Grant 'facilitators' boost Oxford's research income

Specialist team saves scholars time, widens funder base and doubles applications. John Gill reports

May 1, 2008

A team of "research facilitators" dedicated to helping academics at the University of Oxford to write grant applications and to avoid wasting time on misguided proposals has led to a dramatic improvement in research income.

Andrew Fairweather-Tall, who leads the three-strong team in the humanities division, told Times Higher Education this week that the number of grant applications made by the division had doubled since the team was set up in January 2007.

He predicted that there would be a 20 per cent increase in research grant funding for humanities when figures are confirmed later this year. In addition, academics had been saved many hours by not being tied up with the bureaucratic application process.

"We've more than doubled the number of applications since 2007 and we've also extended the range of funders we apply to," he said.

"Among the most important for humanities in the UK are the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, but we've worked to broaden our funding base and that includes European funding as well."

An analysis by Times Higher Education last year - of more than 10,000 grant applications in 2006-07 - revealed that the most successful institution, the University of Manchester, was also the most prolific in asking for funding.

Manchester made 470 applications and won 163, while Oxford made 319 and won 1.

Although the figures for 2007-08 are not yet available, Dr Fairweather-Tall said he expected them to have risen by as much as 20 per cent, despite the belt tightening at the AHRC.

"The AHRC has recently cut its success rate significantly so the funding environment in which we're working has changed even compared with when we started," he added.

"A lot of humanities faculties have most of their eggs in the AHRC basket, but then, with its uncertain success rates, you run the risk that a lot of good research may not get funding, so we increasingly look elsewhere."

Dr Fairweather-Tall said that in the past academics had been left to "work the process out for themselves", which was time-consuming and could lead to misguided applications or missed opportunities.

"There are occasions when the good research idea is actually very fundable, but it's sometimes hard for an academic to see how, and that's one of the interpretations that we can help with," he said.

"I'd be reluctant to say that the bureaucracy is any worse than it ever has been, but it's very time-consuming.

"The rule of thumb that I have is that it takes at least 100 hours of an academic's time to put together a reasonable-sized application.

"That is a serious investment of time, and one of the reasons that we're here is that we allow academics to concentrate on what they do best - their research.

"The advantage I and other facilitators have is that we work with funders every day, so we know what they're really asking for and what's important to them and can relay that information to our academic colleagues.

"These are not new ideas per se, but at Oxford we're investing time and money into really pushing the idea to its limits, which is providing a cradle to grave service for research applications."

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