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Get that grant: How to secure an Investigator Award

25 Jun, 2012

Launched in 2011, our Investigator Awards build on our strategic goal of supporting the brightest researchers with the best ideas. So how do you get one? Danny Altmann, Head of Pathogens, Immunology and Population Health, tells you how.

Are you eligible?

To be eligible, you must have a Faculty appointment at a recognized institute in the UK, Ireland or a low- or middle-income country.

There are two categories of Investigator Award– we make the distinction between New (up to 5 years in a faculty post) and Senior investigators.  This distinction is only a tool to remind reviewers that when judging your track record, this may be expected to look different 5, 10 or 30 years into the job.

Your idea

Investigator Awards are an exciting new venture for us and different from conventional grants. Your mindset needs to be rather different from that for your usual applications. Think about the current state of play in your field and the narrative of your research trajectory so far. Then, stand back and try to think which are the big, transformative questions that you could take on that would really move the field forward.

Be bold and creative.

CV check

If you feel that you have a great research question that might be suitable, get in touch with us through the initial CV check on our eGrants page. This is intended simply to avoid wasted effort in the event that your research question might be too far outside our research remit or your CV unsuitable for the scheme.

At this stage, we’ll be looking for evidence of an ongoing, successful contribution to your field. This is likely to be reflected in a combination of publications, grant income and other markers of esteem.

Young investigators will likely have fewer major publications than older investigators. We won’t simply be counting the number of publications, but forming a rounded opinion of your contributions as well as your current trajectory. Some of our successful applicants have come to us with 40-50 publications, others more than 300.

Once through the CV check, you will be invited to submit your full application for the scheme.

 Writing the application

 With a different scheme comes a different application form – one very different from a conventional application. Your application will be judged, in the first instance, by an Expert Review Group. We have nine groups comprised of international experts, which cover the breadth of our research portfolio. They will be assessing you on the basis of a composite of your past contribution and your future vision.

Do all you can to tell them about your past contributions: choose the most significant publications, the key breakthroughs, the impact through mentorship and past funding history.

If there is any additional information that they will need to take into account, such as CV gaps for family leave, please include this too.

The next part is the 3,000 word research plan. Here you’ll need to strike a fine balance: your proposal will be read both by specialists and non-specialists in your research area, and must be equally accessible to each. It must offer a high-level, exciting view of your big research vision, while at the same time offering sufficient substance that a referee would be able to understand what you aim to do, how you plan to do it and analyse it, and whether it’s likely to work.

The panel has been briefed to reject proposals that are merely incremental, worthy or solid and seek out the ideas that are transformative, bold and exciting. We often hear the panels talking about “Wow Factor” – you’ll be successful if your proposal has this in spades, yet mixed in with a level-headed appreciation of how the panel will make a hard-nosed assessment of its feasibility. We want your vision, but with a sharp focus.

As with any other application, if success depends on access to particular technology, collaborations or resources, be sure that you spell out that you have these in place. Different investigator proposals may span a wide range of time and costs requested, but ensure that the questions you’re asking are realistic with respect to the length of time and costs you’ve requested.

It’s worth noting that the scheme allows for joint applications from two investigators (see this example). This can offer exciting potential where there are two applicants, both of suitable status, who bring together the chance for clear synergy, for example, because they bring in distinct, complementary technologies.

If you’re unsure whether the proposal you envisage is a good fit for the scheme, please do contact us. Give us a call or pop in for a coffee and a chat – we’re here to help. Enquiries can be emailed to investigators@wellcome.ac.uk or call our Grants Management Service Desk: +44 (0)20 7611 2020.

The review process

Once your proposal has reached us it will be sent out to members of the appropriate review group, two or three of whom will be asked to present it to the rest of the panel.

Their task is to debate (sometimes heatedly) the strengths and weaknesses of each application. They are not briefed to accept proposals up to any particular budget or quota cut-off. Their scoring allows them to rank proposals into those recommended to go to the next stage, those that might do so, and those that should not be taken any further. Any, ‘possibles’ are re-evaluated at a joint meeting of all the review groups and the best of these progress to the next phase: interview by a Selection Panel.

This is the point at which we call you in for interview. We also send the proposals out for external refereeing. The external reviews are used to inform the interview discussion. We’re grateful to have attracted the best and most relevant of the international research community to take part in this review procedure.

Interview

The Selection Panel you’ll meet at interview is comprised of outstanding international scientists who are used to taking a ‘generalist’ view of scientific strategy. It is not intended to be a specialist panel with respect to each individual application, though we may add members to the panel, either from the review group or externally, to complement the scientific interests of the core members.

We’ve heard the Selection Panel interviews, described both as ‘very exhilarating’ and ‘very scary’. Certainly, there is everything to play for: some who have scraped through at the early stages have come to interview with such an exuberant and compelling research vision that they have left the panel in no doubt that this is a proposal worth funding. Others, who, based on track record, appeared to be absolute certainties for funding, have come in and found it hard to respond to the very challenging questioning.

No matter how much of an old-hand you are at presenting your work, we always recommend that you get senior colleagues to grill you at mock interview.

You will need to be ready to do two rather different things. On the one hand, you may be addressing a room of people who, though massively experienced in biomedical science and its review, may not have a detailed insight into  your field, its questions and why they matter. They will need to be won over. On the other hand, they will be armed with a detailed critique from the expert reviewers and, aware that there was minimal space in the application to discuss the details and feasibility of the studies. They may seek to probe you on precisely how the work will be done and analysed. So be ready for both types of questioning.

You will be allowed to bring three PowerPoint slides to help you explain your vision.  Be sure to plan these wisely.

Success!

If  successful, we’ll call you to tell you the good news and start negotiating the details of your funding package.

We aim to build a community of Investigators who will meet at workshops to bring their research visions together so that we can, in time, generate even greater added value out of cross-fertilisation between creative scientists. We hope you will be one of them.

Any questions? Contact us or pop in for a chat. Email investigators@wellcome.ac.uk or call our Grants Management Service Desk on 020 7611 2020.

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