many NIHR fellows at various levels. They can help you with your application and may also be able to put you in touch with others who’ve been on the same journey.

From my point of view, it’s this collective experience that is so very valuable. When we share our experiences across the NIHR, we become stronger as a research community. We can help and support each other, offer advice and critical evaluation, and provide a network and a support group for researchers at all levels of the NIHR research pathway. I gained a lot from my visit, both in terms of knowing more about the NIHR fellowships, but also about what it means to be part of the larger NIHR and how, as a research community, we all have our parts to play in ensuring that patients and the public benefit from the very best evidence-based health and social care.


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.

Research Retreats – do they work?

I was fortunate recently to be invited to speak at a Research Retreat run by the Research Design and Conduct Service (RDCS – another acronym for you!). The RDCS operates pretty much the same as the Research Design Service (RDS) does, but in Wales rather than in England. There are some differences between us – the acronyms change (rather NISCHR than NIHR; RfPPB rather than RfPB) and there are slight differences in the NHS set-up (Health Boards rather than NHS Trusts; differences in how support costs are provided)– but nothing too different overall. Most importantly, however, the research and funding landscape remain pretty familiar.

The concept of a research retreat is not a new one. I know that certain RDSs in England, RDS SW for example, have been running them for years. But it was not something I had been a part of before and I was keen to see one in action. How productive would researchers be when provided with a few days dedicated research time, with the support of a range of methodologists and advisers, away from the pressures of their clinical responsibilities?

The RDCS team had done their homework. They’d booked out a small country hotel that had lots of room where the teams could work, wonderful food and, perhaps most importantly, a continual supply of tea and coffee. The timing was also good; there was a funding deadline that many of the teams were working toward. And the group was good – 9 teams of researchers in total, making it a small enough group to get some really interesting discussions going yet large enough to allow groups to work independently on their own projects.

There were a couple of talks each day – my own on mixed-methods research, an invaluable one on project management and costings, a fascinating talk by a PPI representative, and a thorough run-down of the funding remit and requirements. These gave the teams direction, tips, and allowed us to get together for group discussions.

The rest of the time was dedicated to writing, with advisers circulating to help out where needed. I spent time with almost all of the teams, as did the other advisers. It was an illuminating process: to give the advice as I normally do, but then, instead of waiting a month or so for the next meeting to see how the team had progressed, to meet with them again later on that day to work on the next part of the project. It was like putting in several months worth of advising work into a couple of days. It was also extremely fulfilling to see the teams grow in confidence and enthusiasm as they had the time together to work on their projects with expertise on tap to really move things forward.

Of course, the proof of it all will be in the outcomes of the projects. How will the 3 applications to RfPPB fare? Will the research teams at the start of their research journey make it all the way through to submission and ultimate project funding?

I am optimistic.

When given the time and space to connect with the others in their team and really focus on their research question, study design and funding application, their dedication to and enthusiasm for their projects was tangible. These were people who had seen problems in their clinical practice and were driven to explore solutions by research in order to make things better for their patients.

And that, in a nutshell, is what fundable health research is really all about.


I have to say a big thank you to Mark Kelson, Kerry Hood and everyone else at the RDCS for inviting me!

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.

Frustrating Funding Feedback – is there any other kind?

If you’re a researcher with even the smallest amount of experience, then you’re no stranger to rejection. It goes with the territory and the ups and downs of the application cycle is something to which we all have to adjust.

When it comes to rejection, perhaps the most frustrating thing about it all is the paucity of feedback. Many hundreds of hours collectively go into a single funding application. They are, of course, the work of the PI and collaborators primarily, but also finance people, R&D staff, possibly input from a CTU and, often, research advisers like myself. It is disheartening to learn that, after all this work, a project has been rejected. And it is beyond frustrating to see that the rejection of all this effort boils down to a few short bullet points on the rejection letter.

Of course I understand the sheer volume of applications that funders get and the pressure of the time limits under which they work. And, of course, different funders do offer different levels of feedback. Many programmes, RfPB for example, will send the PI the outcome letter with the ‘bullet points of doom’ and also include the reviews the application received.

The reviewers’ comments can be a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be gratifying to read the positive comments made by the reviewers in the face of an overall rejection by the funder. However, it can also be incredibly frustrating to realize that these positive comments were seemingly over looked by the panel and that the discussion obviously took a very different path. And when the bullet points don’t seem to match up with any of the reviewers comments, then you can be left rather bemused by the whole process.

