A Challenge Fund success story
- Centre for Decision Research
The preparation of grant applications and particularly large awards can take considerable time. For example, it is not uncommon to spend more than 12 months preparing an EU Framework application or a proposal for an ESRC/EPSRC large grant.
Leeds University Business School has been helping to seed new and innovative grant proposals by awarding money through its “Challenge Fund”. This money is used by successful applicants to support a range of activities that may be required in the preparation of a large grant application (e.g. research assistant support, workshops, or transcriptions and translations.)
Gulbanu Kaptan, Associate Professor in Behavioural Decision Making and member of the Centre for Decision Research, made a successful application to the Challenge Fund and went on to be awarded funding by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19 for her project: 'Capitalising on COVID-19 as a Trigger for Positive Change in Food Waste Behaviour'.
Here, Gulbanu shares her experience of applying for the Leeds University Business School Challenge Fund and for the UKRI COVID-19 fund.
How did you feel preparing for the Challenge Fund? Have you had to do anything similar before?
I had been previously involved in interdisciplinary grant applications as both Principal Investigator (PI) and Co-Investigator (Co-I), collaborating with researchers from different faculties within the University of Leeds and outside of the University. In the Challenge Fund, however, I had to collaborate within the Business School as well as more broadly.
In addition, this application required a sandpit (a workshop where open ideas and feedback are shared) to present the research idea and plans, and have these appraised there and then by attendees at the sandpit. This was quite new to me.
I already had a research idea, based on a paper authored by my collaborators, Dr Sally Russell and Professor Kerrie Unsworth, as well as experience with grant applications, so I found writing the proposal quite easy. However, revising it after the decisions made following the sandpit was more challenging.
The sandpit helped a lot with clarifying what was expected from the Business School. Implementing the feedback from the sandpit event and the decision advising us to revise and resubmit (with detailed written feedback) was a long, but worthwhile, process.
One of the priorities of the Challenge Fund is to increase collaborative activity within Leeds University Business School and with other University faculties. How did you find working with colleagues from other disciplines within the School and University?
In this application, I collaborated with members from the Workplace Behaviour Research Centre (WBRC) in the Business School, and the School of Earth and Environment (SEE) - groups I had not previously worked with but had been following their sustainability-related publications. I had read a paper by researchers from WBRC and SEE on the determinants of food waste which helped me to develop a new research idea. I contacted both authors and asked whether they were interested in putting an application together. They were both interested and supportive, and we enjoyed working together.
Did any of your activities/outputs have to change after receiving the funding?
Our activities continued as planned for two to three months. However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed our plans in relation to strengthening our relationships with retailers and food waste agencies as everyone’s attention was more on COVID-19 than other topics.
We also needed to cancel our plans to deliver a workshop with academics, retailers and policy makers. Therefore, we decided not to proceed with the initial research idea in its original form but adapted it to fit into the COVID-19 context, as this was clearly an area with increasing demand for rapid research.
We also thought that it was our duty as researchers to take into account the current context and help citizens in relation to the pandemic. With support from the Business School, we decided to submit an application for the UKRI COVID-19 call on “Capitalising on COVID-19 as a Trigger for Positive Change Change in Food Waste Behaviour”. So our research focus changed from a broader perspective of food waste behaviours, to these behaviours in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
You also involved external partners in your Challenge Fund activities and subsequent grant application. What is it like working at the interface between academia and industry?
During the first few months of the Challenge Fund project, I was in touch with my contacts at Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) and Zero Waste Scotland to discuss the application. I had met them in a previous ESRC-funded research seminar series for which I had been a Co-I. It was clear that we were on the same page in terms of helping consumers to reduce food waste and the ways to achieve this. Working with food waste agencies was likely to lead to impact in society. I knew that this would strengthen our proposal and was likely to help convince the UKRI Review Panel of the potential success of this project.
I’m very pleased to be working at the interface between academia and industry. This integration was essential for our proposal, so it was an exciting experience.
How did your Challenge Fund project help you prepare an application to the UKRI COVID-19 call?
The Challenge Fund project provided us with the opportunity to recruit a full-time Research Assistant who helped greatly with the literature search. This made us much more familiar with the recent and existing research on food waste. The project also helped us make new connections with Zero Waste Scotland and strengthen existing connections with WRAP. Therefore, once we had identified a suitable funding call, our road map to submitting an application was ready.
What did you learn about applying for a grant from this process? Was there anything you didn’t expect?
Success depends on many factors but a collaborative effort of academics, external partners, and the University (the Research Office, etc.) is necessary. I’m glad that I had a chance to develop a grant application during the COVID-19 pandemic, in what continues to be a very dynamic and uncertain environment.
This time of rapid change was even evident in the UKRI COVID-19 funding call, with several changes to the application process over the months the funding call was open, something that we had to adapt our application and expectations to each time. For example, we expected to be informed of the funding decision in four to six weeks, but in fact it took about three months to hear the outcome. However, the project started very quickly once awarded because we received huge support from the School’s Research Office Team, University of Leeds Contracts Team, and partner organisations. They did a great job to help us start as quickly as possible.
The lesson for me was: For any grant application, things may develop in ways you didn’t expect. This shouldn’t discourage you from putting together an application and being successful. We were awarded this prestigious grant under COVID-related circumstances – something that made us change our plans. Unexpected activities don’t have to stop your plans; it gives you an opportunity to adapt and explore other avenues.
Have you any advice for those who may be thinking about submitting a research grant application as a Principal Investigator (PI)?
Find an interesting and impactful research idea
You may not be strong on every aspect of the proposal but find and include colleagues who are strong on these aspects
If possible, include external partners who will support the proposal and contribute to the project’s progress
Be clear about what the call is about and what it requires. Prepare the proposal accordingly
Remember that there may be many unexpected problems during the preparation and submission stage. As a PI, it’s your responsibility to overcome these in the first instance
Believe in your research and abilities. You can do it!
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