Dismantling the barriers: Five things Funders can do

01 September 2022 | Blogs, Dr Andy Clempson blog

In the previous blog exploring barriers research returners face when re-starting their careers, some of the main issues identified from our survey were discussed. Identifying barriers is one thing, but doing something about them in another! So, in the following series of blogs, I’m suggesting five actions that different parts of the research ecosystem can do to help.

These are by no means exhaustive actions – I may have missed some, and you may entirely agree or disagree(!) with me. I’d like to hear your views and ideas – my contact details are at the bottom of this blog, so please drop me a line.

The first on my ‘action list’ is funders! They play a vital role in creating a supportive environment for all researchers. They literally hold the purse strings and as such yield significant power – perhaps more than they realise. Even relatively modest changes to a funder’s policies could help to improve the experiences of research returners (and indeed, all researchers).


1. The first suggestion is to consider whether the structure and conditions of grants are appropriate for a modern research workforce.

Offering 12-month duration grants whereby a researcher would have to relocate for the position excludes many returners with family and caring commitments. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted that remote working supported by digital communication is possible. Funders have an opportunity to embed these practices into research culture and embrace flexible working. Why not allow (and encourage this) on all grants? I’m very aware that some research involves ‘hands on’ work that cannot be done remotely. But research is not always about endless weeks of continuous lab work – particularly in more theoretical areas. Flexibility could be encouraged so that people can work remotely during certain periods on a grant. This should be highlighted and encouraged to all applicants – especially returners – so that this can be built into research plans that dovetail with an individual’s non-work commitments.


2. Re-emphasise that grants can be flexible to accommodate part-time working, compressed hours and job sharing.

Funders could actively demonstrate examples of such initiatives to improve awareness. Why not showcase case studies of your researchers that work part-time to improve uptake? More often than not, research returners don’t feel confident to ask if a grant can be undertaken on a part-time basis if this is not highlighted. Funders could remove this uncertainty (and any stigma associated with it) by actively encouraging such approaches.


3. Ensure that your peer review process is not biased against returners.

This is easy to say, but hard to do, but I think a good start would be to diversify what ‘success’ looks like AND critique the diversity of those involved in your review process. Does your research assessment panel contain individuals that work part-time and juggle home and work commitments as well as their research? If not, why not bring them on board? Your decision-making process will benefit from a more well-rounded discussion about the quality of the research AND the person undertaking it. Other initiatives such as using narrative-based CVs during the grant application process should be considered. Some funders, like the Royal Society are already doing this to try and tackle bias. I would encourage all funders to try new initiatives, communicate about your plans and monitor to ensure bias does not creep back in. Change often needs to be sustained and regularly reviewed.


4. Make the funding application process more flexible and inclusive.

Another one that’s easy to say but hard to do! This involves ensuring application forms and guidance are appropriate for all candidates – including those that have had career breaks. Using Plain English and simplifying application forms really helps. Ensure that questions asked in application forms are appropriate (e.g. asking about research outputs within the last ten years disadvantages those that have had a career break within that time). Similarly, defining ‘early career’ based on age, or a certain number of years after a PhD excludes returners that would otherwise meet the criteria. Finally, (and somewhat controversially), consider moving away from deadline driven grant calls to open-ended approaches that better accommodate those balancing pressing family, caring or health circumstances. If deadlines are to be used, choose thoughtful deadlines (i.e. those that don’t just avoid bank holidays) – but also consider school terms and holiday periods and the length of time that grant calls are open for. Similarly, applying deadline extensions to meet candidates’ personal circumstances can really help.


5. Consider whether restrictions on eligible costs on grant applications are supportive of research returners.

Increasing travel and accommodation cost thresholds could allow returners to avoid relocation if they are prepared to travel more and such costs are covered on the grant. Where re-location is unavoidable, funders should pay towards these costs rather than expecting the financial penalty to be shouldered by the returner.


Associated suggestions that came up in writing this blog included:

  • In this article, the benefits of using ‘academic age’ as a means to contextualise career breaks and avoid age bias is discussed. I’m supportive of such approaches and would welcome more funders to trial use of more informative metrics such as these.
  • The Trust is supportive of UKRI’s aims to reduce complexity of the grant application and peer review process as discussed here and here.
  • The Trust is generally supportive of The Research Council for Norway’s gender balance requirement on applications, and where possible, would welcome moves to replicate that in the UK.
  • The Trust encourages more funders to explore the benefits of unconscious bias training for peer reviewers, and the potential for unconscious bias observers on funding panels.

I hope these suggestions go at least some way to address barriers returners face. If you have any other comments or ideas, please contact me (Andy Clempson) on a.clempson@surrey.ac.uk.

Look out for the next blog coming soon!

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