Securing funding and balancing efforts: a tale of 21 research applications

EU H2020 Participants Portal
EU H2020 Participants Portal

The last 3 months were a gradual sigh of relief for the Extreme Citizen Science group (ExCites), Mapping for Change (MfC), and for me. As the UCL engineering website announced, the ExCiteS group, which I co-direct, secured funding through 3 research grants from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme (H2020), with enough funding to continue our work for the next 3 years, which is excellent. As usual in publicity, UCL celebrates successes, not the work that led to it. However, there are implications for the effort of securing funding and it is worth reflecting on them – despite the fact that we are in the success camp. While the criticism of the application process to European projects on the ROARS website is a bit exaggerated, it does give a good context for this post. In what follows I cover the context for the need to apply for funding, look at the efforts, successes and failures from mid 2014 to early 2016 (mostly failures), and then look at the implications. 

This is not a piece to boast about success or moan about failure, but I find writing as a useful way to reflect, and I wanted to take stock of the research application process. I hope that it will help in communicating what is the process of securing funding for an interdisciplinary, research intensive group.

Background & context 

The background is that the ExCiteS group started at the end of 2011, with a large group of PhD students – as common to early stage research groups. With the support of the UK Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) award, which is about to end soon, it was possible to start a group. With additional funding from the European Union (EU) and EPSRC projects, including EveryAware (2011-2014), Citizen Cyberlab (2012-2015), Challenging Risk (2013-2018), and Cap4Access (2014-2016), it was possible to develop the activities of ExCiteS & MfC. This is evident in the software packages that are emerging from our work: Sapelli, GeoKey, and a new version of Community Maps, methodologies for using these tools within participatory processes. the academic and non-academic outputs, and the fact that people know about our work.

However, what was clear since 2011 was that 2015 will be a crunch point, when we will need funding to allow members of the group to move from PhD students to post-doctoral researchers (postdocs). The financial implication of funding a postdoc is about three-times the funding for a PhD student. In addition, while at earlier years members of the group (regardless of their career stage) participated in writing research proposals – and helped winning them (e.g. Citizen Cyberlab), when people write-up their PhD theses it is inappropriate to expect them to invest significant amount of time in research applications. Finally, all our funding come through research projects – we don’t have other sources of income.

Research Applications – effort, successes, failures 

UK Research Councils system (Je-S)
UK Research Councils system (Je-S)

So it was very clear that 2015 is going to be full of research applications. To give an idea of how many and the work that was involved, I’m listing them here – more or less in order of effort. I’m providing more details on successful applications but only partial on the failed ones – mostly because I didn’t check with the coordinators or the partners to see if they allow me to do so.

We started in mid 2014, when we started working on the first version of what is now DITOs. Coordinating an EU H2020 project proposal with 11 partners mean that between May and September 2014 we’ve invested an estimated 6 or 7 person months within the group in preparing it. We’ve submitted it early October, only to be disappointed in early March 2015 when we heard that although we scored high (13/15), we won’t be funded – only 1 project out of 19 that applied was funded. We then resurrected the proposal in July 2015, dedicated further 5 person months, resubmitted it and won funding after competition with 56 other proposals – of which only 2 were funded.

The next major investment was into a first stage proposal to the Citizen Observatories call of H2020. ExCiteS coordinated one proposal, and MfC participated in another. The process required an outline submission and then a full proposal. We worked on the proposal from December 2014 to April 2015, and it wasn’t a huge surprise to discover that 47 proposals were submitted to the first stage, of which 11 progressed to the second. The one coordinated by ExCiteS, with an investment of about 5 person months, scored 7/10, so didn’t progressed to the second stage. MfC also invested 2.5 person months in another proposal, as a partner. This proposal passed the first stage, but failed in the second.

Participating as a major partner in a proposal is also a significant effort, especially in H2020 projects in which there are multiple partners. The collaborative effort of MfC and ExCiteS in the proposal that emerged at WeGovNow! required about 4 person months. The proposal was submitted twice – first in July 2015 to a call for “Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability and Social Innovation” which received 193 proposals of which 22 were funded, and then again to a call for “Meeting new societal needs by using emerging technologies in the public sector” where only 2 proposals were submitted in December 2015 (you can be lucky sometimes!).

The proposal for the European Research Council (ERC) was developed between May and June 2015, with about 3 person months – and luckily was successful. It competed with 1953 applications in total (423 in the social sciences), of which 277 (59) were successful – about 14% success rate.

Another fellowship proposal in response to an EPSRC call passed the first round, and failed at the interview stage (where 2 out of 5 candidates were selected). This one was developed from May 2015 and failed in February 2016, after an effort of about 2.5 person months.

We also developed the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) responsive mode proposal, which mean that we’ve applied to the general funds, and not to a specific call. We collaborated with colleagues at the Institute of Education from January 2015 to July 2015 , with an effort of about 2.5 person months, but we learned that it was unsuccessful in March 2016.

Another 2 person months were dedicated to an ESRC call for methodological research, for which 65 applications were submitted out of which 6 were funded, with our proposal ranking 22 out of about 65. In parallel, I had a small part in another proposal for the same call, which was ranked 56.

We’ve invested a month in an unsuccessful application to Wellcome Trust Science Learning + call in July 2014.

Less time was spent on proposals where we had a smaller role – a failed H2020 ICT proposal in April 2015, or another H2020 about Integrating Society in Science and Innovation September 2015. This also include a successful proposal to the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).  Because of all the other proposals, information such as the description of our activities, CVs and other bits were ready and adjusted quite easily.

