Our new normal; still your RDS

I’m not entirely sure how to start this blog post. The global situation – the vast and far-reaching changes to our way of life – are almost inconceivable. Trying to find a way forward in the midst of all this uncertainty and change is difficult. I am very fortunate that, thus far, my family and friends remain safe and well. I am also so very thankful for the wonderful care and support of everyone in the NHS, health and social care, education, social services and a whole host of other vital services that are the very bedrock of our society.

Like many of my colleagues in the NIHR, I am now working from home. There is plenty of valuable advice and support available about how to do this successfully and we are all trying to get into a new routine in which we can all do our jobs. One of first things we implemented here at the Research Design Service in Sussex is a regular virtual coffee morning at 10.30 everyday for whomever is around and free at that time. I am already finding it a much-anticipated part of my morning routine!

We are a few weeks in now and I can say with certainty that the Research Design Service South East is very much still open for business. We have almost seamlessly transitioned from a face-to-face service – visiting researchers in person to discuss their research plans and offer methodological expertise – to an online consultation service. I am becoming adept at various software packages and teleconferencing services and find that these media take very little away from the relationships I am able to form with researchers and nothing from the quality of advice I am able to provide. Our group consultations and review panels are likewise just as effective over telephone, Zoom, Skype or Google Hangout as they are in person. We are even holding our first online webinar shortly – a resource I think will be a valuable addition to the range of support we offer researchers.

If this crisis has taught us anything, it is about the vital and life-saving importance of research. Science and the evidence it provides drives effective care; designing and conducting robust research is what allows for the development and implementation of evidence-based interventions that are crucial assets in any clinician or practitioners tool box.

The NIHR sits at the very forefront of applied health and social care research and now, as always, it reacts swiftly to issue funding calls to support projects that address topics of national priority. NIHR and UK Research and Innovation have already funded a £20 million coronavirus research rapid response initiative into active intervention development and diagnosing & understanding coronavirus which will hopefully deliver much needed evidence to fight this pandemic. We at the Research Design Service remain an important part of this process – offering our free and confidential methodological advice and support to health and social care researchers from across the NHS, social care and public health, academia and industry.

Do please reach out and let us help you, now and in the future. We remain your RDS.


Minding your Ps and Qs

Tactics are important when writing a funding application and knowing what a given funder is looking for can often give one research application the edge over another. Funding panel meetings have packed agendas where many applications are considered by busy people. Knowing how to write for this audience – how to clearly demonstrate why your research application should be funded – is therefore an important skill. One of my main roles as an NIHR Research Design Service adviser is to help researchers pull together their funding applications – to mould their research ideas into a fundable project and to put this across in what are often stark and word-limited application forms.

If you’re applying to the NIHR for funding, there are two important things to keep in mind when starting to write your application: First, is the need to demonstrate the PRIORITY of your research topic and the second, closely related, is to have a clearly defined research QUESTION which your study will directly address and answer through appropriate design and methods.

The first thing that any NIHR funding panel will do is assess the priority of your research topic and question to service users and the NHS. Therefore, it is imperative that you demonstrate this from the outset. The exception to this rule is when you’re applying to a specific commissioned call, where the job of identifying and prioritizing topics has already been done by NIHR panels convened specifically for this purpose. Still, even here, it is worth addressing why your team’s particular take on the requirements of the commissioning brief are a particular priority for service users.

There are many ways to demonstrate the priority of your research topic & associated questions. Your literature review should demonstrate the knowledge gap that your research question is addressing. Your description of the current care pathway can illustrate how and where the problem caused by this gap manifests itself in clinical practice. Your consultation with service users can help demonstrate the burden of this problem on patients and their families. You can look further afield here as well – for example, speak to any relevant charities and check to see whether the James Lind Alliance has set research priorities for your topic. Talk about what will change in clinical practice as a result of answering your research questions. All of these things will help demonstrate that your research is a priority of funding.

In many ways, these are all fairly obvious and are all probably things you are already doing. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the reason you are writing about the literature, your service user consultations, and the problems with current service provision is to prove to the funding panel why they simply must fund your research:

By so doing, there will be direct benefit to service users and the wider NHS once your study completes.

So, when it comes to your NIHR funding application, you really do need to mind your Ps & Qs. And your local RDS can help you do just that.

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.