At this point, I can understand the temptation to throw in the towel. And, for some projects, this probably is the end of the road.

However, this isn’t always the right move. If this was the project’s first rejection, then it is worth looking through all the feedback and identifying where changes could and should be made. I have seen many projects funded on their second or even third attempts. Indeed, many research teams benefit from getting the feedback about their project, however sparse it may seem, and being forced to rethink their original design. Although RfPB do not implement a time limit on resubmissions, other NIHR programmes do. However, this too is to the benefit of the project – in reality, you will need those 12 months to properly re-design the project and re-draft the application into something that is fundable.

Consult with your co-applicants and do get in contact with your local RDS. Even if you didn’t use an RDS in your first application, we would be happy to help with another attempt to secure funding. It is likely that this consultation alone will allow you to address some of the issues raised by the funding panel.

Research that comes from the right place – that is patient-centred, appropriately designed and proposed by a strong research team – is rarely entirely un-fundable.

Don’t let rejection get you down; just regroup, redesign and resubmit.

Research topics – the benefits of an eternal outsider?

I meet with a lot of NHS clinicians to talk about research questions and study design. Our region covers many different Trusts and the level of clinical expertise is immense. These meetings are always interesting and challenging. I have to confess, however, that I don’t usually have the first clue about the specifics of the topic area we’re discussing.

When I first started as research adviser, this bothered me greatly. It was what made me most nervous about meeting a clinical researcher for the first time. However, I’ve now learned that there is actually benefit in not knowing all the ins and outs of the topic area. After all, it’s the clinician who is the expert and it’s not clinical expertise they need.

Far better to let the clinician explain the research topic to me. I can then ask the simple and obvious questions that help elucidate the research question. This discussion usually forms the basis for the argument for why the research needs to be done. And determining the priority of the research topic is the very first thing a funder will do. For NIHR commissioned calls, this prioritisation process has already been at least partially done. However, for the plethora of researcher–led funding streams – both NIHR and otherwise – the argument about the importance of the research topic is the first one you must make.

The fact that I’m at a distance from the research topic means that I can play devil’s advocate. I have a tendency to cover draft protocols in comments and track changes and send emails full of questions to researchers who send me initial project proposals. It’s much better for me to be the one to do it than a funding panel who will ultimately reject a proposal if there are too many unanswered questions.

It’s difficult to know exactly who will be present at a given panel meeting where the funding decision will be made. Even though lists of members are available – and they are definitely worth a look – actual attendance varies. And, when it comes to RfPB, which panel will assess your application can vary too. Relatively recently, a bunch of ‘South East’ applications where discussed at a panel meeting in a different area entirely.

When it comes to the day of the actual meeting of the funding panel, there may be someone there just as experienced, or even more experienced, than the PI. But, then again, there may not. You also can’t predict which direction the discussion will take. Will the panel be focusing more on the priority of the topic area or will it be the design or the plan of analysis that takes up the bulk of time during the discussion? The discussion time will be tiny relative to the time that has gone in to preparing the application and so there’s simply no way of knowing which aspect in particular will capture the panel’s attention.

It’s my job to try to cover every possible angle.

Many RDSs offer researchers the opportunity to put their application forward for a ‘dry run’. At the RDS SE, we hold a regular ‘pre-submission panel’, where we all get together and try to replicate an NIHR funding panel meeting. As a group, we cover a range of specialities, both methodologically and with regards to specific health topics. We have lay representatives who attend and even use the RfPB programme’s assessment criteria to rate each submission. It’s a useful exercise for both the adviser and the researcher. From my perspective, I find it fascinating to see how my comments fit in with those of my colleagues and it’s reassuring to have actual proof that we’re all pretty much on the same page when it comes time to assess the proposals. And, from a researcher’s perspective, they get a lot of feedback on their proposal, far more than the few bullet points of doom that accompany the formal NIHR letters informing PIs about funding decisions.

I’ve come to embrace my role as the eternal outsider when it comes to the majority of specific health research topics. I believe it allows me to offer researchers a far more honest assessment of their research proposal and gives me the tools to push researchers to improve the quality of their applications. It’s also a strength of the RDS as a whole, allowing us to attempt to replicate funding panels for researchers.

If you are preparing an application for NIHR funding, it is worth talking to your local RDS and benefit from our expertise… and our lack of it.

