Dr Chathurika Kannangara: My grant funding journey

Dr Chathurika Kannangara

Dr Chathurika Kannangara is University Director of Research Quality, at the University of Bolton. Her primary research interest lies within the broad and developing domain of positive psychology applications in wellbeing.

Last year, Chathurika was successful in receiving £10,000 in funding through the Manchester Academic Health Science Centre (MAHSC) Mental Health Domain. In this blog, Dr Kannagara discusses her experience of applying for MAHSC pump-priming funding, and outlines her top tips to consider when applying for research funding.

Since the start of my career teaching on degree programmes in both Sri Lanka and India, to my current role at the University of Bolton, one constant has been my attitude towards applying for grant funding, its importance, and the possibilities that this can unlock.

Deciding to apply for a grant:

There are a host of reasons why I encourage colleagues and research students to apply for grant funding. From advancing scientific knowledge in your respective field to developing your professional career, I believe that is a vital skill for anyone wishing to embark on a research career in academia. Grants can unlock opportunities and programmes that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, and that may be too expensive for institutions to support and implement alone.

Not only can grants enhance the prestige and financial health of institutions, but they can also mean new opportunities for research assistants and internal and external colleagues. Importantly, when obtained through open competition, receiving a grant means that experts in your field acknowledge that your idea is important and worthy of public or private support, providing an enormous sense of achievement.

This has been the case as I have navigated the research funding landscape throughout my career. Whilst, as we all know, not every grant will be successful, it is a wonderful feeling to be notified of the success of a project that you are passionate about and that you have put a great deal of time and effort into.

MAHSC Mental Health Research Domain Award:

Last year, I was successfully awarded a MAHSC Mental Health Domain funding award for a project entitled ‘AIDA-MH: Artificial Intelligence Diabetes Assistant – Mental Health’. The project aims to improve the mental health and wellbeing of people living with diabetes, through the creation of an AI-powered digital assistant. I hope that this assistant can act as a ‘low-level’ mental health support system, to signpost and help people living with diabetes on a day-to-day basis.

This is important for several reasons: People living with diabetes have a higher level of mental health concerns than those without. Several factors may influence this, including changes in blood sugar in the body and anxiety when attempting to manage the condition. Following a discussion with Diabetes UK, to scope whether a project in this area would be valuable, I felt encouraged to pull together a plan and apply for support.

I had already published and done some work in this area, but I knew that the next step was to secure some funding to help develop my ideas further. Whilst the application process was straightforward, I think this was in part due to the connections and time that I had put in previously, ensuring that the foundations of the project had already been laid. This is something I feel is very important when applying for funding, to ensure that the groundwork is laid for when the time is right for you to target a grant. I see some of the key foundations as being:

Developing links: Partnership working, be that networking or establishing links with clinicians, industry, and the Third Sector, will all strengthen applications and can make the difference to a successful bid. As my project involved utilising blood reports, my existing links to an NHS Trust were utilised, as were my previous discussions with Diabetes UK, who were able to advise me on their thoughts on the potential value of the project to the people that they support.

Public and Patient Involvement and Engagement: As the main aim of the project was to improve the mental health and wellbeing of people living with diabetes, it could not be done without the inclusion and participation of patients and the public. I would encourage others to not only seek the involvement of patients and the public in research, but at the outset, think about whether you have an effective engagement plan in place, and how their input can be captured from the get-go. In the case of this project, there was little point in developing an AI Diabetes Assistant without asking people living with diabetes, what they thought about this and what support they would like to see provided.

Impact & Outcome: Nowadays impact is a major component of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) for all universities and a key performance indicator for funders who want to see the impact of a given project. Therefore, a big question you need to ask is how your project will impact the community it is aimed at and to demonstrate this within a funding application. I’d encourage wide thinking, in terms of people/services that may directly benefit, but also from a policy impact point of view. Universities can often help with this, where there can be dedicated policy units supporting connections between researchers and policymakers.

Another consideration is the expected outcome and what may lead on from a project. I think it is important to view this as a step-by-step process, demonstrating how project insights will lead to further developments, which will in-turn allow you to attract larger funding pots.

In summary, my top tips when applying for grant funding are:

  • Work in partnership and seek to forge collaborations with researchers with track record, and look for opportunities to be a collaborator, before applying as a PI.
  • Utilise your networks and use mentors to identify suitable funding calls.
  • Look for internal funding and smaller pots for scoping and pilot projects, alongside travel grants to build your experience of applying for grants.
  • Make sure to follow the grant proposal outline, be clear and consistent, and know when to avoid highly technical language.
  • Consider the process as a learning experience irrespective of the outcome.

So, what’s next for me? I am very keen to increase the number of externally funded grant applications not only in the School of Psychology but more widely across the Faculty of Health and Wellbeing at the University and to ensure that our staff and students are fully equipped with the skills to successfully secure external grant funding. In terms of my current project, my next step is to create a prototype of the AI digital assistant and look towards further funding to support its continued development and rollout.

Opportunities: MAHSC funding awards and events

MAHSC Inflammation & Repair Research Domain funding awards launched:

The Manchester Academic Health Science Centre (MAHSC) Inflammation & Repair Research Domain, part of Health Innovation Manchester, is offering the opportunity to apply for awards of up to £10,000 to fund cross-discipline, multi-institution, research-led projects that have potential to generate clinical impact and patient benefit.

The deadline for this funding call is Tuesday 5th November 2023. You can read more about this funding award call and apply here.

MAHSC Cardiovascular Research Domain showcase and collaboration workshop:

The Manchester Academic Health Science Centre (MAHSC) Cardiovascular Research Domain and Health Innovation Manchester would like to invite clinical, academic, and other professional colleagues to attend our upcoming showcase and collaboration event.

This event will be hosted at the Manchester Metropolitan University Institute of Sport on Wednesday 8th November from 10:00-15:00 and will have a focus on vascular health, diabetes, exercise medicine, and other areas of cardiovascular research and care.

You can read more about this event and register here.

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