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.

Time to Write?

Finding time to focus on research can be challenging. Research is, for many of the clinicians with whom I work, something that is done in their ‘free’ time. They recognise the value of research and believe passionately about delivering evidence-based care to their patients, yet it is not something they can necessarily dedicate time to during their working week. They have heavy clinical responsibilities and having the time to think about their research plans can be difficult; more difficult still is finding the time to actually sit down and tackle one of the NIHR research programme’s detailed application forms.

And, yet, these are the very people the NIHR is trying to reach. As I talked about here, the NIHR is a funder of research for, and from, the NHS. It is these clinical researchers – those who know intimately the problems faced in clinical practice – who we want to encourage to put forward questions to address through research to find evidence-based solutions that they can use in their practice to the benefit of their patients.

There are a number of ways to tackle the problem of time. I believe that working with an RDS adviser, like myself, can help make the process of designing a research study and submitting a funding application easier. As I’ve said before, there are many advantages to making use of the services the NIHR Research Design Service offer to health and social care researchers free of charge. I won’t go into detail of these here, but our collective experience with funding applications and funders, our individual expertise as researchers, and our ability to offer peer and lay review are just a few ways we can support busy clinicians who wish to pursue research.

Another way of making time for research is to actually allocate a block of it specifically for writing. Bits and pieces, written and read here and there in evenings and weekends can make for a difficult to follow funding application. It is surprisingly easy to spot when applications have been written by different people and no one has had the time to go though the entire document and pull it all together. But, often, there are few alternatives.

Last March, I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak and advise at a Research Retreat run by the Research Design and Conduct Service (the Welsh equivalent of the RDS). I wrote about my experience of the event specifically, and about the usefulness of Research Retreats in general, on my return. I found the event positive, productive and rewarding. It was a real pleasure to have an extended amount of time to dedicate to the development of specific research proposals and to observe just how far the research teams had progressed in the development of these over the course of just 3 days. With dedicated time to write, and experienced advisers to offer support, real progress was evident.

RDS SW have run a similar type of Retreat annually since 2009. Like my experience in Wales, they have received very positive feedback. Participants, in particular, have welcomed the dedicated time to concentrate solely on their research with RDS staff available throughout to offer expert support and guidance. It is always hard to come up with reliable measures of success when it comes to funding applications (as I’ve commented on here). It is also difficult to know for sure what leads to success. That said, RDS SW are aware of 20 applications, worked on during their Retreat, which were successfully submitted to funders. Of these, 9 were funded. This, if you’re at all familiar with the typical success rates of the various NIHR funding programmes (RfPB, for example, has a success rate around 20%), is pretty impressive.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been involved in a group made up of RDS staff from across the country with the aim of offering something similar to health and social care researchers in England. This is the first time such an event has been offered nationally, but it is our hope that it will give busy clinicians the time, space and support to act on their research aspirations and produce an almost submission-ready funding application.

For this first venture, teams of 2 or 3 researchers can apply to take part in a 5-day RDS Residential Grant Writing Retreat to be held from 13th – 17th June 2016 in Bath. More details of the entry requirements, application and selection process, cost, and venue are available here.

If you think this is something that might interest you and your fellow researchers, do have a look. I can only speak from my own experiences of a similar type of event, but I do believe there is much to be gained by participating. At the very least, you are guaranteed dedicated time to write, with the help and guidance of experienced RDS advisers. And working in a supportive environment with other committed researchers and RDS advisers is likely to bring about even more.

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!

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.