Friday, 30 October 2009

ERC: Call for Advanced Investigator Grants

The European Research Council (ERC) has launched a call for its flagship 'Advanced Investigator Grants'. Pitched at 'exceptional' established researchers and academics, they offer up to €3.5m for up to 5 years. Applications should tackle pioneering and far-reaching challenges at the frontiers of the field(s) addressed, and involve new, ground-breaking or unconventional methodologies, whose risky outlook is justified by the possibility of a major breakthrough with an impact beyond a specific research domain/discipline.

But you need to get your skates on: the deadlines are relatively short:

  • Physical Sciences & Engineering Domain : 24 February 2010
  • Life Sciences: 17 March 2010
  • Social Sciences & Humanities: 7 April 2010

This is Europe, so there's a positive tsunami of information and guidance. Start by looking at the UKRO ERC pages, and if you need further help, get in touch with me.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

DFID Funding Opportunities

The Department for International Development (DFID) has just issued a slew of funding opportunities. These include:

...Or Not...

At the same time as the REF Consultation meeting was producing quite an upbeat view of Impact (below), the Centre for Business Research has said that too much pressure to achieve “impact” from research may hold back the work of universities. 'Such pressure could undermine some of the core strengths of many universities in particular if it leads to less basic research,' said the report.
The research is based on a web-based survey of more than 22,000 UK academics active in research or teaching in 2008-09. The full report can be seen here.

Academics Welcome Impact Shock!

A group of around 50 academics have given a surprise endorsement to the REF Impact plans. At a HEFCE Consultation event on the REF proposals in London yesterday feedback from the 'breakout' groups suggested that academics now accept the need to justify the impact of their research to the government. David Sweeney, who opened the event, highlighted the massive increase in QR funding since 2002/03, up some 41%.
Whilst academic freedom was ‘a gift’, one that should be nurtured and cherished, and institutional autonomy was important, universities ‘shouldn’t be monasteries.’
He went on to explain that HEFCE was now fully behind peer review, a claim that couldn’t have been made a few years ago, and the battle they had had in establishing this should not be taken for granted.
HEFCE was aware of the ‘challenges to assessment’, but he believed that many of these would ‘meltaway’ when faced by ‘very bright people’ tackling them. He emphasised that the REF was not about quantifying impact, focussing on economic impact, assessing impact of every researcher or output,trying to predict future impact, discouraging curiosity-driven research, or trading off impact against excellence. 'High impact that results from poor research is not a feature of this exercise,’ he said.

Full notes on the event are available if you contact me.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Separated at Birth?

Is it just me, or is there a touch of the Lloyd-Webber to the new RCUK Chair?

Reviewers Wanted by NIHR

Following on from the last post, the National Insitutes for Health Research (NIHR) are also advertising for participation, this time as reviewers. Here's what to do if you want to get involved:
Go to their website here
  • Click on the "registration" icon on the left hand side of the screen

  • Enter the institution postcode and click on the "find institution" button

  • Select the address if it is there by clicking in the box and then click on the "use selected address" button

  • If the address is not there, scroll down the page and click on the "continue" button

  • Complete all the mandatory boxes

  • Click the "submit" button at the bottom of the page.

You'll then be sent a confirmation email.

EPSRC Call for Advisory Panel Nominations

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is seeking nominations for its three principal advisory bodies, the Technical Opportunities Panel (TOP), the User Panel (UP) and the Societal Issues Panel (SIP).
The panels consist of senior, experienced figures from the academic, industrial, and commercial communities, and help to formulate policy by advising the EPSRC Executive.
This is an open invitation to nominate people who you think would be suitable for the panels. It is also possible to self-nominate. More details as to how to do so are available here.
I'd always encourage staff to go for this: it gives an insight into the workings of a major funder, raises your profile, and - hopefully - offers an opportunity to influence policy. What's not to like?

