MMU Research and Knowledge Exchange Blog

Funding opportunities, news and guidance from RKE at Manchester Met


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An Applicant’s Guide to Full Economic Costing

This article appeared on Cash for Questions, by Adam Goldberg, and Research Professional.


You’re applying for UK research council funding and suddenly you’re confronted with massive overhead costs. Adam Golberg tries to explain what you need to know.

Trying to explain Full Economic Costing is not straightforward. For current purposes, I’ll be assuming that you’re an academic applying for UK Research Council funding; that you want to know enough to understand your budget; and that you don’t really want to know much more than that.

If you do already know a lot about costing or research finances, be warned – this article contains simplifications, generalisations, and omissions, and you may not like it.

What are Full Economic Costs, and why are they taking up so much of my budget?

Full Economic Costs (fEC) are paid as part of UK Research and Innovation grants to cover a fair share of the wider costs of running the university – the infrastructure that supports your research. There are a few different cost categories, but you don’t need to worry about the distinctions.

Every UK university calculates its own overhead rates using a common methodology. I’m not going to try to explain how this works, because (a) I don’t know; and (b) you don’t need to know. Most other research funders (charities, EU funders, industry) do not pay fEC for most of their schemes. However, qualifying peer-reviewed charity funding does attract a hidden overhead of around 19% through QR funding (the same source as REF funding). But it’s so well hidden that a lot of people don’t know about it. And that’s not important right now.

How does fEC work?

In effect, this methodology produces a flat daily overhead rate to be charged relative to academic time on your project. This rate is the same for the time of the most senior professor and the earliest of early career researchers.

One effect of this is to make postdoc researchers seem proportionally more expensive. Senior academics are more expensive because of higher employment costs (salary etc), but the overheads generated by both will be the same. Don’t be surprised if the overheads generated by a full time researcher are greater than her employment costs.

All fEC costs are calculated at today’s rates. Inflation and increments will be added later to the final award value.

Do we have to charge fEC overheads?

Yes. This is a methodology that all universities use to make sure that research is funded properly, and there are good arguments for not undercutting each other. Rest assured that everyone – including your competitors– are playing by the same rules and end up with broadly comparable rates. Reviewers are not going to be shocked by your overhead costs compared to rival bids. Your university is not shooting itself (or you) in the foot.

There are fairness reasons not to waive overheads. The point of Research Councils is to fund the best individual research proposals regardless of the university they come from, while the REF (through QR) funds for broad, sustained research excellence based on historical performance. If we start waiving overheads, wealthier universities will have an unfair advantage as they can waive while others drown.

Further, the budget allocations set by funders are decided with fEC overheads in mind. They’re expecting overhead costs. If your project is too expensive for the call, the problem is with your proposal, not with overheads. Either it contains activities that shouldn’t be there, or there’s a problem with the scope and scale of what you propose.

However, there are (major) funding calls where “evidence of institutional commitment” is expected. This could include a waiver of some overheads, but more likely it will be contributions in kind – some free academic staff time, a PhD studentship, new facilities, a separate funding stream for related work. Different universities have different policies on co-funding and it probably won’t hurt to ask. But ask early (because approval is likely to be complex) and have an idea of what you want.

What’s this 80% business?

This is where things get unnecessarily complicated. Costs are calculated at 100% fEC but paid by the research councils at 80%. This leaves the remaining 20% of costs to be covered by the university. Fortunately, there’s enough money from overheads to cover the missing 20% of direct costs. However, if you have a lot of non-pay costs and relatively little academic staff time, check with your costings team that the project is still affordable.

Why 80%? In around 2005 it was deemed ‘affordable’ – a compromise figure intended to make a significant contribution to university costs but without breaking the bank. Again, you don’t need to worry about any of this.

Can I game the fEC system, and if so, how?

Academic time is what drives overheads, so reducing academic time reduces overheads. One way to do this is to think about whether you really need as much researcher time on the project. If you really need to save money, could contracts finish earlier or start later in the project?

Note that non-academic time (project administrators, managers, technicians) does not attract overheads, and so are good value for money under this system. If some of the tasks you’d like your research associate to do are project management/administration tasks, your budget will go further if you cost in administrative time instead.

However, if your final application has unrealistically low amounts of academic time and/or costs in administrators to do researcher roles, the panel will conclude that either (a) you don’t understand the resource implications of your own proposal; or (b) a lack of resources means the project risks being unable to achieve its stated aims. Either way, it won’t be funded. Funding panels are especially alert for ‘salami projects’ which include lots of individual co-investigators for thin slivers of time in which the programme of research cannot possibly be completed. Or for undercooked projects which put too much of a burden on not enough postdoc researcher time. As mentioned earlier, if the project is too big for the call budget, the problem is with your project.

The best way to game fEC it is not to worry about it. If you have support with your research costings, you’ll be working with someone who can cost your application and advise you on where and how it can be tweaked and what costs are eligible. That’s their job – leave it to them, trust what they tell you, and use the time saved to write the rest of the application.

Thanks to Nathaniel Golden (Nottingham Trent) and Jonathan Hollands (University of Nottingham) for invaluable comments on earlier versions of this article. Any errors that remain are my own.


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NIHR-CRN Podcast- Research Ethics Committees

The National Institute for Health Research have a monthly podcast that is a useful tool to gain insight into research within NIHR.

