Eligibility for research funding
Before you submit a research proposal it is essential that you make sure you satisfy the funding body’s eligibility criteria. Even if your proposal is precisely targeted to the aims of the funding body, there might be other restrictions which could prevent you from applying. It is important to be aware of these restrictions before you begin, so that you do not waste time and effort on an application that will never be considered.
Eligibility criteria for Research Council grant funding
RCUK sets out strict eligibility criteria which must be satisfied before any of the Research Councils will offer funding to a project. An applicant for a Research Council grant must be a member of a Higher Education institution or a recognised ‘Independent Research Organisation’ in the UK, or have the formal support of such an institution. Applicants must also be UK residents.
A researcher applying for grant funding must normally be a full-time or part-time member of staff employed on a research and/or teaching contract. Honorary or visiting researchers, for example, will not be eligible to apply for funding unless they can provide:
- evidence of a formal contractual relationship with the host institution
- a statement of support from the host institution.
Applicants are expected to be of post-doctoral level or to have equivalent experience.
Your employment contract must cover a time period at least as long as the period of funding you are applying for. This is to ensure that continuity of supervision can be provided for staff you might employ to work on the project.
Research Councils stipulate that staff who are applying for grant funding must not be already employed out of grants to fund another research project. This means that members of research staff who are contracted to work on a grant funded project for another PI cannot normally apply for Research Council grant funding. It is also not permitted for the grant holder (the PI) and the employee (the researcher actually doing the project that is being funded) to be the same person. Effectively, this means that research staff cannot apply for Research Council grants to fund themselves.
There are limited exceptions to these rules:
- Medical Research Council (MRC) Applicants’ Handbook states that the MRC will accept applications from any UK-based researcher who can demonstrate that he or she will take an active part in the research being proposed
- The Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) allows a researcher employed on another grant to apply for new funding as a ‘Co-Investigator’ alongside another applicant. The co-investigator’s time contribution to the new project must be clearly defined and must be more than 50% of the researcher’s working hours. Full details of the rules can be found in the EPSRC Funding Guide
- The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) allows a researcher to be a co-applicant on a grant as a ‘Researcher Co-Investigator’. Eligibility requirements are similar to those for EPSRC co-investigators. More details can be found in the NERC Research Grants Handbook
- The Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) also allows ‘Researcher Co-Investigators’ in limited circumstances. The STFC Grants Handbook has more details.
The other Research Councils do not permit contract research staff to apply for grant funding. However, all Research Councils will consider grant applications from researchers who have some element of independent funding, either from their university or institution’s central funds, or from a research fellowship. If the research fellow is also carrying out grant funded research for another PI, one period of grant funding must normally expire before the new one can begin.
Criteria for fellowships
The difficulty of securing grant funding means that a researcher seeking independence is usually best advised to begin by applying for a research fellowship. These are awards provided by the Research Councils, learned societies, some charities, and other large funding bodies. They are highly prestigious awards, and competition for them can be fierce. Not all fellowships provide funding for 100% of a researcher’s time, but holding a fellowship guarantees a certain degree of independence and usually means you can apply for other forms of grant funding.
Do not leave it too late to apply. You might feel it is too early in your career to think about applications for fellowships. But bear in mind that research fellowships are usually awarded to a specific remit – and one remit is to support ‘early career’ researchers. Almost all research fellowships carry an experience limit above which an applicant becomes ineligible to apply. This is not an age limit because discrimination on the basis of age is prohibited under the Equality Act 2010. It is more usually expressed in the form that “the applicant must be within x years of submitting their PhD thesis” or “the applicant must have no more than x years’ post-doctoral experience.” The value of x can vary widely. For an ‘early career’ fellowship it is usually no more than 3, although for other types of fellowship it can be as much as 10. Fellowships open to those who have had a succession of fixed-term research contracts are few and far between.
There are limited exceptions. These usually apply to researchers who have had a ‘career break’, particularly parents who have ceased work for a period to care for a young family. So it is important to check the small print.