Monday, 26 October 2009

Nobel Prize Winners Sign UCU Anti-Impact Petition

Nobel Prize winners Venki Ramakrishnan, Tim Hunt, Brian Josephson, John Walker, Richard Roberts and Harry Kroto have signed a UCU petition calling on the government to rethink its plans for assessing Impact as part of the REF. Over 3,000 others have also signed it, including Richard Dawkins and Robert Winston.
The UCU argues that 'the REF proposals are founded on a lack of understanding of how knowledge advances. It is often difficult to predict which research will create the greatest practical impact. History shows us that in many instances it is curiosity-driven research that has led to major scientific and cultural advances.'
The petition calls on 'the UK funding councils to withdraw the current REF proposals and to work with academics and researchers on creating a funding regime which supports and fosters basic research in our universities and colleges rather than discourages it.'

Looking at the (European) Road Ahead

Applying for European funding is a notoriously complicated and lengthy process. To make it worth putting yourself through it you need to be sure that your project is exactly what the EC wants, that you've got a good spread of partners whose involvement makes sense, and that you've had time to develop the structure, management and work packages within the project.
That's a tall order when the EC gives you just 6-7 months between announcing a call and the deadline for applications.
However, there are signs that the Commission recognises this, and is taking steps to improve things. At an event in London on Friday the UK National Contact Point for the Socioeconomic Sciences and Humanities, the ESRC, outlined the EC's 'roadmap' for the theme up to 2013. Dr Stephen Struthers, Principal Policy Manager at the Council, stressed that this was 'indictive', but that it gave some useful pointers of the EC's priorities over the next few years. This is particularly important as the SSH theme would be asking for more 'societal challenges' projects, which are huge (>€6.5m, >7 partners), and would require some considerable time to put together.
For more information on the roadmap, or on European funding general, do get in touch.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Russell Group: Give us the Cash

In a news item that must match 'The Sun Rose this Morning' for it's shock value, the Chair of the Russell Group, and VC of a Russell Group university, said that the REF should ensure that QR funding is concentrated on Russell Group universities. Professor Michael Arthur used a HEPI conference last week to state his view. Criticising the outcome of RAE2008, which funded excellent research wherever it was found, he said that "if we carry on with that trend ... and take money away from those universities that have been highly successful in the past, we end up with a progression to mediocrity."
He went on: "How many well-funded research universities do we need? I don't believe it is 169. I'd like to suggest it is somewhere between 25 and 30." How many universities are there in the Russell Group? 20. We wait to see who the lucky 5-10 outsiders will be who are invited to share King Arthur's feast.

How Do We Solve a Problem Like Dave Willetts?

In an interesting commentary Research Fortnight (RF) examines the problem of David Willetts. Cameron wants smart, knowledgable people in his cabinet, but Willetts has no natural home in a structure that shadows Brown's government. The obvious thing to do would be to put him within a shadow BIS under Clarke, but that would demote him from the top table. So he's got the role of Education, albeit without a department to shadow. This would be rectified, says RF, after a Tory election win, when a Department of Education would be resurrected to give Willetts his own fiefdom.
With this in mind, RF make a brave attempt at second-guessing what Willett's priorities would be, and come up with a list that includeds social mobility, tuition fees and teaching. Which leaves the electorally unsexy area of research to bear the brunt of any budget cuts. As the article drily points out, 'for the research community it’s just a case of waiting for the axe to fall.'
However, it sees glimmers of hope: 'in the details lie potentially huge victories for researchers to win,' particularly in R&D tax breaks and (it hopes) Research Councils remaining relatively unscathed. 'For researchers, there is still a lot to play for,' it concludes.
The full article is available here; Kent is subscribed to ResearchResearch, but you will need to sign up to it to access the news.

