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What do funders want, and why?

Julia Mueller, an MRC-funded PhD student at the University of Manchester, reflects on how a three-month Policy Internship with the MRC has changed her appreciation of Researchfish and the work done by research funding bodies.

Julia MuellerBefore I began my three-month internship at the MRC, my idea of the role of research funders was pretty simple. They have the money. We (the researchers) must get the money from them. The end.  Actually working in the head office of one of the main funding bodies of medical research gave me a slightly more nuanced insight.

Hoops for all

Firstly, I have to admit I was not aware of the lengths the MRC has to go to in order to secure support for medical research. It seemed to me that funders made us researchers jump through a lot of hoops: fill in a stack of forms, costings, more forms, multiple application stages, and once you get the money you have to continue filling in forms every year. Exhausting! Clearly, they did this out of spite.

I never really considered that funding bodies may have their own hoops to jump through. I thought: “They’re a government agency, so they get their money from the government. Easy.” Within just a few days of working at the MRC, I realised the equation was not that simple.

Public support

One of the projects I was working on during my internship concerned lay summaries in funding applications. During my brief career as a researcher, I’ve been involved in several funding applications where the lay summary is the last part of the application that gets written up, five minutes before the deadline, because “no one really reads that anyway”.

Well, my time at the MRC has taught me to re-think this. Lay summaries aren’t created to annoy researchers, nor are they filed away, never to be read again. They are uploaded to Gateway to Research, the Research Councils’ online portal, where the public can freely access them. And they are read. They are read by funding admin staff and science writers who are putting together information about what the MRC has been up to and by members of the public who are interested in helping with research. They are even used during the application process, to help decide which reviewers to send applications to.

Ultimately, they are used to share the MRC’s research work with the public who fund it – a crucial part of the MRC’s mission – thereby making sure the public continues to support this research.

Not so fishy

And this, I realised, is also where those pesky Researchfish forms come into play; the ones that MRC-funded researchers have to fill in every year. You might be wondering what gill-bearing aquatic craniate animals have to do with the MRC. Well, nothing really, but that is the name of the platform used by many funders to track awards and research outcomes.

Now, I have to say I have always conscientiously completed my Researchfish forms. Even if I thought it was annoying and secretly thought, like the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, that “bureaucracy always tends to become a pedantocracy”. But, like Marx, I saw that it is “a circle from which no one can escape”, and therefore diligently filled in my forms.

Since working at the MRC, where they actually use Researchfish data, I have come to realise there is more to it.

I discovered that the data we obtained from the online platform was invaluable to our work. It helped us determine what kind of research the MRC is funding and what impact it is having – exactly the kind of information the wider public needs to hear if we ask them to continue supporting our research with their taxes.

The bigger picture

One of the most memorable experiences during my internship was attending a funding board meeting. When I sat down to watch the board discuss the latest applications, I was prepared for a dramatic unveiling. However, there was no grand, magical key to unlocking the funding purse.

The board discussed the importance of the research questions, the suitability of the methods, the track record of the principal investigator – just as they said they would. And they did so at an astonishing level of detail. Yes, people actually read the entire application, from start to finish, and give it deep thought. Perhaps a little anti-climactic but also hugely reassuring.

The bottom line is, my initial notions weren’t wrong. The funders have the money and we must try to get it from them. However, my perspective has expanded to see the wider context – not just the researchers jumping through hoops, but also the rest of the circus arena – and I have a new appreciation of how demanding and important everyone’s work is.

Find out more about Researchfish and measuring the impact of research.

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