Stephen Farrall won £324,000 from the Economic and Social Research Council to study the long-term effects on the UK’s criminal justice system of policy made in the 1980s and 1990s. He tells Rebecca Hill in a Research Professional article how he used small grants to build a case for larger funding.
I trained as a sociologist, and then I worked as a research assistant for two years on a project on the fear of crime at the University of Surrey, by which point I’d already decided I wanted to work on criminology. After that, I got a job as a research officer at the University of Oxford, where I also gained my PhD. Then I moved to Keele University as a research fellow then senior research fellow, and I came to the University of Sheffield in 2007.
You’ve moved around a lot—was that to follow grants?
My current job was my first permanent post, so I spent about 13 years doing short-term contract research. At first it was working on the jobs I could get, and then the job at Oxford came up and it was very hard not to go. After that I was picking the places I wanted to work because there were interesting people there or the departments were in the ascendency. For instance, when I arrived at Keele in 2000 it was one of the pre-eminent departments.
What is your current project looking at?
It’s trying to assess the impact of social policies enacted by the Conservative and Labour governments between 1979 and 1997—and so what you might think of as being Thatcherite—had on crime. Also it looks at the speed of those impacts and the mechanisms through which they took place. The Conservative government was doing all sorts of things in school, social security and economic policies that redistributed resources—such as work or finances—in society. Those sorts of things can create, or are associated with, changes in crime rates. A lot of criminal justice policies came in after Margaret Thatcher left office, after crime rates peaked in the mid-1990s. It’s about figuring out the long-term causal processes of these things. All the literature we use is really from the political science world rather than from criminology.
How does this grant compare with others you’ve received?
This is the largest grant I’ve had thus far. My first grant was a small grant of £11,000 from the ESRC. They don’t do those grants in the same way anymore, which is a real shame. Then I had a couple of larger Leverhulme Trust grants, around £50,000 and £120,000; a larger ESRC grant off the back of a smaller one and an ESRC grant for a seminar series, which was really good fun. Since I’ve been at Sheffield I’ve had a few more, including a share of around £140,000 on a European Framework 7 project and some funding for a Ministry of Justice research project, but nothing over £200,000.
Do you think experience of gaining smaller grants helped?
Yes, in a number of ways. It helps people to get a foot on the ladder because you can do a lot with not much money if you’re really savvy about it and really work your socks off. This grant was based on a small ESRC grant of about £30,000, which allowed me to explore the secondary and quantitative secondary data analysis sets that were already in existence, to see if it was possible to do the project. I could have done it without the money, but I wouldn’t have been able to interview some of the people I did or buy some of the things we needed as part of the review process, and I wouldn’t have had my time paid for. It helps if you’ve done a pilot or rooted around for six months checking the databases are there and accessible. It’s a real shame the ESRC has changed the small grants system because the other schemes are incredibly competitive and have to fit a specific brief.
Where else could people go?
There are small grant schemes from Nuffield or the Leverhulme Trust. Depending on what you’re interested in, there’s also the Wellcome Trust, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and other smaller charitable bodies. Another way in, if you have the contacts and the skills, is to propose putting survey questions into existing government surveys. Or, if you’re quantitatively minded or skilled in survey question design, you could propose modules to the European Social Survey.
What does applying to the ESS involve?
There isn’t any money available; you’re just involved in the question design. Every couple of years, they have a call for modules [applications for ESS Round 8 are open until 12 May]. You develop a team across Europe, and if you’re successful you will work on a certain number of questions alongside the ESS team, which is based at City University, London. The ESS does the fieldwork and the piloting, and then they go and collect the data across Europe. You get travel expenses to meetings in London, and you get access to the data when it’s released—but that’s not private access, you could just download it [but this way you are involved in what the questions ask].
What do you think funders are looking for in grant applications?
This is a bit trite, but it’s also true: funders like a good idea backed up by a sound methodology that they understand so they have some grasp of what you’re actually doing. If you can demonstrate that you’ve done it before or it’s a technique that you’ve piloted, all the better. If you’re doing something methodologically innovative it’s a good idea to have some way of demonstrating what you’re doing. So for this grant we’re developing a huge dataset of surveys conducted since the early 1980s, but in some cases going back to the late 70s. So, as well as having a dissemination event with a policy think tank, we’re also holding a free training event to show people the database and how to use it. Another thing would be to have access arrangements agreed or letters of support from people saying they can give you access, but we didn’t need that in this case.
So demonstrating added value is particularly important?
Yes. We put that in as part of our pathways to impact. Thinking innovatively and imaginatively about how you’re going to do impact is important, particularly for research council funding. For instance, are you going to write a briefing document or hold an event for practitioners? But I don’t think it’s a bad thing to talk about those sorts of things, perhaps in a slightly softer way, for other funders.
Why do you think this application in particular was successful?
We had an earlier scoping project, which cost about £30,000, where we sat down and went through hundreds of different surveys and catalogued them to understand the mechanics of doing this. We also interviewed a number of experts in the field, and I started to work with a political scientist at Sheffield who had theorised Thatcherism. Together we wrote a couple of papers, which were like a proof of concept, and we got a British Academy grant to hold a seminar on this in London in 2007, which just came out as an edited collection this year. So we did quite a lot of work getting the methodology and theory set up, and once that was done or forthcoming, we went to the ESRC for the grant.
The other thing was something we couldn’t plan for. Between the meeting where the panel decides if the project is worthy of funding and the meeting where they decide if the ESRC should actually fund it, Margaret Thatcher died. And, on the day of the second meeting, it was her funeral. So it was everywhere. We’d had good reviews on paper, but in the run-up to the second meeting, it was impossible to miss.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone applying for a grant of this size?
You need to do a lot of work beforehand to get things in place—the theory, methods, practicality, the impact strategy and how to disseminate this to others in academia. Even though most universities are doing internal peer review for ESRC grants, you should get other people to look at your applications before they go in, and not just those in your own institution.
The other thing is not to give up. You will get grants rejected and you have to remember they’re not reviewing you, they’re reviewing your grant. If your grant isn’t up to scratch, it doesn’t mean you’re not a good academic. I’ve sat on grant awarding panels where big names have had stuff rejected, and we don’t think any less of them; it’s just that grant. There’s nothing personal about it. If you get rejected, look at reviewers’ comments, leave it a while, think about whether it’s salvageable and then think about doing something else. Don’t give it up.
CV: Stephen Farrall
2007-present Reader, then professor of criminology, University of Sheffield
2005-2007 Senior research fellow, Institute for Law, Politics and Justice, Keele University
2000-2005 Research fellow, department of criminology, Keele University
1998-2001 PhD in probation, social context and desistance from crime, University of Oxford
1996-1999 Research officer, external lecturer and external tutor, University of Oxford
1994-1996 Research assistant, department of law, University of Sheffield
1993-1994 MSc in social research methods, University of Surrey
1989-1993 BSc in applied sociology, University of Surrey