Top tips from the RDS National Training Day!

I attended the NIHR Research Design Service National Training Day recently. I believe it’s the second one that’s been held, but it’s the first one that I’ve been able to attend.

Even within the Research Design Service South East (RDS SE), it’s fairly rare for members from our 3 sites to get together in person. We do it perhaps a handful of times a year – mainly for our thrice annually Pre-Submission Panels and our annual Away Day. So, the prospect of meeting up, with not only the other RDS SE people, but with those from all the other 9 RDSs was an exciting one.

Attendance was good, even from RDSs for whom the trip to London was considerably more arduous than my own one and a half hour direct train trip from Brighton. At my level – that of a general research adviser with no overarching strategic role – there’s basically no formal opportunity to contact people from the other RDSs. It’s one of the reasons that I’ve embraced social media to the extent that I have – it’s a great way of talking to other advisers in RDSs whom I wouldn’t otherwise meet. So to have this opportunity present itself, and for it to be face-to-face, was great.

I have to say the experience didn’t disappoint. There must have been about 150 of us there – a good representation across the board. And, for the most part, we were able to share experiences and reflect on the fact that, despite the regional variations across the country, we face the same issues and challenges when it comes to supporting researchers design fundable projects. The take-home message was that we are doing a good job, but that there is always room for improvement.

I’m not going to do a formal report of the day – that would, I imagine, be fairly dull. But I did want to share some of the things I found most valuable in terms of research advice. Hopefully this will resonate with anyone reading who works for an RDS – and perhaps some of you were there too? – and also be useful to any researchers reading, regardless of whether your located in an NHS Trust or an HEI.

One of the opening plenary talks was by Prof. Tom Walley, Director of the HTA programme and of the other NETS programmes. In terms of things changing, he was able to tell us that the HTA programme are piloting a new Expression of Interest form, which will take the place of the longer and more detailed outline application form currently being used. The goal is to make this first step in the application process easier and faster, both to write and to be reviewed. You can find out more about this here.

I was also able to pick out four top tips from Tom’s talk.

The first was about making very clear to funders the importance the research question to the NHS and its users. Determining the priority of the question is the first thing a funding panel will do, before they even look at who is on the team or how they’re proposing to address the question. This explanation needs to be explained clearly and convincingly to a non-expert reader.

The second point was about clearly defining the evidence gap, as defined by systematic reviews. Tom quoted the figure that half of studies are designed without reference to a systematic review of the evidence that already exists. This raises the question of whether, if a systematic review doesn’t exist in the area in which you work, should this be the first thing you do? Indeed, the RfPB programme has recently issued new guidance around applications for systematic reviews with a suggested funding limit of £150K. You can find out more about that here.

The third point was the observation that there are too few NHS applicants, especially acting as principle investigators. We RDSs need to be proactive about engaging with clinical researchers. We have work to do in liaising with Trusts and demonstrating the benefits engaging with us will have for their clinicians interested in research.

The final point was around value for money. Tom observed that we have likely reached, or are very soon to reach, a funding ceiling. This fact makes clearly describing the importance and relevance of your research question all the more important. Funders will increasingly only be funding ‘priority’ questions. There is a drive for efficiency, in terms of both study design and in making use of data sets already in existence and routinely collected data. The recent HTA call for ‘efficient study designs’ is a nice demonstration of this. Such studies also need to be pragmatic, to reflect the realities of care in the NHS. This drive for value will also mean fewer extensions and a greater monitoring of milestones and targets. Studies are more likely to be closed down if it becomes apparent that they will require a big extension in time and money in order to succeed. There will be more importance placed of having feasibility and pilot data in order to demonstrate that patients are out there and are willing to be recruited into, and remain in, clinical trials.

I found these messages helpful and will definitely be referring to them in my advising in the future. I was gratified to see a very clear role for the RDS in facilitating high quality research and hope that this is a message we can get out to researchers.

That is, in essence, the aim of this blog.

The NIHR – lost in the acronyms?

As I’ve commented before, the NIHR loves its acronyms. Work in the system for long enough and you can have entire conversations that consist largely of seemingly random strings of letters.

There are the research programmes – RfPB, HS&DR, HTA, EME, PHR, PGfAR, and PDG. Of course, then there’s i4i, which goes for a trendy look by using the now-ubiquitous lower case ‘i’ and adding a number into the mix.