Impact Not Clunky, Says New RCUK Chief

In a story that neatly ties together three previous posts on this blog, the newly appointed Chair of RCUK has fired back at David Willett's criticism of Impact assessment as 'clunky'. Alan Thorpe, Chief Executive of NERC, launching the RCUK Framework, robustly countered Willett's criticism. “I don’t think it’s at all clunky to be articulate in describing the really excellent and inspirational impacts that research has and I can’t imagine why it would be anything other than a good thing to celebrate that.”
He went on to recognise the difficult times ahead. "[Thorpe's predecessor] Ian Diamond really advanced the coming together of the missions and activities under this RCUK framework umbrella, but it was at a time when there was strong increasing investment in the research budget. I’m coming in at a time when we’re absolutely clear about the RCUK agenda but we’re looking at a much more uncertain future.”

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Researchers as Astrologists

A Cambridge zoologist is quoted in the Times Higher bemoaning the complexity of modern funding appilcations, and claiming that they are turning young academics into 'insecure bureaucrats.' Peter Lawrence criticised the time it takes to write applications, and the way researchers are asked to become 'astrologists' predicting the path their research will follow.
'Applications have become so detailed and so technical that trying to select the best proposals has become a dark art,' said Dr Lawrence.
Time to recruit Mystic Meg to Research Services...

You Wait Ages for One Framework...

Hot on the heels of the RCUK's Framework comes news of a new (sigh) government framework for higher education. Due to be published in the next few weeks, the framework will include concrete incentives to encourage universities and business to work together in long term partnerships. Quoted in ResearchResearch the businesses secretary Peter Mandelson said that the framework would also “create a system more capable of responding quickly with funding to fill niche gaps in the skills base in critical industries such as the civil nuclear supply chain or low carbon technologies.”
Talking at the Royal Academy of Engineering on 19 October, the minister warned that, for these measures to work, businesses would have to play their part by being “much more clear and prescriptive about what they need." All too often, he claimed, investors are “less able or unwilling” to identify long term rather than short-term investment opportunities.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Health Research Suggestions Sought

The National Institutes for Health Research (NIHR) are asking the public what issues they would like to see researched. 'We're not just talking about healthy eating, how to stop smoking or how to prevent the spread of diseases like 'flu', they say on their website. 'Your idea could be to do with air quality, public transport, urban design - anything at all that could help to make people healthier.'
It's open to all; to take part go to the NIHR site.

RCUK: Strategy Fatigue?

RCUK have launched their new 'Framework', which emphasises the unity of their vision (building on their 'Excellence with Impact' document, their Delivery Plan and the various Council Strategic Plans). The three areas the Framework is built around are:
  • Productive Economy
  • Healthy Society
  • Sustainable World
I don't know about you, but I am feeling a certain 'strategy fatigue'. I appreciate that we need an indication of what the funders are thinking, of where their future priorities lie, but having read through the ESRC's Delivery Plan and Strategic Plan, together with all of the above RCUK publications, I get a sense of a little too much time and effort going into overarching objectives, and not enough into finding a way of just funding the best projects without prejudice.

As to the logo, is it just me or does it remind you of a biohazard too?

Monday, 19 October 2009

A Good Alternative Fellowship

People often ask for fellowship funding, and you can understand why. It allows academics to take time out from routine administrative and teaching duties to concentrate on research, which is often what they went into academia for in the first place.
Unfortunately, most other academics are seeking the same thing, and as a result success rates for fellowships tend to be the lowest of any kind of research funding, averaging between 5-15%. However, the Leverhulme 'Study Abroad' Fellowship bucks this trend. The success rate for these last year was a healthy 31%. They offer up to £22,000 to cover 'reasonable replacement cover whilst the Fellow is overseas; travel to and within the overseas country or countries; a maintenance grant to meet the increased expense of living overseas; and essential research costs.'
So if your research takes you abroad, think about these as an 'alternative' type of fellowship. But be warned: the deadline's fast approaching on 10 November.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Marie Curie: Self Evaluation Tool

The EC has prepared a 'self evaluation tool' for anyone applying to the latest round of the Initial Training Networks (ITNs). It is based on the form given to assessors when the application is submitted.
Good idea!
But will applicants be ready for another form when they've completed the marathon of forms necessary for the application itself? I hope so; it would be good to assess the application prior to submission, and pick up on any shortcomings and weaknesses now rather than months down the line, with the rejection letter.

