The Application Stage

The application stage of a research project is often driven by necessity – deadlines, communication capacity, word count, areas of expertise, cost eligibility, budgetary constraints and who has time to write and edit the proposal. It is not unusual for difficult ethical considerations to be a low priority left until a grant is awarded, but the application stage is where many ethical issues must be addressed to ensure the project fulfils the principles of ethical partnership. 

In contrast to Structural Inequalities, the Application Stage offers the project team greatly expanded capacity to embed principles of equitable and ethical partnership. The project team should reflect carefully on power dynamics. Achieving ethical and equitable partnership may require some members of the team to relinquish power. Some of elements relevant for this stage are described in the structural aspects but other questions project teams should discuss/address include the following:

Who is driving the research question(s)?
While research ideas can come from anywhere, identifying the core research questions to be addressed should be a collaborative exercise not driven by any single individual. Exploring who is driving the questions is particularly critical for projects focused on international challenges, where international collaborators with greater contextual knowledge should be driving key questions. Increasingly, funders (particularly ODA funders) look for evidence of research questions driven by local needs. Research teams should be open to frank discussions about whose knowledge and experience “counts” when driving research questions.

Who is driving the approach to answering the research question (s)?
Much like the question of who drives the research question(s), the approaches, methodologies, disciplinary perspectives, equipment and techniques that will be deployed to answer the question(s) should also be determined through careful consideration of all team member perspectives. Inclusive research practices mean it is insufficient to have a diverse team if input from only a few select members is incorporated into decision-making.

Who are the leaders and who are the do-ers?
This question was flagged by NIHR in reference to NIHR Global Health research but is valid for any team conducting any kind of research. Specifically, NIHR noted that if work packages are all led/managed by northern researchers and the data is being collected by predominantly by southern “field” teams, this indicates lack of equity in partnerships. This question gets to the heart of power dynamics and underlying assumptions about leadership. Teams that do not have an equitable distribution of leadership roles should consider re-structuring.

Where is the money going?
The breakdown of the budget can highlight inequalities within the project plan, particularly those linked to the question of leaders and doers. Are postdoctoral positions concentrated in particular locations/institutions while field teams are located elsewhere? Is there equitable distribution of professional services staff that reflect the needs/resource flows in an appropriate way? When it comes to true equitable and ethical partnership, this is the epitome of “are you putting your money where your mouth is?” Budgets that do not match the rhetoric in an application should be reviewed and revised accordingly.

Who will benefit from the research?
This may seem like a relatively straightforward question, but there are multiple considerations, particularly if you are working with human participants as part of your research. Clear identification of who will benefit from the research and how the team will engage with the beneficiaries, particularly if they are research participants, is needed. Most funding applications now expect a Theory of Change, an impact-driven case-for-support or they expect the incorporation of impact elements throughout the entire proposal. This is doubly-so for ODA-funded activities and requires careful consideration, particularly around managing expectations of the project beneficiaries and communities that the project team engages with over the lifespan of the project. More on community/participant engagement is included in The Research Stage section, but at the Application Stage, specific elements that should be considered include:

  • Is community engagement a part of your project? Who is responsible for community engagement? What are the cultural norms for engaging with communities? What expectations will community members have about benefits to them? How will you manage community expectations if they clash with things like eligible expenditure or feasible timeframes for reporting back?
  • Do the communities you engage with have previous experience of working with researchers? Is “research fatigue” a possible issue? Is “telling you what you want to hear” a possible response to your presence?
  • If people are contributing to your research e.g. biological samples, survey responses, workshop participation, what benefit will be provided to them? Do you have the capacity to report back findings later directly to contributors? How will you respond to participant questions about the benefits to them directly for the contribution of their time, tissue and insights?
  • Stakeholder engagement of any kind may be accompanied by an explicit expectation of financial compensation for their time. Project teams should have discussion about whether that is likely to be the case, seek confirmation about the eligibility of such costs and ensure such costs are included in the application. If such costs are not eligible, teams should discuss at this stage the impact of this on their proposal.
  • UofG's Public Engagement Team have published a self-guided course on community engagement: Community engagement: an exploration

