Author: Des Walsh

Funders are our friends!

Professor Martin Wilkins, Dr Shona Blair, Dr Declan Mulkeen (MRC Chief of Strategy), Dr Anna Kinsey (MRC Programme Manager), Dr Des Walsh, Professor Jonathan Weber

Dr Des Walsh, the Faculty of Medicine’s Director of Research Strategy, provides an insight into building relationships with funders.

Seems obvious really, we write good grants and they fund them – stimulating a beautiful friendship. But this is built on a transaction and not much else.  That’s why building a deeper relationship with our funding bodies benefits all.  Imperial recently hosted the Executive Chair and Chief Scientist of the MRC, the Executive Chair of EPSRC and has regular contacts with BBSRC and NERC.  However, these are either top-level or infrequent. 

So how does a jobbing researcher build relationships with their favourite funders?

  1. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and speak to a programme/project manager – direct contact means you can ask what you need to: does your research fit the remit of a scheme; are you at the right career stage; or just some basic pointers for what a Board may be looking for.
  2. Try to attend funder-sponsored workshops and events – funder-folk will be there in person so you can collar them.
  3. Ask the funder if you can observe part of a Board meeting. The regular MRC Boards all allow early career investigators to sit in on some of a Board meeting to get a sense of what Boards see as important.  Feedback from these is uniformly positive and it’s a great opportunity to talk with Board members during the coffee breaks.

As with all good friendships, we can’t just take take take – we need to give back too, and there are several ways we can do this. If asked, try to undertake peer-review. Currently our rate for peer review is somewhere around 32% with MRC. It is time-consuming but peer-review is one of the cornerstones of our funding system, supporting our peers to develop better projects through critical evaluation. It also helps us to refine our own skills.

Offer your services to sit on Boards and Panels. Again, can be hard work but it’s rewarding and fun! Don’t be disheartened if your offer is not accepted – the funders are rightly bound by tight equality but also geographical rules.  You will judge research applications for funding but will also get the opportunity to take part in the strategic conversations. Take part in public engagement events such as the MRC’s Festival of Science or the CRUK’s Revealing Research events.

Where funders put their cash is the subject of much debate; they need the right communities and constituents to advise them, and the Board/Panel discussions are often the start of this. In my experience, the funders do listen.

Imperial has a well-earned track record of attracting research funding. As the funding landscape changes, we must ensure we are at the heart of the research conversations too.