A recent episode worth a listen to has Dr Hugh Davies talking about Research Ethics Committees. Dr Davies is an established Research Ethics committee chair and former ethics advisor for the Health Research Authority.

You can listen to the episode here and for more information on NHS Research Ethics Committees you can visit the dedication section of the HRA website.


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ARMA 2019

Last month RKE Research Development Officers, Rachel Colley and Becky Hewlett, attended with annual ARMA conference in Belfast. ARMA is the Association of Research Managers and Administrators and the conference is a way of colleagues across the sector, and across the country, to get together and share best practices, build new networks and get informed about the current and future research landscape.


Alongside Alison Lloyd, Research Ethics and Governance Manger, and Justine Daniels, Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange, the team attended a number of sessions and plenaries – and even held some of our own! – over the two days.

As a way of sharing some of the knowledge picked up in those sessions the Research Development Officers have put together a Sway, and a short YouTube video, presenting just some of the team’s experiences.

SWAY


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Wellcome: it’s not just for health and biomedical researchers.

If you thought that Wellcome was a funder only for biomedical and health researchers, think again.

Although Wellcome is primarily known as a funder of biomedical research, it has always provided funding for bioethics and history of medicine projects. About five years ago the trust expanded its remit in this area, and it now spends more than £30 million a year on a wide range of humanities and social science projects that are relevant to health or biomedical research. In the past Wellcome have supported a huge range of disciplines that include anthropology, economics, geography, law, literature, philosophy, political economy, political science, science and technology studies and sociology.

Vector of a light bulb doodle

What kind of schemes do Wellcome offer?

The bulk of their funding is offered through open or responsive-mode schemes, although they do occasionally have themed calls. They range from small grants and seed awards, to fellowships, investigator awards and large collaborative grants.

Have a look at what they have on at the moment by following this link.

So what makes a good Wellcome proposal?

They’re looking for something ambitious but feasible. As an independent foundation they are able to support research that might not fit elsewhere, and in contrast to public funders, they’re less interested on research being applied or having a defined impact. In fact, a project that appears fixed on, say, trialling an intervention is less likely to be supported. That said, they want to fund work that has the potential to have relevance in the real world. They are interested in the research they support to offer a theoretical contribution, even if it’s mainly empirical in natural and/or has applied elements.

You can read the full article on Research Professional by following this link.

If you’re interested in learning more about Wellcome, head to their website for more information. The schemes however are competitive and RKE will often engage in a conversation with the funder around project suitability prior to beginning your application, so we would always encourage you to contact your Research Development Manager or Officer before moving forward with any research ideas. You can contact RKE at researchapplications@mmu.ac.uk.


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Making the most of Research Professional

Every academic has access to Research Professional and it is a fantastic way to keep up to date with the upcoming funding within your research area, but are you making the most of it?

Personalised Emails

If you’re looking for funding the most useful feature is the ability to set up email alerts. The alerts are personalised so that you’ll only received news of the specific area or funder that you’re interested in – it’s also really easy to set up!

Once you’ve logged in head to the funding section (here), there’s a search bar at the top that you can’t miss. Used the Advance Search option to search to create a detailed search; this could be particular funders, schemes, award amounts or even key words.

Once you’ve performed the search you’ll notice a save button has appeared in the top right corner – click here to name the search and save it with an email alert.

You can have as many saved searches as you wish contributing to your weekly email alert as you like – these will all appear in a single email!

It’s very simple to change your saved alerts and this can be done by clicking into your profile or the email alerts shortcut – both in the top right corner. 

Funding Know How

Another useful area of the website is the Funding Know How Page. From here you can navigate to different sections that are great for advice on different areas of research funding; whether you’re looking to brush up on your Grantsmanship (know the basics) or want to keep an eye on what’s happening with the Research Councils.


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GDPR and Research – An Overview

UKRI

Since the arrival of the new GDPR  (General Data Protection Regulations) there has been some confusion over the impact that this will have on researchers and their data. UKRI have produced an overview to give guidance and support.

The overview is specifically tailored to academics and researchers and covers topics that are relevant to data collection and sharing within a research environment. The overview covers the following areas of key concern:

  • What is GDPR?
  • What counts as ‘personal data’?
  • How does GDPR impact research?
  • How do I make sure my data processing for research is lawful?
  • What do I need to do to be fair and transparent?
  • What are the implications for sharing my data?
  • What are GDPR safeguards?
  • Who’s responsible?

The full document can be found here.

 

 


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H2020: MSCA Individual Fellowships Information Event

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For those of you interested in the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions “Individual Fellowships”, we will be holding an event on 23 May 2017, from 2.00-4.00 pm where you can find out more and also hear about Dr Emma Hodson-Tole’s experiences of securing funding from the scheme. If you are interested in attending please register here by 10 May 2017 – we have limited places available, so book early to avoid disappointment!

Unfortunately, attendance is restricted to our Manchester Met-based subscribers, but those of you based at different institutions may be interested in the events being run by UK Research Office.

About the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions “Individual Fellowships”

The scheme provides fully funded fellowships of up to 24 months for researchers to come to Manchester Met from any country other than the UK. They can be working in any discipline and together with colleagues at Manchester Met, they can build their own programme of research in any field. The application is made jointly between the prospective fellow and Manchester Met and does not require a large partnership.

The next deadline is 14 September 2017.