Monday, 30 November 2009

FP8 Begins to Take Shape

In the same way that Christmas seems to come round quicker and quicker each year, Framework Programmes seem to be speeding up. Barely have we got FP7 underway, it seems, than FP8 is peeping around the corner. Word on the (funding) street is that the EC is considering largescale changes this time around. Of course, it's still along way off, but there's talk of 'joint programming' - where national funders feed in to a joint funding pot in areas of strategic importance (there's a pilot one on the go for dementia) - and of 'grand challenges', such as energy, security, ageing, environment - i.e. the same kind of areas as RCUK identified. The real debate will start in earnest in Autumn next year, but it's heartening to hear that the UK (via BIS and RCUK) are more engaged with the consultation than they have been in the past.
Another interesting aside: under FP7 the EC committed to using 22% of the budget for SMEs. Currently it's only used 16% for this end, so if it wants to keep to its original commitment, it will have to up its percentage to 27%. So if you want European funding in the next few years, get in to bed with an SME - pronto.
One final point. Try googling FP8: nothing out there but Panasonic Lumix DMC-FP8. Not for much longer, I think...One of the camera's reviews says that the 'FP8' has a feature which is 'an uncomfortable annoyance,' and the manual provides 'not one word on how to proceed.' Any similarity with European funding is purely conincidental.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

MRC Chief Comes to Town

The CEO of the Medical Research Council, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz PhD, FRS, FRCP, FRCPath, FMedSci, will be coming to Kent tomorrow. He will be speaking to staff in the Senate Chamber at 2pm, and it will be a chance to hear how the MRC will be facing the challenging economic times ahead. What will be the MRC's strategy for dealing with them, and how is it dealing with the thorny issue of impact? There'll be a chance to ask question after Sir Leszek's talk, and the event will be followed be refreshments, and a further chance to chat informally to Sir Leszek and other colleagues. Contact Carol Moran if you'd like to come along.

Last Grants Factory Workshop Today

Prof Andrew Derrington, the Dean of Social Sciences here at Kent, will be giving the last of his 'Grants Factory' workshops today. These proved to be extremely useful and popular over the summer, and helped applicants understand how to frame their proposals so that it was clear what their research question was, why it was important, how it was going to be answered and how it was going to be effectively disseminated.
Prof Derrington will be heading off to be PVC at Liverpool in the new year, and we wish him well. In his absence the 'Grants Factory' will develop into an ongoing internal peer review system, with 'monthly mock panels' being led by senior academics who have had experience of sitting on funders' panels. Applicants will be able to bring their proposals along to the mock panels and have them reviewed by their peers. More details to follow.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

NERC Call for Peer Review Panellists

If your research falls within the remit of NERC, consider putting yourself forward as a peer review panellist. I've said it elsewhere on this blog, but I would always encourage academics to get involved with the funders: it's good for your profile, but it's also good to get an insight into how the funders work. More details of the call is available here.

'Golden Age' of Funding Over

In a pronouncement that echoes Adam Tickell's ruminations on the 'Edwardian summer' we've lived through, Alan Langlands, HEFCE's chief, has said that the 'Golden age' of university funding is coming to an end. Cue Elgar's Cello Concerto and images of young tommies going over the top. At a meeting of university representatives on 20 November Langlands painted a gloomy picture of the future landscape. After years of growth and strong investment, the sector is now under fire from reduced spending, increased costs, and challenges from overseas. ' That strong position that helped us achieve all these results is now under challenge,' he said.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Changes to EPSRC Peer Review Process

EPSRC have introduced a slight change to the peer review process that is intended to focus discussion at panel meetings. In the past panel members have had to 'pre-score' proposals, based on the reviewers' comments. However, this was a bit of a blunt tool, and there was often disagreement between panellists as to the good or bad elements of a proposals. With the new system panellists will have to pre-score each element of the proposal, using the same headings as the reviewers, namely:

  • quality
  • impact
  • applicants
  • resources and management.
Quality, EPSRC assure us, will trump all. Their announcement of the changes is available here.