RCUK Serendipity Award: an Unexpected Impact

The Times Higher RCUK-sponsored Serendipity Award was awarded this year to Mark Moloney, of St Peter’s College, Oxford. While researching how penicillin is made, he discovered that a similar process could be used to encourage dye migration in plastics.
Congratulations to Dr Moloney, but I wonder if his serendipitous discovery has been stymied by not setting out beforehand how he will exploit it in his 'Impact Plan'?

LSE Chief Attacks 'Miles Away' Academics

Sir Howard Davies, the new Director of the London School of Economics (LSE), has issued a warning about public debt, according to the Telegraph. 'Something dramatic has to happen to control spending,' he said, before pointing the finger at the current strike ballot currently being considered by the Universities and Colleges Union: 'You have the best minds in the country planning to go on strike for 8pc. People are miles away from understanding what is needed.'
Thanks to Gill for highlighting this.

Ref Impact - 'Too Much Weighting'

The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) has issued a critique of the Ref. Although largely welcoming the proposals in the Consultation document, it calls for a rethink of the Impact requirement. In their press release, Hepi say that 'it seems unwise to attribute so great a weight to a feature that is in effect experimental'. Comparing it to the cultural changes following the 1992 assessment, Hepi's Director Bahram Bekhradnia said that 'this proposal needs to be handled extremely carefully...the proposed impact requirement will influence behaviour in ways that can only be speculated about at present.'

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Engineering Eligibility

In its latest Newsletter the EPSRC reminded applicants of the changes it is to make next year to its rules on eligibility. Following uproar from the science community earlier this year EPSRC backpedaled somewhat on its original proposals, and the current plan is that from April next year the following rules will apply:

Applicants will be limited to submitting only ONE application in the subsequent year if they:

  • have 3 or more unfunded proposal within a 2 year period ranked in the bottom half of a prioritisation list, or are rejected before the panel meeting AND

  • have an overall success rate of less than 25% over the same 2 year period.

EPSRC's revised proposals have been so watered down that I imagine in reality they will only affect a very small percentage of applicants. But I've heard that some surprisingly strong applications have recently been rejected before the panel meeting, as one out of three of their reviews have been poor (with the other two excellent). Is this EPSRC 'engineering' the system? I couldn't possibly comment.

Other Research Councils will be looking on with interest. Given the current poor success rates and the squeeze on funding, all will be looking at ways to cut out time-wasting or hopeless applications. But let's hope not too many babies are thrown out with the bathwater.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

'This Calls for Immediate...Discussion'

At the same conference Gerry Lawson reported on the Alexander Review of Full Economic Costs (fEC). Introduced in 2005, fEC was intended to make university research sustainable. However, there were now concerns that the system had become overly complicated, and evidence that funds were not increasing sustainability in universities.
Amongst the findings of the review, Lawson noted:
  • that there had been an 8% pa increase in Research Council funding in real terms since fEC was introduced;

  • that success rates were down, but it was unclear if fEC was a factor in this;

  • that 50% of universities thought the number and type of application had not changed. Most of the others thought they now submitted 'fewer but better';

  • that there was little monitoring of over-commitment of staff to RCUK projects;

  • that investigator time on proposals initially halved after the introduction of fEC, but had now returned to pre-fEC levels.
The Alexander Review is recommending - you guessed it - a working group to discuss the better use of funds towards sustainability. Reminds me of the 'Life of Brian': 'Right! This calls for immediate...discussion.'

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

UUK Sings the Blues

Paul Clark, Director of Policy at Universities UK (UUK), has confirmed the gloomy outlook for public funding for 'the course of at least 2 Parliaments.' At a conference hosted by the Charted Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) which examined costing and pricing issues for HEIs, Clark offered his assessment of funding in higher education. 'On a TRAC-adjusted basis, the whole sector is significantly in deficit, suggesting problems for the medium-term,' he said. He suggested that there may be cuts of around 5%, and that investment was required in order to sustain quality. 'Income will be less predictable.'
In addition he noted the politicisation of research funding. 'Funding for research has become more directional in the recent past, related to Government priorities: this trend is likely to continue into the future.'
Finally, he rejected the suggestion that the dual support mechanism be changed (as reported in this post). '[It] is critical to the success of the UK research base. Both streams (RCUK and QR funding) are vital to the strength of the sector.'

