Top tips for factoring COVID-19 into grant applications

COVID-19 has widened existing cracks in our research funding system. The Academy is working to account for this in our grants – read on for our advice for both applicants and funders.

We talked with grant panel members and grant applicants on accounting for disruption from the coronavirus pandemic as fairly as possible in research grants, and how to communicate effectively with each other. Read on for tips, processes and guidance from what we’ve learnt.

How are other people coping?

We have received over 90 COVID impact reports from applicants from the last two rounds of the Starter Grants for Clinical Lecturers scheme, representing around 80% of applicants. The top five issues reported were:

  1. Lab closures
  2. Redeployment (full-time)
  3. Challenging personal circumstances
  4. Redeployment (part-time)
  5. Publication delays

Some people reported multiple issues. Read more details on previous grant applicants' COVID-19 experiences here (also available to download from the side of this page) and scroll to the end of this page for interviews with two successful applicants.

Advice for applicants

  • What is a COVID impact statement?
    On top of your standard application, we will ask if COVID has impacted your research. This could be directly (through issues like laboratory shutdowns or redeployment) or indirectly (through issues like home-schooling or illness). Both types of disruption are equally valid and we do not ask applicants to explain the details.
  • What is a panel update?
    Because there is a delay of several months between submitting a grant application and the panel discussing it, some of our grants request a short update about the intervening period. In this instance we recommend all applicants take this chance to update the panel on anything (good or bad) that’s happened since you pressed submit.
  • What am I meant to say if I have been impacted by COVID?
    As a funder, our concern is not what happened, but how it impacted your career. So please don’t disclose information that’s personal to you – please instead focus on the consequences for your work and research. For example, ‘I could only work two days a week for six months’, ‘I could not access the lab for three months.’ In particular, please don’t disclose personal information about other people as we would have to redact it to ensure they cannot be identified. (See ‘Advice for funders’ below.)
  • What if I haven’t been impacted by COVID?
    We know that some people have managed to do great research despite COVID. If you think there’s nothing negative that the panel need to take account of, save yourself the time and skip! You can’t gain ‘bonus points’: these measures are intended as a safety net to help stop people being penalised for things beyond their control.
  • How does the Academy account for COVID in its grants?
    It varies. Last year we asked for COVID impact statements alongside panel updates. This year we’re trying to incorporate COVID impacts alongside the main grant application. Check the grant round of interest for details and always contact the grants office team if you have questions – you can find their contact details on individual grant scheme webpages.
  • Don’t worry about seeming ungrateful.
    We know many of our researchers who care for patients see the pandemic as a chance to help others and a privilege to serve society. We know applicants are very aware of others who are worse-off than themselves. Please don’t worry about complaining or appearing ungrateful.
  • It’s still relevant.
    Our grants are often based on supporting people at critical periods. If COVID impacted a critical moment in your career (delays for collection of key samples, a lost research assistant, or similar) – even if that’s now a while ago – it’s still relevant to our holistic assessment, especially as that now feeds through into your ‘research track record’. Tell us about it.
  • Be succinct.
    Remember panel members have to read a lot of applications.
  • Try again.
    We provide feedback, encourage reapplications, and we offer eligible grant applicants the chance to be mentored by an Academy Fellow through our acclaimed mentoring scheme – whether or not their grant application is successful. We encourage people who didn’t get the grant first time to use these resources, learn how to fail better, and come back stronger.

Professor Sadaf Farooqi FMedSci, Professor of Metabolism and Medicine at the University of Cambridge and current Academy grant panel member, says:

“We know many people have been affected through the pandemic, through clinical duties or personal circumstances. As a panel member it’s most helpful to know about specific areas of impact – for example, you couldn’t recruit to clinical studies, couldn’t enter the lab etc. – and the duration of each impact. It’s also helpful to know about research momentum: for instance, if a study had to be terminated or materials were lost as a result of the pandemic.”

Advice for panel members:

  • See the big picture.
    The Academy aims to support researchers at critical career moments. When reviewing we consider project, person, and place. Even before COVID we sometimes couldn’t support excellent individuals due to wider problems e.g. an unambitious project, an unsupportive environment, or a lack of protected research time. Think carefully about when a grant could provide the leverage that enables a candidate to overcome barriers, versus when the applicant needs to go back and resolve other issues themselves before the grant could unlock their future career.
  • Read carefully.
    We know grant applicants are worried about overplaying the impact of COVID, and typically each application is only reviewed in full by a couple of panel members. If there’s any issues with the other panel member on the day, that might leave just you representing a candidate.
  • Sooner rather than later.
    By the time it gets to the end of the panel, everybody is tired and it’s generally too late to throw in new factors. Any adjustment based on COVID issues needs to come into the main scoring system. Raise any issues you see from the COVID impact statement when an application is first discussed.

