Research funding for small organisations - our Future Leaders Fellowship experiences

It’s been a side-aim of ours for some time to see if we could provide a more humane environment for research. We’re a small non-profit company (limited by guarantee) based in the UK, which gives us some flexibility for funding, but also closes some doors. Until Brexit, we were eligible to be full partners on EU research grants, equal in status to universities. In many countries we’d be eligible for direct government research funding, but the situation in the UK is more complicated. This post shares our perspective on research funding in the UK, and outlines how we, as a small organisation, managed to become host to a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship. Hopefully this will be useful for others who would like to apply for this scheme with a similar organisation, outside of academia.

Research funding landscape in the UK

In the UK, government research funding is handed out via research councils (split by discipline) to universities and ‘Independent Research Organisations’. To qualify as an Independent Research Organisation you have to fit various criteria, including ‘a minimum of ten researchers with PhDs’ and ‘research income averaging at least £0.5M pa over the previous three years’. With other sources of research funds increasingly limited, this creates a Catch 22 situation, where you need to already have research funding in order to receive research funding. The eligibility rules have recently loosened to include companies limited by guarantee, so that is a step forwards, but otherwise we are only about 50% there according to the other criteria. We can only speculate that the eligibility rules are set up to allow groups of academics to bud off existing institutions to form new ones (something to discuss on the university picket lines at the next strike, perhaps), rather than to allow new eligible institutions to form from scratch. There are also various trusts that provide substantial research funding (e.g. Royal Society, Leverhulme Trust), but most have aligned their eligibility to match the government funding - the one we know differs is the Wellcome Trust, who are slightly more open.

Increasingly it seems like the Research Councils are loosening up - we’re seeing more calls that we are eligible for (smaller, and usually around public engagement rather than pure research), and the rules for collaborating with universities on research grants are also easing up slightly. Previously if as a non-eligible organisation you contributed to research, you were a ‘collaborator’, and that meant you couldn’t be paid for your work - if you were put down as a ‘subcontractor’ instead, that meant you could be paid for the work (and would have to charge 20% VAT), but you couldn’t then contribute to papers or make the work open source. While this strange dichotomy remains, we’re now allowed to be both a ‘collaborator’ and ‘subcontractor’ on the same grant (now known as ‘dual roles’), which is a helpful workaround.

Another strand of research funding in the UK is InnovateUK. This is aimed at businesses, and largely for-profit businesses. The calls are full of words like ‘growth’, ‘profit’ and ‘customers’, and while there seem to be some changes recently to be more inclusive of wider priorities, it seems difficult to justify social or environmental aims for your R&D, or exploring alternative economic models such as open source within the criteria they provide and prioritise.

So, we have a significant gap in UK research funding, where the charity sector and non-profits such as ourselves sit.

UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships - our experiences so far

One hope for us has been the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships. This scheme is run jointly between the Research Councils and Innovate UK, which together are called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). In theory, any type of organisation can host these - they are 4 (or more) year full time research and/or innovation positions for people who are considered to be potential ‘future leaders’. In practice, most of these grants go to universities, and a small number go to (generally) large for-profit businesses.

We thought it was a real long-shot that we would be accepted as a host organisation for one of these fellowships, but in 2019 we had a researcher who wanted to try, and understood the risks. They got through to interview, but sadly they didn’t get the funding awarded after the interview. This process did however tell us that we were being taken seriously as a potential host, and the reviews were very positive. The next year, another researcher wanted to try - and, remarkably, in 2021 Dr. Alex McLean was awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship with Then Try This as the host organisation.

In terms of why one was funded and the other wasn’t, we can only speculate - the unfunded project was very timely (establishing an evidence basis for science communication, particularly around vaccination, during a pandemic), and a great fit to our experience as a host organisation, but the applicant was more junior and certainly less confident about the interview. While these fellowships are supposed to be for ‘early career researchers’, the reality of who gets funding, or is even allowed to apply, seems to be a more senior/experienced group than we would expect. For a lot of funding calls, universities now have an internal sift where potential applicants submit a draft application, and an internal university panel decides who can/can’t apply. Sometimes this is because the funder caps the number of applications from any single institution. These internal panels can be blighted by bias and gatekeeping, and lack centralised oversight from the funders. As a non-university entity, we don’t need to sift like this, and have just supported both applicants who have wanted to apply with us. Supporting applicants is a huge time consideration as a host organisation, because the application process is so long (proposal submission in June 2020, notification of success in May 2021 for a December start), with an administrative burden in intensive bursts.

Despite this call being open to non-university organisations, in reality the call language is academic, and inaccessible to most who don’t have experience within the university research system. We have the privilege/advantage of having a Director who has worked in university research for most of their career, and has received research funding similar to this previously. We also benefited from the support of many academic friends and collaborators, including seven as collaborators/mentors/partners/advisory board members named in the proposal, and many more helping with mock interview panels and so on.