Then there are the two centres that manage these research programmes – NETSCC and the CCF.

And let’s not forget the need to ensure your costings are in line with AcoRD guidance. And the CRN that provides the infrastructure and support for research in the NHS.

And then there are the RDSs that support researchers. There are 10 altogether. I’ll spare you the entire list, but let’s just say their acronyms are all a bit like the one for which I work – the RDS SE.

Now, I won’t dispute that these can be useful short-hand when talking to colleagues well habituated to this alphabet soup. But, they often present a real barrier to researchers on the ‘outside’.

And, to be honest, they can also be a barrier to those who work inside the system as well.

I used to be the Programme Manager for ID&P when I worked at NCCHTA, which is now NETSCC. (Translation: the manager for identification and priortisation for the National Co-ordinating Centre for Health Technology Assessment, now the NIHR’s Evaluations, Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre), where we would have monthly internal meetings, each one run by a different area. When it came time for my area to present, I put together a blockbuster game, complete with a hexagonal-celled board, for us all to play, to introduce everyone to the acronyms used by this one department alone.

The point of this is the importance of simplicity. From the start, the NIHR puts up a pretty big barrier to engaging with researchers, many of whom don’t even know what these letters stand for, let alone the acronyms for the myriad of research programmes, initiatives, documents and support organisations.

So, in an effort to cut through the minefield of letters, let me give a simple message:

I’m Claire, a research adviser. If you’d like to conduct health research into an issue you see in your clinical practice, then come talk to me. I can help you with your research question and design and also who to approach for funding. This is a free service and there are advisers located throughout England.

Find out more here.

Alternatively, comment on this post and I’ll help point you in the right direction.

ETA: There are a couple of good glossaries, of which I’ve just been reminded.
– The NIHR’s glossary is here.
– NETSCC’s glossary is here.
Many thanks to Nicola Tose for reminding me!

ETA2: Sarah Seaton has kindly added to the acronym list — see below for even more! I’m sure there are many more out there as well.

ETA3: Another one for the list: the lovely people at the Complex Reviews Support Unit (CRSU) who provide support for the delivery of complex reviews that are funded and/or supported by NIHR.

Who’s on your team?

Through my role as an adviser for the Research Design Service South East (RDS SE), I most often find myself working with clinicians in the NHS. To me, this is one of the most important roles the RDS – to offer busy clinicians advice and support on how to design, conduct and gain funding for research on issues that they see in their everyday practice. However, I have found myself working with academic researchers based primarily in universities more frequently of late. Perhaps this is an indication of the growing competition for research funds as the research councils, the traditional funders of university-based research, reduce their budgets and become more specific about the types of research they will fund. It is also a reflection of the growing commitment to health research within the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Whatever the cause, I’ve been interested to note the differences in expectation of researchers from these very different backgrounds.

One of the main differences I find between the two centres around expectations of the type of research team funders are looking for when assessing applications. When I advise clinical researchers, they are very open and appreciative of larger research teams, where every individual has their own area of expertise to bring to the table. This is something which the NIHR requires. If you’re planning to conduct a clinical trial, the NIHR want to see involvement from methodologists, statisticians, health economists and service users. All of this, in addition to the clinical expertise of the team in terms of the specific subject area. And brokering these collaborations is something with which RDSs can help.

By contrast, this notion of a large research team is something that can be less familiar in academic circles. I met with an academic researcher a few weeks ago who summed it up quite nicely. ‘We’re too used to doing everything ourselves,’ he said. ‘If a new skill is required for a project, then I’ll teach it to myself.’

This is a notion I recognize. From the earliest stages of academic research – the PhD – many researchers are left on their own to get on with their projects. You get some tips from your supervisor and maybe a post-doc in your group, but if something needs to be done, then it’s up to you to make sure that it is.

However, from the perspective of many funders, this is a waste of time and money. If your project involves collecting vast amounts of data, the funder wants to see that you have someone on your research team with a proven track record of analyzing such data. Otherwise, this represents a risk. Therefore, for every task you have highlighted, you should have someone on your team dedicated to complete it and with the necessary knowledge, experience and/or supervision to do so.

At the end of the day, the thing that all involved care about is that the research is successful. Therefore, maximize your chances of success. When it comes to your research team, think carefully about who’s on your team and make sure you’ve got the support to see your project through to successful completion.