What we're looking for in Public Engagement Fund applications

Imran Khan and Greer Roberts explain what they’ve learned from the latest round of Public Engagement Fund proposals – and share their tips for what makes an application stand out. 

Image of woman speaking
The best project proposals were fully aligned with the purpose of the scheme – to engage the public with health research using creative approaches.
Credit: Michael Bowles / Wellcome

Imran Khan

Greer Roberts

Imran Khan

Greer Roberts

Last month, we awarded over £500,000 to eight projects that applied to our Public Engagement Fund. These came from a shortlist of 30 contenders, in turn drawn from the much larger pool of applications which were either not aligned to our goals or ineligible. 

The success rate is lower than we want it to be, and we didn’t manage to spend our entire budget because we didn’t get the mix of proposals we were hoping for. That’s really challenging for us; we know that every time someone submits an unsuccessful application it means a lot of work which hasn’t translated into some great public engagement.

So we’re going to do a few things to try and change this. If you’re a potential applicant we want to help you understand what we’re looking for so you can submit a stronger, more competitive application. 

We’ve moved away from giving pre-application advice and detailed feedback because it had led to us super-serving a small community and – with a relatively small team – limited our freedom to work strategically on Wellcome’s priorities. But we are going to write more articles like this talking about what works, what doesn’t, and what we’re interested in. 

We’ll also be increasing our budget to £1.25 million for the next quarterly funding round to boost the number of proposals we can fund. 

And to make sure our funding is accessible to more people, from now on not-for-profit or charitable organisations with a turnover of less than £1 million can include overhead costs of up to 20% in their applications.

So what makes for a successful application, and what doesn’t?

The best project proposals we saw this time round were fully aligned with the purpose of the Public Engagement Fund – to engage the public with health research using creative approaches – so had health research at their centre. But we also received many innovative projects focusing on important topics that simply didn’t do that.  

Outcomes are really important 

More than a quarter of the total applications didn’t explain how they connected to our three strategic goals, or even whether they were engaging the public with health research. 

Quite a few wanted to do things that we explicitly don’t fund, like public health campaigns or provision of health services. 

And one of the most common – and crucial – oversights applicants made was describing outputs, but not outcomes and impact. In other words, lots of applications simply explained what they wanted to do, rather than providing evidence about why it was important and what might change as a result.

Evaluation and evidence are key

The better applications were clearer about what they wanted to change and why – but they also used evidence to help describe the problem, to explain why their proposal could have the desired effects, or to justify why previous work should be scaled up.

That evidence ranged from academic research, to evaluation of previous projects, to a strong track record from the partners involved on similar work.

But a common flaw was not setting aside enough time or budget for genuinely understanding what impact a project would have. We tend to say 10% of budget is a good rule of thumb.

Define your audiences

The best applications tend to have a clear audience (ie not ‘the general public’) and to show why the proposed project is relevant to that audience, rather than taking a ‘build it and they will come’ approach. 

Sometimes knowledge of the audience is based on previous scoping work. We’re also happy to fund scoping as part of new projects – what some might call ‘formative evaluation’ and others ‘iterating and prototyping’.

Involve research experts early on 

Some proposals spent too long convincing us of the importance of the scientific issue, at the expense of not giving enough space to their engagement goals. 

Others wanted to tackle complicated and contentious research subjects without involving research experts at the outset. 

Where it’s relevant, we recommend a middle-way: focus on your public audience but identify researchers you can work with early on. 

Read more about Public Engagement Fund: what good proposals look like [PDF 371KB]

What we’ve funded this time round, and why

We can’t resist telling you about three of the most recent projects we backed, and why (soon, you’ll be able to read about all the other projects funded here).  

We’re funding Nwando Ebizie’s project ‘20 Minutes of Action’, an interactive art installation exploring the neurological condition Visual Snow, which will provide a total sensory immersive environment. 

The installation develops previous work shown at Wellcome Lates, and brings on board a range of partners including Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits, Guerilla Science, and carefully chosen creative partners including HOME Manchester. 

We liked how the work creates genuine links between audiences and researchers through a poorly-understood condition, and that it will tour to different sites in the UK. 

We’re also backing ‘The Gene Gap’, an experimental idea from The Guardian to try a new form of audience-centred journalism. It will take gene-editing technologies such as Crispr-Cas9, and try to create new forms of engaging journalism by involving global audiences in designing the content from the outset – rather than only giving it to them at the end. 

If it’s successful, it has the potential to change and inform practice in a sector which already has huge audiences – meaning that a moderate ‘bet’ from us could have a huge long-term payoff. 

And third, we're supporting the Ask for Evidence Campaign, led by Sense About Science, to take the next step. A couple of things stood out about this application: first, the focus on using science and evidence to empower people, and second, building on their existing work. Their proposal combined showing how the existing approach had worked in the past with ideas on how to develop new delivery models and scale the work in a new way.

Is this helpful? 

We’re planning to write short updates after each of our quarterly Public Engagement Fund meetings, so we’d love your feedback on whether this one is useful and what you’d like us to write about in future. 

Tweet us at @imrankhan and @wellcometrust, or leave comments on the Wellcome Facebook page. If you’re inspired to pitch a proposal for an innovative project, have a look at our Public Engagement Fund or other more focused schemes

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