ExCiteS and MfC also participated in an EU LIFE proposal – this was for funding for applied activities, with very low level of funding of only 50%, so there was a need to think carefully about which add-on activities can be used for it. However, as the proposal failed, it wasn’t an issue.

Along the way, there were also small parts in an application to the Wellcome trust in early 2015 (failed), in an EPSRC programme grant (a large grant with many partners) that was organised at UCL and on which we dedicated time from June 2014 to February 2015 (ditto), an outline for Leverhulme trust (ditto), an ERC research proposal (ditto), and finally  a COST Action application for a research network on Citizen Science (which was successful!)

So let’s summarise all these proposals, success, failure, effort in one table. Lines where the funder marked in bold mean that we’ve coordinated the proposal:

Funder Effort (Months) Success/Failure
1 H2020 7 Failure
2 H2020 5 Success
3 H2020 5 Failure
4 H2020 2.5 Failure
5 H2020 4 Failure
6 H2020 1 Success
7 ERC 3 Success
8 EPSRC 2.5 Failure
9 ESRC 2.5 Failure
10 ESRC 2 Failure
11 ESRC 0.5 Failure
12 Wellcome 1 Failure
13 H2020 0.25 Failure
14 H2020 0.25 Failure
15 CDKN 0.25 Success
16 EU LIFE 0.5 Failure
17 Wellcome 0.5 Failure
18 EPSRC 0.5 Failure
19 Leverhulme 0.5 Failure
20 ERC 0.25 Failure
21 COST 0.5 Success

So what?

We’ve applied to lots of funders and mechanisms – fellowships, calls for proposals, and open calls for research ideas. We applied to UK funders and EU. As we are working in an interdisciplinary area, we have applied to social science as well as engineering, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and in between these areas. In third of the case we led the proposal, but in the rest we joined in to proposals that were set by others. So the first point to notice is that we didn’t fixate on one source, mechanism or role.

As the table shows, we’re not doing badly. Out of the 7 proposals that we’ve led, 2 succeeded (30%). Also among the 14 that we’ve participated in 3 succeeded (20%). The overall success is about quarter. Over about 18 months a group of about 10 people invested circa 40 person months in securing future funding (about 20% of the time) for the next 3 years, which doesn’t sound excessive.

However, the load was not spread equally, so some people spent a very significant amount of their time on proposals. I was involved in almost all of these 21 proposals during this period, much more in those that we led, and in some of those that we participated as partner, I was the only person in the group that worked on the proposal. It was increasingly challenging to keep submitting and working on proposals with so much uncertainty and the very long gap between submission and results (look above, and you’ll see that it can be up to 9 months). Because of the uncertainty about success, and an assumption that only 20% will be successful at best (that’s 4 wasted proposals for every successful one), I felt that I need to keep on going, but there were moment when I thought that it’s a doomed effort.

There is also the issue of morale – as should be obvious from the fact that we’ve announced the successes recently, as the failures mounted up during the second part of 2015, it was harder to be cheerful. Because of the long gap between proposal submission and result that I mentioned, the future of the group is unknown for a significant period, and that influences decisions by people about staying or leaving, or how to use the funds that we do have.

Implications

Leaving aside that by early 2016 it became hard to find the energy to be involved in more proposal writing, there is an issue about how interdisciplinary research groups are funded. While we can apply to more funding opportunities, the responses from the failures indicated that it’s tough to convince disciplinary evaluators that the work that is being done is important. This mean that we knew all along that we need to apply more. Maybe it was a coincident, but the EU funding evaluations seem more open to these ideas than UK funders.

Second, such a high number of applications take time from other research activities (e.g. check my publications in 2014-2015). Applications, with all the efforts that is associated with them, are not seen as an academic output, so all the effort of writing the text, proofing it and revising it are frequently wasted when a proposal fail.

Third, all these proposals burn social capital, ‘business capital’, and cash reserves – e.g. having a consultant to help with H2020 project or covering the costs of meetings, asking for letter of support from business partners, raising hopes and making links with partners only to write at the end that we won’t be working together beyond the proposal. There are also negotiations with the Head of Department on the level of support from the university, requests for help from research facilitators, financial administrators and other people at the university.

Fourth, considering how much effort, experience, support – and luck – is needed to secure research funding, I’m not surprise that some people are so despondent about their chances to do so, but all the above is the result of a large team and I would argue that the clue to the ability to keeping the stamina is team spirit and having a clear goal on why the hell you want the funding in the first place (in our case, we want to materialise Extreme Citizen Science).

Finally, looking at the number of the submissions, the ranking and the general success rate of applications in the areas that we’ve applied to (about 15% or less), I have concerns that under such conditions there is a ‘crowding out’ situation, in which groups that got better resources around them (e.g. the institutional infrastructure at UCL, our internal experience) make it harder for new entrants or smaller groups. At a higher funding rate, we could have secured the funding in less proposals, at which point we wouldn’t continue to apply, and therefore allow others to secure funding.

Epilogue

I have no plans for another period like the one that led to the current results. I am incredibly grateful to have such a level of success, which is about the institution that I’m in, the hard work and the evolving experience in preparing proposals and, always, luck. It is very possible that this post would have counted 19 failures, so we’re very grateful to all the people who evaluated out proposals positively and gave us the funding.

Back to the funding, with all the successes, in people terms, we’ve secured funding for the 10 people that I’ve mentioned for 3 years, with further 6 PhD students joining us over that period. There are still other people in the group that will need funding soon, so probably we will put the accumulated knowledge and experience to use soon.

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mukih

Professor of GIScience, University College London

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