Scoping grant bids require a change of tack
A research funder needs to know the gaps in existing knowledge and the most promising paths to plugging them when planning future calls. Enter—with increasing frequency over the past couple of years—the scoping grant call.
Scoping grants tend to be relatively small and require less hard-earned preliminary data than research grants, but they can still be difficult to put together. Susan Fitzmaurice, professor of English at the University of Sheffield, says the main challenge is in getting to grips with what a scoping project actually is, and then reflecting that in the application.
Fitzmaurice’s project—investigating how the performing arts could be used to understand and address the social impacts of violence in different countries—was one of six bids that were awarded funding in the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s 2020 scoping call to help it plot potential paths for future funding.
It was Fitzmaurice’s first scoping bid. Early on, she had to fix in her mind the idea that a scoping grant is not designed to answer a research question but rather to explore whether a particular area of study raises interesting, answerable questions.
“There’s a lot of educating to do about what the scoping grant involves and what its outcomes are intended to be,” she says. “A lot of bids might go wrong in confusing the purpose of the grant.”
That is not to say that bids should not be innovative or break new ground in their own way. Fitzmaurice’s project, which includes an assessment of theatre, dance and comedy as ways to explore sexual and gender-based violence in the global south, brings new disciplines to the research area. “The scoping grant is designed to explore the feasibility of yoking arts and humanities methods together in order to explore what is typically a social sciences topic,” she explains.
But working with researchers who, for reasons of disciplinary focus or geographical location, had never encountered scoping grants before, presented difficulties. “The biggest challenge was demonstrating a common understanding of how to respond to the call,” she says. “My team members had much more difficulty than I did in distinguishing between a scoping grant and a research grant.”
Fill the gaps
What is the best lens through which to view a scoping grant? Fitzmaurice reckons that researchers preparing such bids should speak to their contacts in commercial or industrial R&D. “In industry, you have feasibility studies and R&D plans that do not in and of themselves entail empirical research with research outcomes. These scoping grants are rather more of that kind of thing than a standard research grant,” she says.
One crucial thing to understand, Fitzmaurice adds, is that the project itself “is really a gap analysis”. In other words, looking for holes in current knowledge, which is part of the preparation for other grants, will often form the backbone of the actual work of the project itself.
While her bid required a change in mindset, to the point where Fitzmaurice describes it as “different from anything I’ve done before”, the application form was familiar. Coming in at just 11 pages, it included the standard sections for UK Research and Innovation grants on objectives, summary, outputs, ethics, academic beneficiaries, resources and costs. There was also a four-page case for support, which the team structured with sections covering a work plan, the project team and pathways to impact.
Beyond the habitual challenge of condensing so much information into limited space, the team was also unsure how to write about a “fairly specific domain of enquiry without knowing what subject specialists were going to [review] it”, Fitzmaurice says. Her own project team members included academic experts in trauma, gender, performance and international development, and they strove to explain any field-specific language in the text.
One thing Fitzmaurice says that future scoping grant bidders should watch out for is that there may be “quite close monitoring” of the project when it gets underway. In the case of her grant, that includes quarterly reporting on progress and an assigned project officer.
Covid-19 forced the team to make “massive adaptations” to its work programme, Fitzmaurice says, but it also gave the team more time to complete the application as the deadline was extended by almost three weeks.
“The day before we were due to submit it, the deadline shifted,” she says. “It required a great deal of care and we were very pleased to have that extension. We double-checked everything with our partners. I think we redid all of our costings.”
Fitzmaurice’s final advice is to remember that the prime beneficiary of the work being proposed is different with a scoping grant. In fact, applicants are writing to the prime beneficiary when they prepare the application: “Research grants are designed to advance knowledge. Scoping grants are designed to serve the funder in helping them shape future funding programmes.”
This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact firstname.lastname@example.org