Introducing our new funding opportunities: Curiosity and Catalyst

colourful paint on canvas

Our new Curiosity and Catalyst funding opportunities are being launched as part of the first major change to our responsive mode schemes in more than a decade.

This is an exciting moment for the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Today we are releasing further information about two new open funding opportunities: Curiosity and Catalyst.

Together with a larger upper limit of £1.5 million for our standard research grants, this signals the first major change to our responsive mode schemes in over a decade.

More importantly, this three-tiered grant structure is a big step towards addressing some of the challenges you, our research community, have raised with us.

Why are we making these changes?

AHRC wants to support the best research ideas no matter where they arise in our diverse community to sustain a culture of open and engaged enquiry.

At present, our responsive mode portfolio is one third of our budget and over half of all applications we receive. Our responsibility and our opportunity is to ensure we provide a funding structure that enables and supports a healthy arts and humanities ecosystem.

The new grant structure offers greater flexibility for research ideas, targets larger and more ambitious projects while supporting emerging arts and humanities talent.

We believe the grant mechanisms that deliver the new schemes will help broaden the diversity of who we fund.

For example, it will make our open call grants more accessible to early career researchers (ECRs), and by taking a better account of a diversity of career paths, allow applicants greater flexibility to dock into our grants structure at various points in their careers.

It will also enable our funding to support a greater diversity of research organisations. Our international co-investigator policy will continue to apply to the new schemes.

People-centred approach

Paramount to this is taking a people-centred approach to ensure the success of the new offer, both in terms of delivering intended impact and ensuring the community are ready for the changes.

We see the changes we are announcing today as a collaborative endeavour, and we are grateful to all members of the community who have engaged with us over the last year to ensure we get the detail of these schemes right.

The Tickell Review, an independent review of research bureaucracy to free up and support researchers to focus on research, has informed our thinking too. The changes we are making aim to do just that.

We are reducing the total number of schemes in our response mode structure in order to reduce complexity, clarify the pathways to funding, and widen access.

These changes are in line with UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) wider work on Simpler Better Funding.

What is the Curiosity scheme?

The Curiosity scheme enables flexible awards to fund fundamental research, networking activity and idea generation, which enable the development of further research opportunities and new research agendas.

It will fund projects up to £100,000. We see these awards as targeted towards the earlier stages of idea generation to act as a springboard towards new and exciting research agendas.

Our ambition here is to fund larger awards compared to the previous Research Networking scheme and to provide a more flexible scope to support a wider range of activities and increase potential to fund more high risk and high reward projects.

For example, we hope to support projects that innovate models of knowledge exchange and are bold in their desire to engage the wider public.

In designing this scheme, we have thought long and hard about our role as a strategic funder. We are not seeking to duplicate what others are better positioned to support and fund, but instead to offer something that will spark the new and genuinely novel.

This means we will need our assessment process to evaluate the potential for impact, and we want to empower review panels to support risky, bold and novel ideas without creating a complicated review process.

We will use a lighter review process that does not generate written feedback for each proposal.

Our follow-on funding (FoF) scheme will remain unchanged, though a future evaluation of our responsive mode opportunities may lead to future improvements to the FoF scheme.

What is the Catalyst scheme?

The Catalyst scheme will fund awards to support researchers without prior experience of leading a significant research project, with the aim of accelerating their trajectory as independent researchers and build leadership experience.

This scheme will fund projects between £100,000 and £300,000. Based on analysis of our success rates, as well as on conversation with the community, we have identified a critical gap in our current provision for ECRs, and this scheme is a positive step to address this.

We are moving away from ECR definitions based on a fixed number of years post-PhD, and will instead ask applicants to self-identify based on their relevant skills and experience, and the resulting impact that they anticipate this funding would have on their career.

We hope this flexibility gives applicants the confidence to see themselves benefitting from this scheme.

We are also broadening our definition of what it means to hold a first substantial grant, and this opens the scheme up to mid-career researchers who previously found themselves at a disadvantage, perhaps owing to their non-traditional career paths.

Equally important, is that this scheme enables both solo- and team-oriented approaches but we are keen to see justifiable development plans for every member of the project team and project lead. We will be looking for these plans to be embedded in the project design and management, with appropriate support structures in place to deliver this.

This award is as much about supporting people as it is a catalyst for the best ideas, and we are serious about funding what it takes to do that.

Our next steps to support the community

We recognise that the new schemes will inevitably take time to become established. We are therefore arranging virtual town halls and a host of other opportunities for information sharing and to answer your questions.

Please be on the lookout for announcements as we are keen to engage with as many of you as possible.

Additionally, these changes have been thought through in tandem with the wider changes happening across UKRI (for example, the introduction of the UKRI Funding Service) to minimise disruption for the community.

We are also producing separate guidance for our reviewers and panellists.

Finally, we want to reassure you that we will keep these schemes under review, and just as necessary.

We are also considering the wider international context on how these changes fit with Horizon Europe and changes to international funding.

We will ensure you are kept updated on how it is going after the first year.

Top image:  Credit: Giorez, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

This is the website for UKRI: our seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help improve our online products and services.