The Evolution of Impact

A packed Senate Chamber debated two different perspectives on Impact on Thursday. Prof Peter Taylor-Gooby gave a 'forensic' analysis of the Impact proposals contained in the Ref, and highlighted the uncertainty that still hung over them. Dr Steven Hill gave the view from RCUK, the political impetus for the policy, and the current thinking on how individual Research Councils dealt with Impact.
Both talks - whether intentionally or not - demonstrated that the assessment of Impact was still evolving, and all players were still feeling their way. For the Ref, there was the question of creating consistency, particularly given the introduction of 'users' to the panels, and the relatively tight timeframe Hefce had for benchmarking. For RCUK, there were mixed messages coming out of Polaris House: on the one hand Impact was considered to be very important; on the other it was only a secondary criterion in the assessment process. Elsewhere they appear to encourage global Impact, although their government paymasters might wish to prioritise UK Impact.
Notes from the Impact Seminar will be posted on the Research Services website shortly, or contact me for an electronic copy.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Taking a Punt on Peer Review

Roland Harwood, in a somewhat aged blog entry (April 2009! Ancient!), questions the established system of peer review that favours a narrow elite. The reviewing of funding applications should, he suggests, be opened up to 'the concept of markets.' He quotes Eric Weinstein of the Natron Group, a hedge fund in New York, who says that the current system 'strongly rewards those scientists doing more or less routine technical work in established fields, and punishes more risky work exploring unproven ideas that may take a considerable period of time to reach maturity.'

Weinstein's alternative might be a little radical for some tastes: 'Make scientists back up their criticisms by taking real financial risks. You think that some new theory is utterly worthless and deserving of ridicule? In the world Weinstein envisions, you could not trash the research in an anonymous review, but would buy some sort of option giving you a financial stake in its scientific future, an instrument that would pay off if, as you expect, the work slides noiselessly into obscurity. The money would come from the theory’s proponents, who would similarly benefit if it pans out into the next big thing.'

Hmm. Well don't hold your breath as you clutch your application for 'the unified theory of everything'...

Thanks to Steven Hill for highlighting this blog.

Get with the Programme

In the past I've always steered people away from the glitzy 'research programmes' issued by the funders. You know the kind of thing: 'ESRC/AHRC issue a £10m Programme of Cross Council Research to End World Poverty', or some such.
My reason for doing so is that they inevitably attract everyone who specialises in that area (so competition is fierce), but the resources available are limited. As a result success rates are usually pitiful.
However, looking at the AHRC's recent 2008-09 Annual Report the succes rates for different schemes makes startling reading:

  • Responsive Mode success rates ranged between 10-33%
  • Strategic Mode (i.e. Programmes) ranged between 6-100%

6% I can understand, but 100%?? Surely some mistake?? But no, the overall average success rate for the programme grants is a very respectable 41%; for responsive mode a risible 18%. So the message to take away is never to dismiss Programme grants out of hand: if your project is strong, your subject appropriate and your application clear and well-written, then your chances are as good (if not better) than for standard grants. More detail on the success rates in 2008-09 are available on p79 of the Annual Report.

Nobel Prize Winner Attacks 'Directed Research'

Britain's latest Nobel prize winner has attacked government plans to divert research funding from basic science into projects that are expected to have a quick financial pay-off. Quoted in the Guardian, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a Cambridge Chemistry professor, said that the focus on trying to get very quick pay-offs was 'a huge mistake.' He went on: 'basic science has paid off far more than any directed research. If you don't invest properly in fundamental science, then you won't have the foundations to develop the technologies and applications of tomorrow. Ten years down the line, your technology will be based on obsolete foundations.'

