One Arm Bandit

I attended the NIHR RfPB ( event organised by the Research Design Service (RDS) North East ( recently as an RDS advisor. The event was attended by around 60 individuals from across the region, with particularly high attendance from the local NHS Foundation Trusts and Universities. Professor Luke Vale, co-director of the RDS North East, introduced the event and presented an overview of how the NIHR RDS can help support health and social care researchers seeking funding from NIHR schemes, such as RfPB, and other eligible funders. He then handed over to the two guest speakers: Ben Morgan, the RfPB interim Assistant Director, and Scott Wilkes, chair of the RfPB Yorkshire & North East panel.

Ben Morgan outlined the two recent changes to the funding stream. Firstly, RfPB competitions are regional and there were previously 10 regions but now there are only 8 – with South East Coast and South Central merging to create South East Central, and Yorkshire & The Humber and North East merging to create Yorkshire & North East. Secondly, RfPB competitions previously were just one stage but this has now changed to two stages. Stage one is a formative assessment by the panel of an outline application. Stage two is a summative assessment of a full application.

Next up was Scott Wilkes who encouraged researchers with good ideas to apply for RfPB funding but warned against playing the one arm bandit. I was immediately stopped in my tracks by that phrase; I hadn’t come across it before. Of course I was aware that gaining research funding was described by some as a bit of a lottery, and as with one arm bandits the object of the ‘game’ can be seen as winning money from the ‘machine’. However, a research one arm bandit suggested something a bit more than just playing ‘lady luck’. Scott Wilkes went on to describe the research one arm bandit where it there is evidence for a specific intervention (e.g., exercise) treat a specific disease (e.g., diabetes) in a specific population (e.g., older people) and applications are submitted saying that they want to look at exercise for diabetes in people in Manchester – as if they had selected whichever population came out of a one arm bandit. Researchers he argued should offer justifications for the selections in their applications so that they did not look like ‘me too’ applications – where a researcher had heard someone had received RfPB funding to look at this intervention for this disease in one population and if they say they will look at it in another different population they will also receive funding.

Capture_research one arm bandit

In terms of a one arm bandit the game may or may not involve skill on the part of the player, sometimes only an illusion of skill is created while the game is merely one of chance. However, that isn’t what funding decisions are like. There are real things that applicants can do to make their research application stand out from the others and Scott Wilkes went on to discuss many of these in his talk. He stressed the importance of knowing the funder and their remit. Particularly for RfPB public involvement throughout the project is key. He highlighted the importance of a detailed methodology and appropriate design. He also noted that the research question should be important and answerable. Finally applications should have a good team behind them. These are all issues which the NIHR Research Design Service ( can help with. So don’t gamble with your chances of funding success, talk to the RDS to get advice and support with your application.


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