The Wellcome Trust Humanities and Social Science team visit Edinburgh University

In today’s blog we hear from Nicholas Duvall, Research Support Advisor (CAHSS), as he discusses the recent visit to the University of Edinburgh by the Humanities and Social Sciences team of the Wellcome Trust (one of the world’s largest funders of health research).

The event was opened by the Vice Principal Planning, Resources and Research Policy, Professor Jonathan Seckl, who pointed out that our venue, the historic Playfair Library at Old College, was close to the site of Kirk o’Field, where Mary Queen of Scots’ controversial husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was murdered in 1567. The plotters who had wished Darnley dead had hedged their bets: not satisfied with merely blowing him up they had seen fit to strangle him before the explosion played its part. A grisly opening perhaps? But a fascinating insight into the role that forensics, and medicine in general, have played here for centuries.

Of course, the site has also had a more edifying role in human history, as important figures in the history of scientific and medical endeavour, such as Charles Darwin and Elsie Inglis, studied at the University of Edinburgh, which was established on the site in 1583. Introducing the event, which showcased the opportunities Wellcome offers researchers in humanities and social science, Professor Seckl pointed to the crucial role these disciplines will play in addressing global health challenges in the coming decades.

The University was pleased to have both Jack Harrington and Paul Woodgate from Wellcome there to give their insights and advice, at the event attended by researchers from universities across Scotland. The visitors followed Professor Seckl with a presentation about the funding they offer in humanities and social science, including much helpful advice about crafting a successful application. They then took questions from the audience, before meeting prospective applicants in smaller groups, to discuss specific aspects of potential projects.

In the presentation, Wellcome outlined the wide range of schemes Wellcome offers for funding humanities and social science projects which relate to health. Options are available for researchers at different career stages, for example the Research Fellowships in Humanities and Social Science for early-career scholars, and Investigator Awards for more experienced researchers leading a research team. There are also the Research Awards for Health Professionals, for people from professional health backgrounds, such as nurses or veterinarians, who are looking for an opportunity to carry out humanities and social science research. Wellcome funds projects with grants of different scales. The Small Grants in Humanities and Social Science offer up to £35 000 for a programme of activities, while the Collaborative Awards in Humanities and Social Science, provide funding of up to £1.5m for projects of up to 5 years’ duration.

During their visit, Jack and Paul touched upon a number of key themes. One related to the independence of Wellcome as an organization. The stability which its endowment gives it allows it to take a longer term view in its strategic and funding decisions, as well as a willingness to take on a slightly higher degree of risk than some other funders. However, Wellcome’s risk appetite will vary according to the scheme applied to and the scale of the project.

They also noted three key factors of a successful proposal, which applicants need to articulate. The first is the credibility of the applicant (or the team of researchers for Collaborative Awards)  – do they clearly possess the necessary expertise and ability to deliver the research project successfully? The second, not unrelated to the first, is the feasibility of the project. You need to persuade everyone who will be reading your application (who can include Wellcome staff, peer-reviewers in your own field, and a panel of assessors from a range of academic disciplines) that you can achieve your objectives using the time and resources available. Third, is your research transformative? Wellcome receive a large number of very high quality applications, so in order to be competitive, applicants need to demonstrate that they will be pushing at the frontiers of their chosen field.

For Wellcome’s larger awards, there is a multiple-stage application, including an outline application, to assess eligibility and to feedback on the competitiveness of the proposal, a full application, and peer review and interview stages. Thus, a lot of time and preparation needs to be devoted to a successful proposal for Wellcome. Yet, there is a lot of help and support available for applicants at the university.

Have a look at the Research Support Office’s guide to Wellcome funding in the humanities and social science, which gives more information about their funding schemes, insight into their strategic direction, and advice for applicants.

You can also look at our dossier of successful Wellcome applications, which includes previously successful applications to Wellcome (and many other funders) from Edinburgh. Lastly, do get in touch with the Research Support Office – we look forward to meeting you and discussing your idea.

Dr Nicholas Duvall is Research Support Advisor for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the Research Support Office, University of Edinburgh.

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