Friday, 9 October 2009

Monday 12 October: Meeting to Discuss Ref Consultation

A reminder that the Directors of Research Network Meeting will be open to all staff on Monday. The issue to be discussed is the Research Excellence Framework Consultation Paper. It will take place in Keynes Seminar Room 14 between 10am -12pm. All welcome, but do let me know that you intend to come.

'In Our (Lunch) Time': PVC's Lunchtime Seminars 2009-10

For this year’s Lunchtime Seminars academics themselves are being given the chance to choose the topics and the participants for each event. The academic ‘host’ for each Seminar has chosen a topic that is rooted in their research, but has the potential to be of interest to (and informed by) other disciplines.
The 2009-10 series kicks off on 4 November with a Seminar hosted by Dr Charlotte Sleigh in History. It will focus on ‘the Face of the Expert’, and will explore issues around expertise, authority and communication. Who are (and were) experts? How do they get to be experts? Can they cease to be experts? What are their relationships with lay persons? How do these relationships structure knowledge and society? And as members of academia are we experts or not?
Dr Sleigh will be inviting a panel of academics from across the University to discuss the issue, in a format similar to that used on Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’.
All are welcome. This year the Seminar itself will be first (at 12:30) with lunch – and further informal discussion – afterwards. Please let me know if you would like to attend, so that I can arrange the catering.


The full list of Lunchtime Seminars 2009-10 is as follows:
  • 4 November 2009 (Keynes Seminar Rm 14): 'The Face of the Expert'
    Hosted by Dr Charlotte Sleigh, Senior Lecturer in the History of Science (History).
  • 9 December 2009 (Senate Chamber): 'Institutions: the New Economy of Knowledge and Power’
    Hosted by Prof Jeremy Carrette, Professor of Religion & Culture (Secl).
  • 27 January 2010 (Keynes Seminar Rm 17): ‘Diagnosing Genetic Diseases in IVF Embryos: Could we? Should we?’
    Hosted by Prof Darren Griffin, Professor of Genetics (Biosciences).
  • 10 March 2010 (Senate Chamber): ‘Flesh and the Body’
    Hosted by Patricia Debney, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing (English).
  • 7 April 2010 (Senate Chamber): Topic to be confirmed
    Hosted by Prof Mike Fairhurst, Professor of Computer Vision (Engineering & Digital Arts)
  • 5 May 2010 (Senate Chamber): ‘Energy Security’
    Hosted by Dr Amelia Hadfield, Lecturer in European International Relations (Politics and International Relations).
  • 2 June 2009 (Senate Chamber): ‘Utopias and Social Change’
    Hosted by Prof Davina Cooper, Professor of Law and Political Theory (Kent Law School).

Thursday, 8 October 2009

'Chill Wind of a Funding Winter'

Adam Tickell, vice-principal for research, enterprise and communications at Royal Holloway, has painted a gloomy picture of the future funding of research in the latest edition of Research Fortnight.
'After an extraordinary Edwardian summer, funding for university research faces a long, cold winter'. Or World War I, if you take his analogy to its logical conculsion. In the bloody stalemate that's to follow he suggested that the Research Councils should re-trench and set upper limits on how much they fund academic salaries relating to grants.
'I cannot see that it is legitimate to expect the councils to pay 80% of these (high) salaries,' he said. 'Unless some changes are made, the falling success rates may lead to major questions about the credibility of the research funding regime that will be of no benefit to anyone in the sector.'
'No benefit to anyone.' Let's hope it doesn't all end with the Treaty of Versailles.

