Research Program Management: Putting the Systems in Place at a New Grant-Making Trust


After working in lab-based research (primarily drug discovery in the pharmaceutical industry) for nearly 20 years, I was looking for a change. I still really enjoyed doing science, although the wrench of "leaving the lab" did not seem so great as I had been running a group for quite a while and spending far more time dealing with management issues and corporate politics than science. But what next?

I wanted something where I could still use my scientific knowledge and be involved in research in some way. After spending the previous 5 years focussed on the details of the role of adhesion molecules in inflammatory disease, I also wanted something that would allow me to take a more strategic view. I considered a few options, such as technology transfer, scientific publishing, and grants administration.

My current opportunity arose with the development of a new grant-making trust, PPP Healthcare Medical Trust, endowed with approximately £550 million from the sale of insurance company PPP Healthcare Group to the Guardian Royal Exchange in 1998. I saw the advert for someone to head up the trust's research funding activities and was fortunate enough to land the job.

As an industrial scientist, I had not been reliant on grants to fund my research--but on convincing research directors and pharmaceutical executives that my projects might one day make them some money. I did have some grants experience though, as I have sat on various grants committees for the Medical Research Council. Reading a very large pile of grant applications can seem a daunting task. But I enjoyed the privilege of seeing the latest research ideas and the ethical and intellectual challenges of deciding which project should be funded. I had also worked briefly as an assessor for the National Lottery Charities Board's Medical and Social Round. But that was essentially the extent of my direct experience with grants administration.

I had a few other skills to offer too--I understand medical jargon, am fairly literate (both in English and computers) and had some proven abilities in administering and managing projects and people. So since January 1999 I have been working at PPP Healthcare Medical Trust and am now head of the Grants Unit and Research Policy.

It's been a hectic and exciting year filled with a huge diversity of tasks. Our first priority was getting a grant application system up and running that is both administratively efficient for the trust and user-friendly for applicants. We've designed application forms, set up a database to track many hundreds of applications that are going through the system at any one time, and identified experts to review grants. Publicising the availability of the grants to potential applicants has also been a major task. We have sent out over 6000 application forms and received over 650 back.

We've also recruited staff to run the grants system and now have six people in the Grants Unit, some with previous grant administration experience and others learning on the job. So far we have recruited people either with proven administrative skills or with previous knowledge and experience of the field in which the grants programme they work; a Ph.D. is not required.

I have been on several steep but very interesting learning curves. As well as getting to grips with grant application procedures and how different funding bodies process applications, I have learned a great deal about health services, training and career paths within various healthcare professions, the charity sector in the United Kingdom, and how government policy affects our funding policies.

A particular attraction of this post was that the organisation was brand new. With hindsight, I have always been attracted to new organisations--or new units within organisations--and I enjoy being part of building new things. A young organisation provides opportunities to pick the best of existing practice, to introduce new ways of doing things, and opportunities for personal development that can be hard to find in established organisations where a style and way of working is already in place.

Please visit our Web site to find out more about the trust's grant programmes and activities.

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