Reflections on Managing Funded Research: The Fiscal Citizenship Project

Lynne Oats, Professor of Taxation and Accounting, Exeter University

I am honoured to be the ‘main investigator’ on an exciting, funded project that we have called Fiscal Citizenship. Our work started in March 2021, 18 months after submitting a grant application, and in this blog post I want to share with you some insights about the process of securing the funding for the project and our progress so far.

The fiscal citizenship project builds on ideas that came from experience with an earlier unsuccessful funding bid that we developed further and modified for the current project. Our current funding source is the Open Research Area (ORA), a joint initiative between the research funding councils of five countries. Applicants were invited to develop proposals in any social science area and were required to include researchers from at least three of the five countries. The UK funder, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), managed the process on behalf of the other research councils. We set about developing a consortium of researchers from the UK, Canada and Germany and made some early decisions about what we would research; essentially willingness to pay taxes from an interdisciplinary perspective, with special attention to the experiences of migrants. 

The timing was a nightmare. We produced a first draft of a case for support in July 2019, with the final bid due to be submitted in mid-September 2019. Unlike most calls for funding which ask for an outline bid followed by a full proposal from shortlisted applicants only, the ORA call required both an outline and full bid to be submitted at the same time. The UK and Canadian funders set limits on the amount of funding, but not the German funder, which made the budget calculations tricky to say the least. 

The funding call specified that there must be substantive research in an integrated work programme that demonstrated the value of transnational collaboration. We were very fortunate that our chosen collaborators were enthusiastic and willing to contribute to developing the workplan, but the process was complicated due to the timing over the summer period with various people on holidays at different times. We agreed early on that the bid would be primarily based in the political science literature, but of course one of the joys of being a tax researcher is that it is easy to find research across a wide range of academic disciplines and in the end our team comprises researchers from (in no particular order) political science, law, accounting and anthropology. Agreeing a set of individual studies that in aggregate would form an integrated work programme took considerable effort and we met the submission deadline with a bid for approx. £1.3m in total spread across the three countries.

Why ‘fiscal citizenship’? We decided the term best captured what we were trying to analyse. It is a term that has been used by several authors, to whom we are grateful, but is not usually defined with any specificity[1]. We embarked on the project with high hopes of pinning the concept down and spent a lot of time in the early months of the project debating the scope of fiscal citizenship for the purposes of our research. This was partly a process of breaking it down into the two components – fiscal (what is covered – taxes, social security payments, other forms of contribution), and citizenship (legal or other forms of belonging). I’m not sure we have yet pinned this down, but it provided an excellent starting point for the team to get to know one another and explore our respective knowledge bases and interests. 

Our workplan includes several separate but related studies using a variety of research methods. Our original grant application promised a population survey across all three countries, ethnographic work and laboratory experiments. We are fortunate to have a brilliant group of PhD students who have embraced the overall project with great enthusiasm. The rest of us bring a range of prior research experience to the project, from early career researchers to old hands like me. 

A major complicating factor was, of course, the small matter of a global pandemic, during which the world slowed down at best and at worst ground to a halt. How does one start a multidisciplinary international collaborative research project where not all team members know each other? Looking back, we achieved a lot in a virtual world. We started having regular meetings on Teams, some with presentations from team members, some discussions with visitors and lots of lively discussion. Eventually we formed sub-groups around the different projects but continued our full team meetings when possible. The big breakthrough, from an interaction point of view, came in May 2022 when we were finally able to meet as a whole group in Würzburg, Germany. All but one of the team were able to attend for a full programme of presentations and discussions which moved each of our projects on enormously. In this regard, face to face contact was very valuable to our group, albeit with environmental costs given the international travel. 

Our progress to date has also been hampered by having to adapt to the constraints imposed on us by the pandemic, but nonetheless, we now have a number of individual projects nearing completion. Drafting the survey instrument has been more complex than originally anticipated, but it is now nearly ready for launch and is currently awaiting ethics approval. Translation of the instrument into German and French has been challenging but rewarding as it really made the team focus on the wording of questions, including the English versions. Our qualitative work is coming on apace with a series of roundtables with migrant academic colleagues in the first phase of the project helping us shape an interview schedule that was later rolled out to members of the wider public. We are also talking to tax practitioners to get their views on the challenges faced by clients who are migrants, among other things. Some theoretical work is looking at fleshing out the core concept we are dealing with, fiscal citizenship, as well as some associated concepts such as fiscal culture and fiscal belonging. Last but by no means least, empirical work includes analysis of world value survey data and experiments. 

Collectively we hope to not only produce new and exciting research findings but also to support future tax researchers. Our survey questions for example, build on previous studies but include some new questions and measures and will provide a resource that other researchers will be able to use in the future, perhaps in other countries. We are also conscious of the challenges of working across disciplines. While interdisciplinarity is supposedly encouraged by universities and research funders, the reality remains that we are all bound by the norms and expectations of the disciplines we are attached to. We will learn from this experience and share our insights.

I have often heard it said by colleagues that writing grant applications is a waste of time, either in the belief that the money is not needed, for colleagues who are not empirically driven, or on the basis that success rates are extremely low. My own experience is that both arguments can be countered. Working with new colleagues, particularly from different backgrounds to your own, is invigorating and can lead to fruitful new directions for your own research. As to success rates, yes, they can be low, but persistence pays off and you should never consign an unsuccessful application to the bin – as the Fiscal Citizenship project demonstrates. Much like the torture we put ourselves through placing our precious journal articles in the hands of not always kind referees, a grant application also must pass the grade in the hands of unknown colleagues which introduces an element of luck in terms of having sympathetic reviewers and funders. The positioning of a grant application, in our case as primarily within political science, is key here to maximise the chances of having reviewers who will appreciate what you are trying to achieve. 

It is important to remember that although it is time consuming, the process of putting together a grant application, of selling your idea to a funding body, is valuable in its own right, forcing us to clarify our thinking on research questions, significance and appropriate methods. It’s something I highly recommend.

You can meet the Fiscal Citizenship team and monitor our work as it comes to fruition here []. And do get in touch if you would like to know more, or even collaborate in some way. 

Click for references

Freund, (2019) Western Corporate Fiscal Citizenship in the 21st Century, Northwestern Journal of International Law and Business.

Guano, E. (2010) ‘Taxpayers, Thieves, and the State: Fiscal Citizenship in Contemporary Italy’, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, 75(4), pp. 471–495

Mehrotra, A. K. (2013) Making the Modern American Fiscal State: Law, Politics, and the Rise of Progressive Taxation, 1877-1929. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mehrotra, A.K. (2015) Reviving Fiscal Citizenship. Michigan Law Review 113 (6): 943–972. 

Morgan & Erickson (2017) Incipient “commoning” in defense of the public? Competing varieties of fiscal citizenship in tax- and spending-related direct democracy Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 79: 54–66 

Sparrow, J. T. (2008) ‘“Buying Our Boys Back”: The Mass Foundations of Fiscal Citizenship in World War II’, Journal of Policy History, 20(2), pp. 263–286.

[1] Notably Freund (2019), Guanao (2010)  Mehrotra (2013, 2015) Morgan & Erickson (2017) Sparow (2008). Of course, many scholars examine similar phenomena without using the term ‘fiscal citizenship’, although mainly from the US, which has a particular history of taxpaying.