ERC Success Irks National Funders

Dieter Imboden, head of Eurohorcs, the association of European research councils, has complained that the European Research Council (ERC) is encroaching on the turf of national funding agencies by winning the attentions of the best scientists and peer reviewers, according to ResearchResearch.
“We are competitors in the pool of good reviewers, for example,” he says. “The ERC has a great demand for good people for review panels and this has consequences that we feel. When we now ask people who have been on our reviewers’ list they often say ‘No, I am doing something for the ERC’.”
Imboden proposes a division of funding responsibilities between the ERC and national research councils. As in football, young talent should be fostered nationally by member states’ money, he said, suggesting that the ERC should scale back its successful starting grants. Established researchers could then move on to pan-European funding.
The ERC, inevitably, rejected any problems, or alternative set ups. Helga Nowotny, the ERC vice-president was quoted as saying “we fund excellence, and this cannot be pushed into any kind of niche.”

NIH 'Shorter Applications' Shock!

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US Government's health funder, is shortening page limits for competing applications to help reduce the administrative burden placed upon applicants, reviewers, and staff. The change seeks to focus applicants and reviewers on the essentials of the science that are needed for a fair and comprehensive review of the application. Shorter applications may have additional benefits for reviewers such as mitigating information overload, and/or enabling a larger number of reviewers to read each application and participate in review in a more informed manner. More information is available on the NIH 'Enhancing Peer Review' website.
Perhaps those in charge of the EC's FP7 might wish to take note?

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Tories: Assessment of Impact 'Clunky'

David Willetts, the Conservative shadow education secretary, has queried the assessment of impact in the Research Excellence Framework (Ref), according to ResearchResearch.
At a fringe meeting at the Tory conference, Willetts criticised the "clunky" assessment of impact now required by the research councils. Its saving grace, he said, was that leaders of the research councils had told him that they didn't let it affect their grant-making decisions. And he went on to warn: "We don't want to import that into the Ref."
The statement sharpens the differences between Conservative and Labour over the future of the Ref. While Willetts has shifted the Conservatives away from the new approach outlined in the consultation published by HEFCE last month, vice-chancellors are saying that the impact agenda has come directly from Alistair Darling's Treasury.
Willetts also said at the meeting that he thought the biggest challenge for universities was in teaching, not research, and gave a warm endorsement to the importance of research in the social sciences and humanities.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

RCUK to Clawback Money from Grants

RCUK has announced that it will be clawing back funding from some existing awards in light of a fall in the official forecasts of inflation.
The changes, estimated to be around 1.2%, will take effect from April 2010 onwards, and will affect any grant with outstanding payments of more than £100k.
Alan Thorpe, Chair of Research Councils UK said: "The decline in inflation needs to be reflected in the grants we award. All savings made as a result of changing the rate will be reinvested into research and postgraduate training."
It's noted, however, that 'rises in inflation' are not reflected in the grants they award.
Thanks to Juan and Gill for highlighting these changes. The full press release is available here.

Help with Health Applications

The National Institutes for Health Research (NIHR) has issued a raft of recent health funding opportunities. If you want to take advantage of these it would be worth contacting the Research Design Service South East. A collaboration between the Universities of Brighton, Kent and Surrey, the Service provides free support to develop research proposals for NIHR programmes.

Innovation, Innovation, Innovation

Shadow science minister Adam Afriyie has said that a future Conservative government would reverse Labour’s approach of centrally driving innovation through the universities and instead let innovation come through business by reducing regulatory and fiscal “obstacles”. Quoted in Nature, he said that “we want to create an environment such that science and research can easily be translated into innovation.”
His comments come shortly after Peter Mandelson's speech to the Labour Conference, at which he said that he wanted 'an innovation nation', and 'closer links between businesses and universities'.

FP7 Social Science and Humanities Information Day

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), acting as the National Contact Point for the FP7 Socioeconomic Sciences and Humanities (SSH) Programme and the Science in Society Programme, is arranging a one-day briefing event on opportunities and expectations in these two programmes. The event will focus on the current calls outlined in the 2010 Work Programmes, with a chance to engage informally with a senior Commission official about the approach and what is being sought.
In addition, there will be information from UKRO on other aspects and opportunities; and an introduction to the Commission's "Road Map" for the SSH programme of research topics envisaged for calls in the period 2011 – 2013.
This event is principally aimed at university research managers and European funding officers with responsibility for the social sciences and humanities.
It will be held at Regent's College, London, NW1.
To register for this event, please email Bruce Carter at You are advised to register early, as the number of participants may be restricted.