Happiness Call Brings Unhappiness

An interesting story in the Times Higher about the 'Wellbeing' call the ESRC issued last month, and which I mentioned on the blog here. We looked into putting in a bid, but in the end decided that the odds were stacked against us, as it became apparent that the ESRC had a specific group already in mind for the funding; indeed, there was a strong suspicion that that group had had a hand in drafting the specification. I spoke to the ESRC on the phone and it was clear that they intended to fund just one group. Stitch up? Surely not...
Anyway, the Times Higher story is interesting as it's apparent that our unease has been shared by others. Quoting a prof from a Russell Group university, she had 'decided that bids by researchers interested in delivering a serious critique of the evidence base for "happiness initiatives" would not be well received.'
"For a supposedly independent research council, it's a disgracefully biased and loaded specification," she said of the ESRC call. She added that "a number of universities are bidding even though there is a widespread cynicism about it".
Elsewhere, another prof suggested that the ESRC was aiming to fund research that was about 'promoting self delusion'.
It's a shame the ESRC didn't answer these criticisms; we'll watch this story with interest.

Mother Hubbard 'Cupboard Bare' Shock

“The cupboard is bare, there is no more money,”Adam Afriyie, the Conservative shadow science minister, told a conference in London last week. However, he sought to reassure delegates that the Tories would aim to safeguard a 'stable' science budget, if they were elected next year. He praised Labour's current science policies, and reassured the room that there would be 'no great revolution' if they got in. He promised to release more detailed plans before the probable election in May.

Friday, 20 November 2009

fEC 'Dogs of War' Unleashed

'Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!' bellowed RCUK, as they launched their fEC task force this week. Well, not quite. The wheels of funder bureaucracy move less dramatically, more slowly and much, much more carefully than that. Following its review that concluded in April (!) , RCUK and Universities UK (UUK) are teaming up with the Financial Sustainability Strategy Group and the TRAC Development Group to establishing a group to come up with proposals on how to implement the review’s recommendations. The group is expected to report its proposals by the end of April 2010.
But somehow that doesn't quite have the same ring as 'cry havoc...'
The full list of the fEC dogs of war is available here.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Don't Panic - but Watch Out...

An interesting comment piece in Research Fortnight today. Don't worry about Impact in the REF, it suggests; sure, we should hold out for 15% rather than 25%, but the really worry is Impact at the Research Councils. Whilst assessment of 'Impact Plans' has been somewhat cursory up until now, there are signs of a change ahead.
'Interpreting signals from government ministers, the research councils have been rapidly increasing the resources they dedicate to programmes that generate impact,' says the article, citing the EPSRC's move to increase its commercialisation spend by £4m over the past 4 years. In addition David Lammy, HE minister, has said that the goverment will be taking a more 'strategic approach', and will provide funds for the projects with the most tangible economic benefits”.
As the article concludes, 'suddenly those innocuous impact statements on grant applications look like less of a waste of time.'

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A Wellcome Change

The Wellcome Trust is going to change the way it supports researchers, moving away from the 'treadmill' of applying for short term grants. It will phase out two of its four main grant schemes in favour of an approach that puts researchers, not their proposals, first. Although peer review will still be used to make judgments applicants will no longer be assessed on written proposals, but by interviews instead.
Which all sounds like a breath of fresh air, and I wish Wellcome well. Whatever happens, I think it's worth exploring different ways of assessing applications for funding and, if it all falls apart in a year, at least they've tried to find a way out of the increasingly bureaucratic maze. More info on the changes is available here.

Friday, 13 November 2009

PVC's Lunchtime Seminars: Jeremy Carrette and 'Institutions'

After the success of the last Lunchtime Seminar, led by Charlotte Sleigh, which drew a capacity audience to listen to a fascinating discussion on the nature of expertise, next month's is already taking shape. The host this time will be Prof Jeremy Carrette, who has recently won the largest grant given by the AHRC in their Religion and Society programme. His project will examine the relationship of religious NGOs to the UN in New York and Geneva. Understandable, then, that he has chosen to focus on 'Institutions' for his Lunchtime Seminar. He's invited speakers from Politics and International Relations and SSPSSR, and will be using the same 'In Our Time' format that worked so well for Charlotte. It will take place on 9 December at 12:30pm. All are welcome; contact me if you'd like to come along.