What is the team approach to authorship?
It may seem premature to consider this question at the application stage but agreeing how to approach authorship will avoid later conflict should the proposal be funded. Academic disciplines have different authorship norms, so interdisciplinary teams should carefully discuss how they will handle these differences (e.g. it is normal for social sciences publications to have a single author while medical publications may have dozens of authors). In some countries, it is normal for academic promotion to be impacted by authorship, including whether someone is lead author and how many joint authors are on the paper. This is linked to the “manager/doers” question – is it implied that the lead, corresponding and last authors will be northern investigators in international collaborative projects? The Sustainable Futures in Africa network have developed their own Document - Sustainable Futures in Africa Authorship Principles as part of their Participatory Futures Network that you may find helpful to review. Project teams may wish to consider drafting their own authorship policy or agreement to make explicit how authorship questions will be addressed.

What administrative processes need to be considered/resourced (e.g. advance payments)?
This element interacts significantly with the structural inequalities. Funding proposals are often led by northern institutions and the management of money follows northern norms and processes. Certain funding types (e.g. ODA) have additional administrative burdens associated with them. Requirements such as the need for advance payments may increase the administrative burden again. If large portions of the budget are allocated to partner institutions, budget for administrative staffing should likewise be allocated to ensure the administrative elements are supported. Teams should consider how staff members outside the UK will be employed and paid. Such staff should be employed a local partner to avoid challenges in salary payments and taxation. If this is not possible, mechanisms for employment and payment should be discussed with College Research Support Teams in advance. Similarly, teams should consider how they will purchase equipment and consumables for use in other countries and what purchasing rules may apply.

Who owns/controls the data?
Data ownership will be written into collaboration agreements, so assumptions about ownership should be explored early. Is data being collected by partners who will then be expected to relinquish ownership of it? Are data management laws such as GDPR relevant and can they be addressed by all partners who will control data? Have national laws about exporting samples and who owns data collected from any exported samples been addressed? Has budget for data storage in line with open access requirements been incorporated (if an eligible cost)? Discussing these matters at the application stage will reduce the likelihood of issues later but will also help ensure any resource requirements are included in the budget.

Who has access to the data?
Access to the data can be as important as who owns it. Assumptions should not be made about who data will be shared with, including differing perspectives on sharing data outside the core team. This discussion may also link to the authorship discussion and who will be utilizing different data sets as lead. Teams should be prepared to complete a Data Protection Impact Assessment and there may be strict rules about how the data is stored, which in turn will impact access. Project teams may need to consider options for making teams members affiliates of UofG to enable them to access data shared on UofG’s GDPR-compliant OneDrive system. Teams may also need to consider how team members will analyze sensitive data – downloading data for analysis with appropriate software may violate data protection rules. Anonymizing data or planning for use of UofG Anywhere desktop installation are options that you may wish to explore.

What training needs do your team have?
Capacity strengthening is a component of many proposals and how a team approaches capacity strengthening can reveal whether an ethical approach is being taken. Is the assumption that useful knowledge and skills sharing will flow from north to south? Is budget being allocated for conference attendance and training courses predominantly to investigators and staff of one partner? Are training needs for professional services staff being considered?

What expectations do the members of the project team have and how are they being incorporated into the proposal?
All of the points above reflect the overarching ambition that teams should ensure everyone has a chance to input into the various components of the proposal. All members of the team should understand each other’s expectations for the partnership and how their expectations and perspectives are being incorporated into the proposal. An important distinction can be made between being in the room and being listened to. Ethical partnership means all members of the team are listened to and their input taken on board. It is important to recognize that different kinds of organizations (academic, NGO, government, healthcare providers) may have very different expectations and will benefit from different kinds of outputs. Such expectations and needs should be identified early in the process.

Does everyone understand the administrative processes and timelines if the funding is secured?
Before funds are sent to any partners, Due Diligence must be completed and Collaboration Agreements signed before any funds can be sent. Are the partners aware of these processes and that it can more than a year for these processes to be completed? What implications do these processes have on the ability of different partners to hire staff or begin work? Partners may wish to complete the due diligence questionnaire and gather required documents before the funding outcome is known. Identifying contact points and signatories for legal agreements early can help expedite set-up processes.

All of these discussion points and questions are intended to develop an environment of mutual respect, understanding, and ongoing, informed consent to continued involvement. This final point is key – all partners are entitled to walk away if their requirements are not being met and no other team members are entitled to determine what constitutes grounds for withdrawing from the partnership.