Helen Snooks

The race for COVID-19 research: applying for funding in a pandemic

Getting your research funding application right is always a challenge. You’ve got to make sure the study strengthens the existing evidence base and uses a robust methodology appropriate to your research question. You’ve got to build your study team, find the right partners and involve the public. 

It’s already a long to do list, so how do you do it when time is short? How about doing it all in a pandemic? 

Helen Snooks, Professor of Health Services Research at Swansea University and Health and Care Research Wales Senior Research Leader, shares her experience applying for COVID-19 research funding.

The pandemic meant research priorities rapidly changed

“I was in Morocco when the COVID-19 pandemic began. The borders closed and for a period I was stuck over there. By the time I arrived back in Wales, we were in a lockdown and most projects were closing down. We do a lot of research into emergency care and tend to rely on research paramedics to collect data locally. They were all pulled into frontline duties and so those studies were put on hold. There was a lot of uncertainty.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew research priorities were rapidly changing and we had to start thinking differently. Now the focus had to be on what new funding was available and what opportunities it created.”

Keeping up with people on the frontline helped to find new research opportunities

“I got an idea when I was talking to a long-standing colleague and friend of mine, who has worked in ambulance services for many years. He told me that they normally get about 3,000 calls to 999 each day in London, but during that first wave they were getting 11,000 calls. Obviously, at the same time, they were having to deal with lots of staff who were off isolating and sick. 

“This meant that they were having to make tough decisions about who to send an ambulance to. Then when they arrive at the scene, they have to make decisions about who to send on to hospital. After this conversation, I quickly thought about how this process was a key part of the system of caring for people with COVID-19.”

Some research questions needed urgent answers

“Deciding how to sort patients in terms of their priorities and needs is called triage. That initial chat, and conversations with others, raised questions for me about how it was being done. 

“How were frontline staff deciding who to go to? How were they deciding who to take to hospital? They always need to make these decisions but this was on a massive scale. At the same time there were reports of people not being taken to hospital, who then deteriorated at home. So how consistent were these decisions? With so many questions, I knew there was potential for a new research project on this, which would provide evidence on what’s best in terms of triage during the pandemic.
“When it comes to then applying for funding, you’ve got to define the question you need to answer within the context of your wider problem. Then you need to find which research methods will answer that question. This needs to be a perfect match. If you’ve got a question that’s bigger than your methods, or vice versa, then your application will go in the bin straight away. You have to answer the brief and show clear thinking, which is what we tried to do in our application. We knew they were looking for research that would start quickly and have quick outputs.”

Perfecting the pitch was key to building the right team

“Making sure you have the best research team possible is really important. You have to get it right. It was tricky for everybody at that time though. People were being juggled between projects, as some were paused due to the pandemic. I worked closely with Professor Alan Watkins as we have a shared responsibility for the COVID-19 studies, and he is now leading this triage research.

“My advice for junior researchers on how to do this is to put together a very short synopsis. This is a paragraph that you can put in an email to other researchers, explaining what the problem is, the question you want to answer, and your methods, in only a few lines. You have to sell your idea to them. 

“The best researchers are very busy, more so in a pandemic. My advice is if you’ve already got people involved, some big hitters, name them. Say who you’re working with and make it worth their while. Although you want to include others in the development of the study, if you approach people too early when you haven’t got a really clear idea, they’re not going to bother replying to you.”

Try, try, try again

“Applying for research funding is always a bit frantic. During the first wave of COVID-19 infections, the application process did move faster, but as a researcher, you’ve got to get used to working at pace. I always recommend that if you’ve got good ideas, that fit funding calls, put a funding application together. 

“Another application that we put in alongside this study, called EVITE Immunity, focuses on evaluating the shielding policy in Wales. It was turned down three times in six months by different funders but then we were successful through the COVID-19 National Core Studies Immunity programme, so I’m leading on this research now.

“It’s important to stay on top of what funding is available and try, try, try again.”

Find out more about this study: ‘How can we ensure ambulance teams are best equipped to deal with suspected COVID-19 cases?’

Are you a researcher? Find out more about Health and Care Research Wales funding schemes and funding opportunities


This study, What TRIage model is safest and most effective for the Management of 999 callers with suspected COVID-19 (TRIM), is being led by Professor Alan Watkins of Swansea University. Public involvement in this study is important in order to keep the perspective and experiences of patients at the forefront and the Health and Care Research Wales public involvement team has supported this work.

If you would like support with public involvement in your research, contact the Health and Care Research Wales team on research-involvement@wales.nhs.uk