Help for ERC Applicants

Thinking of applying for the ERC's Advanced Investigator Awards? UKRO will be running a series of workshops to help potential applicants find their way through the puzzle of guidelines. Participants should gain a deeper understanding of the proposal format and the key issues they are required to address in planning, writing and costing an Advanced Grant proposal. It's free, and the events will take place as follows:

  • University of Edinburgh, Tuesday 24th November 2009

  • University of Leeds, Wednesday 25th November 2009

  • University College London, Friday 27th November 2009

  • Cardiff University, Monday 30th November 2009

More detail on the workshops is available here.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Grants Factory Evolves

An interesting meeting of the Board for Research and Enterprise yesterday. On the agenda was the question of Internal Peer Review. I'd prepared a paper outlining the reasons for considering having such a system - success rates falling, less funding available, more competition - and looking at what exists already, both internally and externally. Jacqueline Aldridge then discussed the experience from the 'Grants Factory' workshops over the summer, which brought academics together to learn from the Dean of Social Sciences about how best to frame an application, and then to give feedback to each other on their proposals.
The Grants Factory had been a valuable experience, and we're hoping to offer something along these lines on an on-going basis - such as a monthly mock panel. It has the potential to benefit from the pros of Internal Peer Review - getting objective feedback on applications prior to submission - whilst avoiding the cons - such as it being time-consuming, burdensome, and bureaucratic.
In the meantime there will be the last of Andrew Derrington's Grants Factories in SSPSSR on 26 November, which is open to all members of the Social Science Faculty. Contact Jacqueline if you would like to take part.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

UKRO Answers Questions on European Funding

Further to my post on the Roadmap for FP7' s Socioeconomic Sciences & Humanities (SSH), UKRO have produced some useful FAQs on the Theme's 'new approach.' As ever, UKRO have done well in cutting through the eurobabel that often clouds European funding. If you're thinking of applying to the current or future rounds under SSH, have a look at the general guidance which is available here. (you'll need to be a subscriber to UKRO's Information Service; if not contact me)

Monday, 9 November 2009

ESRC: External Review and Right to Reply

I called the ESRC to shed a bit more light on how they deal with external reviews. As you may know, they don't externally review 'small' grant applications (£100k); the decision as to whether to fund the application is taken by two of the Research Board members. For their standard grants (>£100k) the applications do get sent out for external review, but you only have a right to reply if you are seeking more than £500k. If you're application is between £100k - £500k you only find out what the reviewers said after you've been informed of the outcome. Seems a bit harsh: the decision to (not) fund might well have been based on some confused or misinformed reviewer.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Brecht's Wooden Donkey

I had a look at the Kent Blogs site this afternoon, and one in particular rang bells with me: Ollie Double in the School of Arts talks about the need to keep it simple when writing up your research.
The same holds true for funding applications: the people assessing applications are rarely in exactly the same specialism as you, so you've got to talk to a general audience. The 'Summary' section, often overlooked as an afterthought, is key: it's your chance to get your foot in the door, to 'hook' the time-poor panel member, and explain, in simple terms, what your research question is, why it's important, how you're going to answer it, and how you're going to disseminate it effectively. Sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people don't.
So avoid jargon if you can; there's usually easier ways to explain your research. Keep in mind Brecht's wooden donkey, mentioned in Ollie's blog, which apparently had a sign around its neck that said: 'even I must understand it'.

Lies, Damn Lies and Citations

Trying to assess research excellence using bibliometrics was considered, and then ditched, by HEFCE when it was developing the REF. However, citation-based metrics are still in the news. Using such a system, the EPSRC Citations Study 2009 has shown that there is 'no evidence' that blue skies research produces more highly cited papers than targeted funding. This is surprising, as the assumption is that 'blue skies' research is inherently more excellent, more world-leading and ground-breaking, than that which responds to specific calls.
Elsewhere the Science and Technology Policy Research unit at Sussex is attempting to pin down the humanities using citations, in a way that is currently used in the sciences. Although more robust than the systems currently used, it's had a sniffy reception by the sector. 'No one in the humanities agrees we need bibliometrics,' said Judi Loach of Cardiff. 'We don't think it is appropriate to our disciplines.'