Monday, 5 October 2009

UK Success in FP7

The UK received the largest proportion of European Commission Framework funding in 2008, according to the EC's Second FP7 Monitoring Report, published by UKRO. It overtook Germany to receive 16% (or €568m) of the 7th Framework Programme (FP7) total annual budget of €3,534m. The UK’s success rate also increased from 21.8% in 2007 to 26.3% in 2008 and continues to be higher than the EU average of 21.4%.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Mammoth Trap - Part Two

Following on from David Mitchell's piece on the Ref in last week's Observer (see this post), Prof Steve Fuller of Warwick is suggesting that the comedian become a board member of either the ESRC or AHRC. He makes his case in his blog, calling Mitchell 'one of the most articulate and insightful commentators on the state of higher education today.' He goes on, 'what he brings is the right sensibility – or at least a sensibility that isn’t more forcefully voiced even by academics themselves. It also highlights something that at least academics easily forget – that people who work in the arts and the media, the source of an increasing portion of the nation’s wealth, are among the biggest boosters of academia for what we would regard as purely academic reasons.'

Friday, 2 October 2009

RCUK 'Serendipity Award': a Covert Comment on Impact?

RCUK has announced the shortlist for its 'Serendipity Award'. This 'recognises entrepreneurial spirit in universities, rewarding researchers who have seen and seized unexpected opportunities for impact arising from their research.'
However, this seems to go counter to the Research Councils' current demand that researchers outline their 'Impact Plan' - up to 2 sides of A4 - when applying for funding.
By creating a 'Serendipity Award' is RCUK implying that impact cannot be predicted before the research is undertaken, that asking applicants do so is unrealistic, and that some of the best research has come from unexpected results? Surely not.

ESRC Large Grants: Security, Conflict & Justice

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has announced its Large Grants Competition for 2009/10. The Grants are for £1.5 - £5m, and are aimed at 'experienced researchers
requiring longer term or extended support for research groups, inter-institutional research networks, linked-project programmes, medium-to-large surveys, other infrastructure or methodological developments, or any related larger scale projects'.
This year they're highlighting 'Security, Conflict and Justice'. There's a two part application process, with the deadline for outlines on 16 Nov. More detail is available here.

ESRC Chief to Step Down

Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Chairman of RCUK (and, according to the Guardian, the 'Santa of Science'), is to step down to become VC at Aberdeen in October 2010.
Diamond was at Southampton before joining the ESRC in 2003. He became Chairman of RCUK in 2004.
No announcement has yet been made about his replacement at the ESRC or RCUK.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

STFC Grant Funding Cut

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has announced a cut to grant funding. New grants will be issued only to October 2010 in the first instance. According to a press release the temporary measure has been implemented with immediate effect and will stay in place “pending the outcome of the prioritisation exercise” which will end in the New Year. However, there's no guarantee that funding will return to previous levels afterwards. STFC has fallen foul of the fall in the strength of the pound, as it is committed to international subscriptions to facilities abroad.
It has cut funding before; in 2007 it cut grants funding by 25%, to the consternation of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society.

Impact Seminar with Steven Hill (RCUK): 8 October

A final reminder about the Impact Seminar next Thursday. As you can see from many of the preceding posts, 'Impact' is a key issue in research funding at the moment, and this Seminar will be the chance to hear from two sides on this: Steven Hill (note his blog entry on 'Impact') is head of the Strategy Unit at RCUK, and has worked at both Defra and Oxford. He'll be presenting the 'official' RCUK viewpoint. Prof Peter Taylor-Gooby, Professor of Social Policy in SSPSSR, will be giving an academic's viewpoint. Their talks will be followed by a discussion chaired by Prof John Baldock, PVC for Research.
If you would like to come along and have not been in touch already, do drop me a line.