Seeds for ideas

May 17, 1996

As part of our series on finding funds, we look at the Economic and Social Research Council's funding stream aimed at younger researchers, often overlooked by postgraduates.

And we talk to some postgraduates who succeeded with their first-time application to this scheme about their research, and the arduous task of making an application.

Here is some good news for researchers at the beginning of their careers: on July 15 an Economic and Social Research Council panel will meet to start distributing some Pounds 4 million in grant money under its research grants scheme.

Furthermore, if you miss that deadline, there is another one in November, and one more in March next year.

This particular panel - its proper title is the Research Grants Board - dispenses grants in a quite different way from the ESRC's other methods of funding research, which operate through research centres and research programmes. It also has nothing to do with the ESRC's support of postgraduates through studentships, which targets training rather than research.

The ESRC thinks this individual grant-giving is overshadowed by its larger-scale funding activities. Certainly, the emphasis in the ESRC's annual report and other glossy literature is very much on its research centres and programmes, and in particular the "thematic priorities" of its research agenda.

"The decision was taken at an early stage that it would not be driven by these themes," says the board's chair, Keele University vice chancellor Janet Finch. "There are no restraints on research topic."

The ESRC's smaller grants are "a way for young researchers to get started after their PhDs," she says. "The ESRC has to find ways of reviewing its own themes and allowing new ones to emerge. The grants scheme helps here - we see the best of the new ideas coming through, ideas that may feed into major themes in five years' time."

Professor Finch says that the grants are available whether or not the researcher has an academic position. She advises applying for modest funding. "Avs a sole applicant a young researcher would be well advised to go for a small amount. We have to look at the capacity of the individual to manage a large sum of public money."

Tim Whitaker, the ESRC's external relations director, says: "There is a view that our grants go to people with a research track record, that it's difficult to get into the system. But this scheme has always gone for new blood."

For grants under Pounds 40,000 - a threshold recently raised from Pounds 30,000 - the board is not required to consult referees; all that is needed is an assessment by two board members.

"The fact that you haven't applied for a research grant before won't count against you," says Professor Finch. In fact she claims the board "would be generous in its judgements about younger researchers - if their presentation is not so good we would tend to give them the benefit of the doubt".

Grant-holders report that applying to the scheme is very hard work, with an extremely detailed proposal required.

One complaint from several grant-holders has been the length of time, sometimes four months, between hearing that an application has been successful and actually receiving the money.

But Whitaker says that it is routine for there to be a delay of several months between a researcher being notified that they have been successful and their receiving the money. This is because many details need to be hammered out.

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