From fund-and-forget to help-it-happen: Responsive and responsible research funding

21 February 2018

As BC’s health research funding agency, we think deeply about how to grow, improve and best support BC health research. Over the coming weeks and months we will be sharing a series of blogs on health research funding and ‘helping-it-happen’. First up is MSFHR’s President & CEO Dr. Bev Holmes, introducing the science of science funding.

Forward Thinking is MSFHR’s blog, rebranded to focus on what it takes to be a responsive and responsible research funder. 

From fund-and-forget to help-it-happen: What it takes to be a responsive and responsible research funder

An innocent comment spurred this piece and the blog series it introduces. The topic under discussion was the work of health research funding agencies, which a colleague described as “giving away money”.

In a sense, my colleague is right. Agencies receive funding – usually from governments but also others, including donors – and provide grants to people who do research. But while some may adopt a “fund and forget” approach, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR) and many of our counterparts are increasingly active in helping to maximize their awardees’ success.

With funders under significant pressure to demonstrate impact, it might be tempting to get too active – deeply involved or directive – in an attempt to produce research results quickly or to focus research in a particular direction. Tempting, but wrong, for various reasons, from disempowering awardees to disregarding how research works.

Funders are learning how to manage this fine line of involvement, bringing unique expertise to bear – at the grant, program, organizational and system levels – to both respond to and influence the environment that ultimately determines the success of research activity.

In this new series of blogs, we discuss this expertise, sometimes referred to as the science of science funding, which is generating interest globally from funders committed to “helping it happen”.

We’ll kick things off next month with a commentary on the Lancet special issue Increasing Value, Reducing Waste in Health Research. This provocative group of articles makes recommendations for specific stakeholder groups related to five activities: prioritizing, conducting, regulating, reporting, and maximizing the accessibility of research. We’ll describe our work on each and propose a sixth activity: supporting the use of research evidence.

Subsequent posts discuss our work at the grant, program, organization and system levels as we determine what to fund, how to fund, how to support, and how to measure. Unpacking all these questions is critical for funding agencies.

What to fund, how to fund, how to support, and how to measure

  • In an era of complex social problems and a myriad of potential solutions, funders need a solid investment strategy to guide them on what to fund. Even with a primary focus – in MSFHR’s case, talent development – challenges arise related to ensuring an appropriate balance of equity and diversity, type of research (for example, bench science, population health research), stage of investigator career, open versus targeted research and more.
  • There are practical and conceptual considerations to the notion of how to fund. They range from how best to leverage co-funding partnerships and developing programs with the right mix of funding amount and award length, to ensuring accountability while enabling flexibility for course changes, and designing rigorous and fair application review processes.
  • As funders, how to support is about not only our award holders but also the larger environment in which we operate. We can add value by supporting our awardees with award-specific and general training and we can help enable change by maximizing facilitators and minimizing barriers to research production and use at the organization and system levels.​
  • Finally, how to measure questions range from how we evaluate awardee progress and how we measure our work as a funder, to how we analyze elements of the environment in which we operate so we can design good programs and understand their influence.

The global importance of the scientific enterprise is undisputed, and discussions about the critical need to strengthen support for science are underway in Canada and beyond. Funders have a unique role to play, but our success depends on collective effort. In this blog series, we explore what to fund, and how to fund, support and measure. We invite your feedback and ideas on how we might partner to advance the science of science funding, to ensure the strategic and responsible use of public funds.