We recently tried to help another small organisation to understand the call, and saw problems in working out what the equivalent is to an ‘early career researcher’ in sectors that aren’t universities. Again, in reality, applicants are competing against university researchers and seem to be judged on things that are mostly only really relevant within university systems, for example journal publication records. It’s hard to see how someone without a traditional academic background could apply/compete, even if it's theoretically possible.

Parts of the application are made slightly easier for ‘business’ hosts (remember this is essentially any organisation type that isn’t a university, so we’ll keep it in inverted commas), for example overheads are a flat rate. However some parts require a bit of shoehorning, for example our Directors work based on daily rates rather than salaries, and there is no possibility of doing this within the funding form required - this lead to some interesting calculations of a vastly inflated salary based on our daily rate (5x our actual income), and explanations needed for reviewers. Interestingly on this issue, the inflated and unrealistic Director’s salary was numerically equivalent to university professor salaries, yet was questioned by university reviewers despite comparable experience levels - so there are still some cultural issues around how the value of ‘business’ R&D and staff are considered relative to universities. This is addressed to some degree by UKRI having ‘businesses’ on their interview panels alongside academics for ‘business’ hosted fellowships.

Once the fellowship was awarded, further waves of administration followed. A big part of this was creating organisational policy documents, equivalent to those that a university might have. To make this easier for other organisations, we have made our versions of all the required policy documents public - feel free to copy/adapt these (or make suggestions for improvements if you spot something that could be better). We were already set up with proper accounting software (Odoo) and a great accountant, and were already accounting separately by project, so we were administratively ready for the fellowship funding. We run a shared online spreadsheet for real-time spending, and check this monthly against the bank account, with a separate analytic account for the project in our accounting software. UKRI audited us in detail at 3 months, to check that our processes were adequate (we very much welcomed this for our own peace of mind), and again in less detail at 6 months - as everything was considered good, they have moved to 6 monthly auditing. This admin/accounting time should be built into consideration when small organisations are applying, and can potentially be covered by the funded overheads (although we have found this hasn’t covered our administrative time, especially if the application phase is taken into consideration - the unpaid labour associated with applying for funding is a very real issue).

As an organisation there are also various legal considerations. We had to hire a lawyer (costing £1,500 for 3 hours work) to tell us whether this funding would count as de minimis and so restrict what other funding we could apply for - we were surprised that UKRI weren’t able to simply tell us this (to add further complication we were doing this during Brexit, so had to look at both EU regulations and the still incomplete new UK regulations). The answer was no, since we were applying for 100% research (which is unusual for ‘business’ applicants), and it is our policy to make everything fully open source. In terms of VAT, as this is public research funding, it is “outside the scope” of VAT and that means we can’t claim back VAT on our spending. However similarly to the issue above, presumably for legal reasons, UKRI were unable to advise on this and required written confirmation from us outlining our understanding of the tax treatment needed for the project. Corporation tax is also potentially an issue, but this funding is R&D so we should be able to claim either RDEC or SME Relief - we are working through this process at the moment. Organisations will also of course need the usual insurance in place (employer’s liability, public liability, indemnity, contents/property - ours also comes with legal protection and crisis containment), but most will/should have this already. Everything mentioned in this paragraph is nerve wracking as a small organisation, and potentially costly in terms of seeking external advice.

We had a worry on being told that the funding would be paid retrospectively quarterly, which would mean finding 3 months' worth of money to pay the fellowship salary and other costs up front. At the time the funding guidance implied otherwise so this came as a shock. In the end we were told that the payments were on fixed dates four times a year, so we were able to move the start date to mean that we only had to cover 1 month of costs up front. The first payment didn’t come through on time, right before Christmas, which caused problems. In general the payments have been somewhat unpredictable - this would be easy for a university or large business to deal with, but it could very easily bankrupt organisations of our size. We’d recommend any other small organisation begins to build a good financial buffer before even applying, to allow enough time for it to accumulate to cover several months of funding should that become necessary.

It’s also worth saying that Alex’s fellowship is being done remotely to our main studio - this was written into the application, and we were lucky that the pandemic brought more people to a position where they understand the validity of remote working. Still, it was brought up as a concern both by peer reviewers and the interview panel; if we hadn't been able to show a long, successful history of remote collaboration this could have sunk the application. Alex has his own space in Sheffield, and pays for this through a remote-worker supplement that we add to his salary, taken from the overheads. This means Alex can stay embedded within the communities he’s developed, and doesn’t need to disrupt his family life - something universities could benefit from implementing.

Although there have been glitches, all told, the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship team have been really great to work with, and super helpful in finding solutions to the issues that we bring as a non-standard funding recipient. We have had the feeling that they want to learn from the experience to make it more accessible for other organisations like us in future.

If anyone has read this far, and has questions or wants a bit of support, do get in touch on email or Twitter, and we’ll do our best to help.