Monday, 7 January 2019

The Inside Track on Applying to Leverhulme


Sunlight soap: the beginning of it all (photo: Øklands trykksaker CC BY 2.0)

Academics love the Leverhulme Trust. Other funders may be bigger, or bolder, or more ambitious. But Leverhulme seems to sing the song that academics want to hear. It funds blue skies research without the layers of political varnish. Your work doesn’t have to fit a particular discipline. It doesn’t have to be a collaboration. You don’t have to link with industry, or focus on capacity building.

For Leverhulme, it’s the research, stupid. It funds curiosity-driven research that reflects an individual vision. It disregards disciplinary boundaries. It can take risks. It can fail.

No wonder academics love it.

But what makes it tick? What is it looking for? How does it assess applications? And what are your chances of being funded?

A soap opera story

The Leverhulme Trust is built on soap. William Hesketh Lever, the founder of the Trust, was a Victorian businessman who was one of the first to recognise the value of packaging and branding. He produced Sunlight soap, which differed from the competition in being made of vegetable oil, pre-packaged and of a consistent quality.

When he died in 1925 he left a significant proportion of the shares in his company for founding a trust to provide "scholarships for the purposes of research and education". It was the founding principle of the Leverhulme Trust - and the reason why the majority (75%) of any grant needs to go on people (‘scholarship’) rather than any other direct cost.

Meanwhile the company on which the Trust relied, Lever Brothers, merged in 1930 with Dutch company Margarine Unie to become Unilever, a company with a €53.7 billion annual turnover. It’s a lucrative company to rely on.

The Trust Board

The links with Unilever go beyond finance. The Trust Board is the most important body within the Trust. It decides on policy, but it also decides on who gets the awards. So it’s worth spending a little time on understanding its membership and thinking. It is made of ex-Unilever employees, some of whom have been the CEO of the company.

They are not academics, and many don’t have a background in the UK. So they’re straight talking, straight acting businessmen, often with an international background. I’ll talk a little more about what makes them tick later.

How funding decisions are made

Although the Board make the final decision on who gets funded, they rely for advice on academics. They don’t always follow what they say, but they do listen to them.

I’m going to concentrate on their Research Project Grants to understand how Leverhulme assesses applications. It’s the largest of their 13 schemes, accounting for 44% of their award value.

It’s a two part process. At the outline stage your application is sent to a member of a relatively small advisory panel, consisting of 30-40 academics representing all of the disciplines within Leverhulme’s remit. The Trust will try and send it to someone working broadly in your area, but with such a small group of academics, the chances of them having a full understanding of your area is slim. Depending on the amount, the application will either be seen by one (if it’s less than £350k) or two (if it’s more than £350k). Their comments are sent to the Director, who approves (or, indeed, overrules) them.

If both the advisory panel member and the Director are supportive, the application goes to the full application stage. Here it is sent to four referees. These are people with more specialist knowledge, and aren’t members of the advisory panel. Based on these reviews, the trustees make the final decision.

What to watch out for

The key to success with Leverhulme is to remember two things: first, it’s free of the politics of government funding, and secondly, both the trustee and the advisory panel are generalists.

With this in mind you need to make sure that your proposal is easily understood by (and persuasive for) a generalist audience. It needs to make a clear case for funding. Remember, the trustees are businessmen (and yes, nine out of 11 of them are men), are generally decisive, but need the facts and the case clearly stated to them.

Moreover, they don’t care too much about the obsessions of academia. They’re not too interested in the Research Excellence Framework or journal impact factors. They’re interested in the ideas, but want a plausible business case for putting them into practice. They’re not bothered by your standing in the field (although they must be convinced that you can do what is proposed).

Both the trustees and panellists want to see originality, forward significance but also lateral significance (i.e. the significance on other disciplines). And they positively welcome risk. They want to support a clear individual vision, an apparently fresh direction, and are happy if you disregard traditional disciplinary boundaries.

What they definitely don’t want to see is ‘empire sustenance’, or the sense that you’ve been ploughing the furrow for the last 30 years, that you’ve got a lab of 20 people dependent on you, and that this project will sustain them.

Equally, they don’t want a sense of ‘initiative sustenance’, or that they are being targeted as the ‘funder of last resort’.  Just because your area - or your project - has been dropped as a priority by another funder, it doesn’t mean that Leverhulme will be interested.

Success rates

So what are your chances of success? For the Research Project Grants, the Trust tries to shortlist 50% to go through to the full application stage. Of these, they try to fund 50%. The overall success rate should, then, be 25%, but at the moment it’s more like 17%.

However, look beyond the bold statistics. The outline is a fairly simple form, so you only need to do a limited amount of work at this stage. If you’re part of the 50%, then you know it’s worth putting in considerable effort to the full application because you know that you’ve got a real chance of getting funded.

For the other schemes, there’s a wide range of success rates. In 2017 the Philip Leverhulme Prizes were only 8%, but the Visiting Professorships were 41%. Early Career and Major Fellowships were both 17%, and their standard Research Fellowships were 14%.

It’s an attractive funder with a refreshingly simple vision, but the success rates demonstrate the downside of this: it’s oversubscribed. But don’t let that put you off. If your work has an appeal beyond academia, if it is risk-taking and intriguing, if it disregards disciplinary boundaries and is willing to fail, Leverhulme may just be the place to try.

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in December 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com


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