Essential Skills: Funders’ Roundtable

Posted on April 23, 2018   by Nigel Brown

On the first day of this year’s Microbiology Society Annual Conference, we welcomed representatives of the BBRSC, MRC, NERC and Wellcome. These representatives spoke to an audience of both established and early career microbiologists about the current and future funding environment for research in the UK and Ireland.


While there are some differences between the Research Councils and Wellcome in terms of eligibility, the requirements for fundable research are essentially the same. Discovery science (sometimes called ‘blue skies research’) needs to be of high quality and should normally indicate how the research outcomes might be applied to industrial and/or societal needs. Calls may also be made for strategic research to address particular needs; an obvious recent example for microbiologists was the call for research on antimicrobial resistance.

During the Roundtable, Fellowships for early career and mid-career scientists were also discussed. In this case, the track record of the person applying is as important as the programme of research they wish to pursue.

Each of the funders have a variety of programmes. As the Research Councils now have an overarching body, UK Research, in place, these programmes are beginning to coalesce. However, for the time being each Council will have its own programmes, but cross-Council programmes are increasing.

Each speaker emphasised the need for applicants to write a high-quality proposal in a manner that is accessible to all members of the grants panel irrespective of specialisation. The proposal should also indicate the novelty of the programme to expert referees. To achieve this, should seek advice on the draft application from non-expert colleagues in addition to an expert in the area. This means the application stands the best chance of being supported, even if there are few or none of the panel members with expertise in your area.

It is also important that applicants adhere to the scope and remit of the scheme to which they are applying. Each funder emphasised that they are willing to speak on the phone or exchange emails with applicants who wish for clarification on any issues.

The short talks from funders were followed by a Q&A session in which several issues were addressed.

  • The problem of knowing which Research Council to apply to (particularly for cross-Council initiatives, such as AMR) can be solved by sending a brief outline of the proposed project to a contact at one Research Council and asking for advice. These contacts are usually named on the call for proposals.
  • International collaborations are possible, particularly through the Newton Fund and Global Challenges Research Fund. These can include funding for overseas partners.
  • Specific questions about PhD funding and Fellowships from Wellcome confirmed that both are under review and announcements will be made in due course.
  • The difficulty in obtaining Research Council-funded PhD places outside the various doctoral training programmes was raised. The availability of some stand-alone studentships (e.g. on large grants) was mentioned, but advice from the floor was to engage with existing Doctoral Training Partners as they apply for a new round of funding.
  • Postdoctoral researchers cannot apply for funding directly and should instead apply through a Principal Investigator. They can be named as a Recognised Researcher to indicate that they contributed to the design of the project (being a Named Researcher merely indicates that you have the necessary skills to be the desired postdoc on the project).
  • The effects of demand management, limiting the number of applications a given institution or department can make, was discussed. The important issue is that there are institutional processes to ensure that the best grants are submitted in order to minimise any adverse effects of demand management on the institution.
  • A question about the effect of the Industrial Strategy on research funding elicited the response that new money for the Industrial Strategy may create more headroom for discovery science from the Research Councils’ baseline funding. Let’s hope so!

In addition to the discussions during the Q&A, a number of one-to-one conversations with the funders’ representatives occurred during the break and after the session.

We are grateful to Kirsty Dougal (BBSRC), Jess Boname (MRC), Avril Allman (NERC) and Phil Price (Wellcome) for their time and excellent presentations.