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Under pressure

Focus on your strengths for rapid-response success

Like many UK universities, the University of Bristol unlocked its funding coffers in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Its Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research launched a scheme in March for researchers at the university to apply for funds of between £500 to £5,000 to support coronavirus-related projects. 

Emma Anderson, a senior research associate in health psychology, won one of the first batch of grants with her bid to research how pregnant women could be best supported to help them adhere to behavioural restrictions. 

What areas do you usually research? 

Chronic fatigue syndrome and vaccine uptake. I am interested in behavioural science and development and testing of interventions to improve people’s experiences in clinical care health, generally in the NHS. 

Why did you decide to apply? 

When the pandemic broke I wanted do something to help and apply my research skills. I wondered what it would be like being in one of the vulnerable categories—the elderly, people with health conditions, pregnant women—and being asked to do the strictest social distancing. What sort of impact does it have on them? 

How much time did you have? 

The call opened a couple of weeks before the 25 March deadline, and I got my team together a week before it. We had videoconferences and whipped together a quick application. With such tight deadlines, it helps to have strong experience in your team. However simple you think your project is, checks and advice from support people are vital. Luckily, the people I emailed jumped at the chance to help, with most giving their time for free. 

What was it like constructing a bid at short notice? 

A challenge. We were so eager to get this going because we wanted to get into this while it was all happening. We didn’t want to miss the chance. The downside is that we were trying to do everything so quickly we didn’t have the luxury of time to sit down and check everything. The ethical review did point out a typo here or there. Fortunately, we had a lot of documents from previous applications that we could adapt and draw on, so it wasn’t like writing it from scratch.

When did you learn you had been approved?

We found out we had won funding 10 days after applying. I have never been part of something with such a quick turnaround.

Did you actively choose to do this research without partnering with the NHS? 

Yes. We’re used to doing research in the NHS and going through NHS channels. But we didn’t want to burden the NHS at this time, and also doing this alone made applying faster. We just needed a university ethics review to do the project. 

What did you find the most challenging? 

Our timeframe was somewhat unknown. We were ambitious with our timing, saying we could put the project together quickly. We have now collected all our data. We have interviewed 31 women in two weeks and are producing summary results. Timing has been the main factor in this for all of us, because a lot of us are doing this around other commitments but still want to produce something timely
and useful. 

Any tips for others applying on the fly? 

Be careful about processes and check you are not missing any steps. One thing we hadn’t factored in is that we needed a university insurance letter. Since we were speaking to pregnant women, the study fell into a slightly different category there, which could have tripped us up. You also need to make sure that if there are any items to check off, you do them right away so the ball can get rolling from the start. We had to wait one or two days because of that oversight; had we realised any later, it could have cost us the bid. 

Will the experience change your approach? 

You can’t rush a complex controlled trial or clinical intervention, so I wouldn’t want to do anything more involved in such short timeframe. Our study for this grant was fairly simple and we had experience in these areas, so we felt well-equipped to turn this around quickly. 

Similarly, I was impressed by the dedicated support we received from the funder and research support team and others in the process. I wouldn’t want to expect that level of dedication in any grant—I wouldn’t want to shift expectation on people to work in their free time

Will this sort of call lead to a more streamlined process?

Perhaps this whole process has made people review what is actually necessary in terms of applications and processes. I wonder if there might be some general learning about cutting out unnecessary middle steps. It might be that we all collectively learn to be more efficient.

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com.