A report of a New Zealand-based funding initiative designed to improve a university's research culture.

Author:Rath, Jean
Position:Report
 
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Introduction

In common with developments in the international community over recent years, tertiary institutions in New Zealand have come under pressure from Government (e.g. via the Performance Based Research Fund [for details of the PBRF regime see http://www.tec.govt.nz]) to increase quality assured research outputs and raise the level of staff participation in research-focused activity. A web search suggests that institutional schemes to provide seed funding to enhance research capacity are prevalent across the country. As Porter (2004) reminds us, those who do not establish effective habits of research and grant writing early in their careers are unlikely ever to do so. Workshops that demystify grant application processes and schemes that mentor new staff in development of writing skills can thus stimulate greater participation in research culture throughout a career. It is not surprising that a number of institutions have targeted research development toward new researchers. They have put in place measures to encourage members of staff new to the academy and those new to research to develop an appropriate portfolio of knowledge, skills, relationships and research outputs in line with the Government's national quality assurance exercise. There have been few published studies that focus on the use of internal funding to promote research capacity, and those that do exist tend to focus either on the links between research and teaching (Morris and Fry, 2006) or the problems associated with the acquisition of grant writing skills (Porter, 2003). This paper attempts to address this under-reported area by providing an account of an initial evaluation of an internal grants scheme at Victoria University of Wellington targeted at new and early career researchers. Although the University recognises that such a scheme might also be used to support and encourage mid-career researchers who may have become inactive, the focus of the scheme and this evaluation is on how best to facilitate early career researchers.

Description of the Funding Scheme

The New Researchers' Grant Funding Scheme began in 2004 as a strategic initiative designed to provide impetus to the research programs of new researchers and to give them experience in completing grant applications. This paper reports on the scheme for the three years 2004 to 2006 inclusive. The grants during this period were for a maximum of NZ$2,500 (in 2007 this was raised to NZ$5,000), and were available to members of academic staff in the first four years of their first academic appointment. The scheme's stated aim was to "provide impetus to the research programs of new researchers and, in particular, to give them experience in completing successful grant applications" (Victoria University of Wellington, 2006).

To apply for funding staff members followed a five-step process:

  1. Attend an Orientation to Research workshop.

    The three-hour orientation workshop included an experience-based talk from an early career researcher and practical information relating to the university's research strategy, ethics policies and procedures, internal research grants and study leave, and an overview of the New Researchers' Grant Scheme. Workshop evaluations have been consistently positive, with average ratings of workshop quality showing 83% of respondents recording scores of excellent or good. Qualitative comments show that clear explanations of funding processes are most appreciated, and that exemplars of past successful applications and the availability of Research Office staff to answer any queries are highly valued.

  2. Submit an application.

    The application form includes project title, description (written in plain language, suitable for a non-expert audience), anticipated outputs, project timetable and milestones, an explanation of how the assessment criteria will be met, and a fully justified budget. The Head of School must sign off the application, thereby guaranteeing that he or she is aware of and approves the staff member's plans, and that necessary support will be provided by the school.

  3. Applications are reviewed by the Research Development Subcommittee (a subcommittee of the University Research Committee).

    The subcommittee includes representatives from each faculty, experienced and early career researchers, a representative from the University Teaching Development Centre, and a member of Toihuarewa (the University's virtual faculty charged with ensuring that appropriate strategies and policies are followed to develop partnership with M ori, New Zealand's indigenous people). Applications are reviewed in line with the following broad criteria: the quality of the research proposal; the research outputs and outcomes, including links with high quality research-informed teaching; the accuracy and justification of the budget; and the strategic significance of the project for the applicant's School or wider University.

  4. The committee allocates a member to act as a mentor to provide expert feedback to help develop grant-writing skills.

    The committee formulates a consensus view with regard to recommended changes, and a member, usually from the same faculty as the applicant, provides individualised feedback over one or more sessions. It is rare for an application to be approved with no alterations.

  5. Once the mentor is satisfied with the amended application a research funding account is set up.

    ...

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