Writing your proposal

Planning realistic timeframes

Research projects need to allow enough time for the research to be conducted ethically, in other words, time is important in the following ways:

  • allowing enough time for communicating with people who have communication difficulties;
  • time for research teams to discuss the research;
  • time to reflect upon and learn from (for example) the pilot phase of the research, and then time to build in improvements;
  • time not only to collect, but also to analyse the data;
  • time to report back your findings to your respondents, if appropriate;
  • time to write your reports, for those who have helped, and for the various groups of people who may find your research useful – if necessary in differing formats to suit a range of audiences.

Time is expensive in research proposals, and there is often the temptation to trim timescales in order to save money – particularly if you are trying to fit your budget within a specific funding initiative.  But the feasibility of your proposal depends on the time you allow.  One key factor in feasibility is allowing enough time to secure ethics approval – projects can be severely delayed or even caused to fold if they have not allowed sufficient – and realistic – time for the ethics approval process.

The amount of time you need to allow to deal with ethics approval (and related considerations) depends on (a) the nature of your design and (b) how long it might take you to negotiate permission to access the people you want to carry out research with.  That includes ethics approvals, but may also include governance approvals (e.g. in NHS and local authorities) or permission from ‘gatekeepers’. 

Example 1.  Research in schools

Research with children in schools can involve a lengthy process of asking head teachers, local authority children’s services, school governing bodies, and parents/carers before you get to the stage of being able to ask the children themselves if they are willing to take part. 

Example 2. NHS research

If you are planning to go through an NHS REC and through NHS Research and Development (R&D) Departments, you will need to allow more time than if your research just needs approval from your organisation’s ethics committee.  The NHS ethics review system, NRES, has a timeline of 60 working days – but that refers to the time that your application is in their system, and does not take into account the time you need to (a) prepare your application and (b) prepare your response to their comments and requirements.  How long you need to allow for ethics review will depend on the complexity and sensitivity of your project, but you should probably allow at least three months for research involving the NHS, to get all the necessary approvals and permissions in place before you can start data collection.  Some researchers, doing complex multi-site studies for which they have needed multiple permissions, report the process taking much much longer. 

At the proposal design stage, find out who you need to obtain permission from to approach potential research respondents, and contact those organisations and committees to get a rough idea of their timescales for approval.  What’s crucial is that you plan for the process of gaining permissions – think about what’s involved, and make sure you build in that time in your research design and timetable.

Bear in mind, that the better prepared your ethics application is, the more likely it is to go through the approvals process quickly – spending time on the application will save you time later on.  When we interviewed experts in developing this website, one funder advised that you should address ethics questions in your research through:

‘a discursive, iterative, deliberative process.  The more ethical issues you are dealing with, the longer you need to spend on this process before you go anywhere near an ethics committee.’

Funders increasingly recognise the time it can take to secure ethics and other approvals – they will usually accommodate the time needed, but they will also gauge whether you have been realistic in your timescales when they are assessing the feasibility of your research design.