The Impact of Impact

Sometimes it feels as if this blog is just an Impact Newsletter: every other post seems to be about the dreaded 'i' word. However, the intention of this blog is to relay and reflect on the current issues around research funding, and Impact is the day's cause célèbre. It's everywhere, and both academics and administrators are concerned about it. The Times Higher suggests they're concerned in different ways, though I don't think that's necessarily true: I empathise with the academics, though I recognise that we're all going to have to jump through this particular hoop for some time yet. Elsewhere, the interest in Impact is shown in the sell-out debate - and how often do you see a sell-out debate? - on 30 November entitled 'Blue Skies Ahead? The Prospect for UK Science.' It will be streamed on the Times Higher website, and I hope to tune in.
So apologies for banging on about Impact, but I'm afraid it will be hogging the headlines for the foreseeable future. Unless, of course, we see some dramatic handbrake turn by this government - or the next.

Become a Research Council Member

A call's been announced for the annual round of appointments to the Research Councils. This round usually commences in October and takes place in two parts. BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC and STFC first, followed by AHRC, NERC and ESRC slightly later. This round may be supplemented by competitions for individual or groups of posts as necessary.
All appointments are initially for a period of up to four years, and members are eligible for re-appointment for a further period of up to four years. Members of Council are part-time and are expected to spend some 20 days each year on Council business. An annual honorarium of £6,740 is paid to council members and £8,970 is paid to members who chair boards.
I'd encourage all senior staff to consider applying; as I've said before, involvement with the Councils is incredibly valuable not only for raising your profile (and that of the University), but also for gaining an insight into the way the Councils work. More details of the call, specification, and forms are available here.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Mandelson: the Future is in 'Concentrating Research Funding'

Business secretary Peter Mandelson has launched a new framework for Higher Education. Entitled 'Higher Ambitions,' the report focuses mainly on the needs of students. However, research does come up, and the framework emphasises that BIS wants to :

  • 'Sustain our world class research base by continuing to focus on excellence, concentrating research funding where needed to secure critical mass and impact; and

  • Encourage collaboration between universities on world class research, especially in high cost science.'
'Concentrating research funding'. Hmm. That gets alarm bells ringing, and seems to go counter to the thrust of the last RAE which was to reward excellent research wherever it was found. Not surpisingly, the Russell Group are crowing. “Only by concentrating resources can we ensure that Britain retains world-class universities which are international partners of choice for students, researchers and business,” said Wendy Piatt, director general of the group, quoted in ResearchResearch.
More information on the report is available on the BIS site here.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Astronomical Impact

The Royal Astronomical Society has called on its members to join in with this petition against Impact.
I guess this is unsurprising: Astronomy might be one of the tougher subjects to justify in terms of 'social and economic' impact. It highlights the need to think imaginatively about your impact - and also to think long term. And you don't much longer term than light years. Of course, if a metorite hits earth it'll be the biggest impact of all...

PVC's Lunchtime Seminars

I'm preparing for the new round of PVC's Lunchtime Seminars today. The first will be led by Dr Charlotte Sleigh in History, who will gather together a group of fellow academics from across the University to look at the question of 'the Face of the Expert'. 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?
It should be interesting: Charlotte's idea is that, rather than have each participant give individual talks about their research (which we've done in the past), they will discuss issues raised by the topic, similar to Radio 4's 'In Our Time.'
All welcome: it starts at 12:30 in Keynes Seminar Room 14.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

ESRC Changes Final Reporting System

The ESRC has announced that it's changing its Final Report System. The Council will be contacting award holders individually (they say), but here’s the gist of the changes:
  • The current requirement for a 5000 word End of Award Report has been dropped;
  • In its place is a new system to collect evidence on impacts of your research.

This consists of:

  • A much shorter ‘End of Award Report’, due 3 months after the end of the project;

  • An ‘Impact Report’, due 12 months after the end of the project.

They insist that the new system will be ‘more economical in terms of its demand on award holders’ time’, and that ‘award-holders who report only scientific contributions will not be disadvantaged in any way in the Council's evaluation process. It will be possible to achieve the highest evaluation grades for scientific and/or practical impacts.’
More details of these changes are available here.