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‘So much effort is wasted’

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Like healthcare services, healthcare research has more than its fair share of duplication of effort and wheel reinvention. Every week funders issue research calls inviting researchers to bid for vast sums of money.

Some researchers choose the topic on which to focus their efforts, while others respond to a brief to deliver a defined piece of research.

Both kinds of opportunity require teams of researchers – perhaps with clinicians, industry partners and service users – to work
hard to put a bid together. Because, traditionally, too many funders give tight deadlines, applications have to be made in a very short time with the inevitable knock-on effects on work and family commitments while applicants burn the midnight oil.
So what, you may say. Research is a competitive business and the law of the jungle says only the fittest survive.

While that is true, consider how much effort is wasted by 30 or more applications being developed for a single pot of money. This can translate into several thousands of pounds being spent per application. Do the maths, then make up a wish list of what that money could be better spent on. And this is just for one research call, with similar ones taking place throughout the year, year on year.

After the inevitable lack of success for most bids, there is often a licking of wounds followed by a search for a different funder for whom the original bid can be adapted. Great, unless all the other failed applicants are doing the same and, most likely, looking at the same funders.

Some would argue that the successful ones are the usual suspects, leaving the rest to wonder why they bothered. Certainly, some established teams and research institutions realise particular success compared with others.

In some ways, it would be better if a research call was put to a small number of candidates who are invited to apply. However, this would restrict competition which, arguably, is a driver to raise the quality of applications.

A more sensible approach that is growing in popularity is to have an outline bid process followed by an invitation to submit a full detailed bid if shortlisted.

The recently launched National Institute for Health Research regional research design service is a fantastic idea. Some bright spark has realised that, if you offer expert advice and support to researchers, their chances of success will be increased.

After all, we do want to foster a future that is full of high-quality research – not disenfranchised, jaded researchers who stop bothering. It would be great if such support mechanisms could be replicated across other funding programmes.

Tracey Williamson is research fellow, older people/user involvement, Salford Centre for Nursing, Midwifery and Collaborative Research, University of Salford

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