Being an early career researcher within the Productivity Insights Network

By Dr Daniel Kopasker (University of Aberdeen)

The Productivity Insights Network conference demonstrated the network’s substantial contribution to the productivity debate in the UK. It was also clear that many aspects of the productivity debate will continue for some time. PIN is committed to continuing to advance the debate and one element of this is to support the development early career researchers (ECR) and their research projects.

Two ECR events, led by Professor Leaza McSorley and supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, have been hosted by PIN so far. The first ‘sandpit’ event helped develop research proposals with researchers from various disciplines. The second, a grant writing workshop, was designed to ensure that research ideas were communicated in a way which would maximise the chances of acquiring funding. This incremental approach to the development of ECRs has already benefited several researchers, and with more ECR events planned in the future, PIN will continue to provide valuable insights to support ECRs. Researchers can join the PIN mailing list to hear of opportunities to join the network.

Early career researchers often have a wealth of ideas for future projects. However, these can lack awareness of where a project fits in current debates, how to engage with non-academic partners to generate meaningful impact, and how to improve the chances of these nascent ideas being funded. Finding what funders look for and how to achieve this can be a long, and sometimes uncomfortable, process in the early stages of a career in research. The PIN ECR events provide an open forum to make progress in this area by learning from experienced researchers. One notable feature of the PIN ECR events has been the opportunity to receive advice and feedback on proposals from people with a wealth of experience. This includes individuals from the ESRC, OECD, in addition to the senior researchers who are part of PIN.

Two things were consistently mentioned: the increasing preference for genuine interdisciplinarity in research, and the importance of meaningful impact by involving non-academic partners. Many ECRs already know these things, since they often appear within funding calls. However, fewer know how to deliver and, most importantly for our careers, convince a funding body that these things will be delivered. Forming non-academic partnerships and writing persuasive research proposals are skills. Throughout the project to date, PIN has done both things well. During ECR events, insights gained from this success were shared. For example, the importance of understanding the context within which non-academic partners operate and their incentives for engaging with research. ECRs were also given guidance on identifying where our research sits within the productivity debate and which organisations may be open to engaging with academic research in this area.

The PIN events brought together ECRs from various disciplines to discuss and develop research proposals. Such interdisciplinary perspectives were enlightening, as were the challenges of finding a common language to discuss a productivity-related issue. Some innovative proposals emerged from these discussions and it will be interesting to see how they progress.

Several projects were awarded seed funding to use the knowledge gained from discussions to attempt to strengthen research proposals. This was particularly helpful for me. As James Lloyd has suggested, finding non-academic allies for your research is a caffeine-intensive task. However, as an ECR based beyond the immediate vicinity of many within the policymaking community, it can be difficult to find funds to make a journey to London ‘for a coffee’. Despite this, face-to-face meetings can be the best option, especially when looking to build relationships and understand different viewpoints. The seed funding provided by PIN enabled me to travel from Scotland to meet with organisations relevant to my research on affecting the channel between mental health and productivity. As a result, these organisations have become partners on the project and their interests have been incorporated within the proposal, something which may not have happened without this relatively small amount of funding from PIN. This engagement with non-academic users of research has strengthened the research proposal. Furthermore, the mentoring providing by PIN at the ECR events enhanced many aspects of my grants writing skills.

Acquiring research funding is a key stage during the transition to becoming an independent researcher, but this is often a process of trial and error. The skills acquired from my participation in PIN will have, hopefully, increased my chances of success.