Professor Rosalind Smyth CBE FMedSci is Director of the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. She has chaired the Academy’s Starter Grants for Clinical Lecturers grant panel since 2019. She says:

“Many things outside people’s control can hinder research progress even in normal times, from difficult personal circumstances to staffing delays.

“COVID has exacerbated all these issues: some people had to completely stop their research; some lost all their work; many labs were operating at a fraction of their capacity, and there’s been a massive escalation in personal issues.

“When all this was new, someone’s track record might have been impacted less. But this has been going on now for more than 18 months – some people will have had significantly less time to do research. Panel members must bring this into their assessments. The indirect consequences of COVID will be felt for many years to come”.

“The applications are all peer reviewed, then two panel members are assigned to each application and at the panel meeting will summarise the project and review its strengths and weaknesses. These panel members will have carefully considered the COVID-19 impact statements and share those perspectives at the panel meeting to put the application into context.

“People need support, no matter how resilient they are, and it’s our duty as funders to help more junior researchers achieve what they’re capable of.”

Advice for funders:

  • Check with lawyers.
    Previously the Academy had only used extenuating circumstances data to consider whether or not to issue no-cost extensions. Bringing this data into our grant-making process itself has required us to review our data handling and privacy procedures. If you are thinking of using grant applicants’ data in a similar way, please do check with a legal team first.
  • Redact where needed.
    Data collected from grant applicants about personal circumstances falls under a legal ‘special category’ because it is particularly sensitive. If applicants provide personal information about third parties or provide information which might identify any other individual, you need to redact or generalise it to ensure these third parties can no longer be identified. So be clear to applicants that you are asking for consequences rather than causes, and if people do provide too much detail, generalise or redact it until panel members wouldn’t be able to work out exactly who that other person is.
  • Allow time.
    Changing processes and incorporating new data into panel discussions will always take longer than you think.

Dr Clare McVicker is Head of Grants at the Academy. She says:

“Using this extenuating circumstances data in our grants for the first time has been a complicated process, but we’re committed to using it – and using it properly – to help ensure our grant decisions now and in the future are as fair as possible. Other funders considering their options are welcome to contact us to learn from our experiences.”

Hear from successful awardees

As part of our work to be transparent around how we are accounting for COVID in grants, we also spoke with two former successful grant applicants. You can also download a summary of previous grant applicants’ COVID-19 experiences from the side of this page.

Dr Ann Louise Hunter is an NIHR Clinical Lecturer in Endocrinology & Diabetes at the University of Manchester. She successfully applied for an Academy Starter Grant in September 2020:

“I welcomed the opportunity to provide the COVID impact statement because although you hear things from colleagues, you never really know how the pandemic has affected people differently. It was nice to have that opportunity to address everything that I perceived as a disadvantage.

“In the grand scheme of things, with my clinical hat on, I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve had a far, far worse experience of the pandemic than I have. I’ve probably had quite a privileged pandemic. I didn’t want to exaggerate: I just tried to be as factual as possible.

“If you’re not sure how to proceed, this is exactly the sort of thing where applicants can contact staff. Talk to the grants officer: pick up the phone and talk to the human at the other end. I would imagine these sorts of impact statements may be used for the next few years because of the lasting impacts of the pandemic. I hope it levels the playing field for everybody.”

Dr Nicholas Evans is an NIHR Clinical Lecturer in Geriatric and Stroke Medicine at the University of Cambridge. He also successfully applied for an Academy Starter Grant in September 2020:

“I found filling in the COVID-19 update form from the Academy was a very positive experience, apart from the initial spike in my blood pressure and heart rate when I realised my potential funder was emailing but it was too soon for the outcome! Then I started thinking – oh no, more forms. But when I realised what it was, I felt very encouraged.

“Writing about the impacts of COVID was a useful exercise to prompt me to think: what have we been able to do? Here’s the disruption we’ve had, here’s how long each disruption period lasted, here’s how we’re still trying to deliver, and here’s what we’d try to achieve with the grant. The benefit of helping me plan better greatly outweighed the admin time.

“When I originally sent the application in towards the end the first wave in summer 2020 I thought everything was going a bit more back to normal. And then obviously the second wave hit. This past year has been so disrupted, and a lot of us have felt that in going back to the wards, we’ve really compromised our research work. I think there was a general feeling of pitching in with the first wave but in the second wave it was a bit more ‘everyone for themselves’, and it can be easy to feel disadvantaged for helping out on the wards.

“It’s really reassuring to see the Academy recognising that disruption as part of the awarding process and finding some way to recognise the pandemic has affected everyone very differently.”

Explore our previous policy work on how the pandemic has impacted biomedical careers, including a multi-funder workshop chaired by our Vice-President Professor Stewart FMedSci. 

Use our wider grants advice through our learning hub, including top tips for grant applications from a previous grant panel chair, and top tips for writing a lay summary.

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