Thursday, 17 December 2009

'Concentration is not the Answer'

Libby Aston, former research director of the Russell Group and director of University Alliance, has written in defence of the principle of funding excellent research, wherever it is found. You may remember that the issue of piling research funding into a small number of research intensive universities was kick-started by the publication of Mandelson's 'Higher Ambitions' (ah! Never was a title so apposite), which first floated the idea.
However, Aston begs to differ. The UK already has 'one of the most concentrated funding models in the world', she claims in Research Fortnight, and Mandelson et al are confusing excellence with volume.
'If you fund on explicit concentration by institution, you are in effect leading money away from world-leading research in some institutions to fund a long tail of research in others.' Let's hope Mandy pulls a hand brake turn.

'The Grant-acquistion Treadmill is Relentless'

Interesting comment piece by Prof Tim Brikhead in this week's THE. He suggest that we need a dramatic overhaul of the way teaching and research are balanced in universities, including a wholesale change in the distribution of grants.
'The grant-acquisition treadmill is relentless. It is also monumentally time-consuming and demoralising because the failure rate is high and the likelihood of success almost random. Without exception, every one of my colleagues has come back from recent research council grant meetings wringing their hands in frustration and despair at the scale of the bureaucratic burden on academics and the utter injustice of the system. A system that requires academics to spend such a huge proportion of their time writing grant applications, awards those grants haphazardly, and then ranks academics according to how successful they have been in this exercise, is deeply flawed.'
Instead he suggests using the Canadian method - note the Institute for Government's interest in this earlier - whereby academics need only spend a relatively short time applying for grants, which are longer term. Prof Birkhead says that some of his colleagues there need only spend a week every five years complete applications. Interesting idea - but would the Government have the stomach to take it on?

Further Cuts at the STFC

Following on from the news that their current awards would be time-limited, the STFC has announced further cuts and a retreat from expensive, long-term commitments overseas. In an attempt to block the £40m hole in its budget, the Council announced yesterday that it would be withdrawing from 24 projects, totalling some £115m over 5 years, including the Gemini telescopes, the NLS, and UKIRT. Elsewhere, physicists and astronomers should expect a 25% cut in studentships and fellowships and a 10% cut in grants next year.
Not that you would immediately get this from their press release which, to put it mildly, accentuates the positive.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

How Leverhulme Assesses Applications

I had an interesting conversation with Leverhulme the other day, and got to the heart of the process grant applications go through with them. I've always said that applicants need to speak to a very general audience when pitching to Leverhulme, and understanding the process that proposals go through makes this all too clear. So here's the low down:

  • At the Outline Stage your application is sent to a member of the 35 strong ‘Advisory Panel,’ made up of academics from across the remit of Leverhulme (i.e. Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities). Depending on the amount, the application will either be seen by one (if it’s less than £250k) or two (if it’s more than £250k);
  • Their comments are sent to the Director, who approves (or, indeed, overrules) them.

  • At the Full Application Stage it is sent to four referees: 2 suggested by you, 2 identified by them. They are not people on the Advisory Panel.

  • Based on these reviews, the Trustees make the final decision. So the Trustees have more influence than I initially thought. Below is a list of who they are, together with links for a little background:

  • Sir Michael Angus (Chairman)

  • Sir Michael Perry

  • Mr N W A Fitzgerald

  • Mr P J-P Cescau

  • Dr A S Ganguly – I think this is the one

  • Mr A C Butler

  • Sir Iain Anderson

  • Professor Sir Richard Brook (the Director)

Swindon to be Twinned with Disney World

No, you didn't read it wrong, and no, it's not April 1st. According to the Independent, Swindon's beaten off stiff competition to be named as Disney World's twin. Is it the exhilerating, fair-ground ride offered by all those roundabouts? The unreal feel of a town the size of a city? Or is it the fact that the Mickey Mouse Research Councils are located there? Polaris House as the Cinderella Castle? In this season of goodwill, why not?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

ESRC Restructures Commitees, and Calls for College Members

The ESRC are going to restructure their peer review panels, with effect from April next year. At the same time they are creating a peer review college, along the lines of the one currently being used by the AHRC, and are seeking members. Have a look at the call, and get in touch if you want to put yourself forward.

Monday, 14 December 2009

NERC Set New Limit for New Investigator Awards

NERC have scrapped the slightly torturous 'no overall limit, but a limit for directly incurred costs' for their New Investigator Awards. Previously, they had set a limit for the direct costs of £40k. Now, there is a limit of £100k overall. Jim Aland, Research Grants Team Leader at the Council confirmed that the move was aimed at bringing NERC into line with the other councils, and also because applicants had tended to pitch their applications slightly low. He said that on average applicants had asked for around £80k in the past. The new limit gave a clearer indication of how much they could apply for.

Managing Change: Is There Something We Need to Know?

The Institute for Government is, in its own words, 'an independent charity...working to increase government effectiveness.' It 'provid[es] evidence based advice that draws on best practice from around the world...[and] undertake research...and organise events to invigorate and provide fresh thinking on the issues that really matter to government.'
Interesting, then, that they put on a recent event entitled 'Top 200: Managing Change through Transition Periods'. Apparently it drew on evidence from Canada and New Zealand, amongst others, on how best to ride out tough times in the public finances. From what I've heard NZ implemented a drastic cut in research funding in the nineties, pulling back from funding all but the most economically relevant areas. More recently, Canada has announced that it will be cutting back on research funding, to the consternation of researchers.
If the Institute for Government has the ear of Government, we should all prepare for some drastic 'out of the box' thinking, modelled on our overseas colleagues. Or am I just being paranoid?

Pre-Budget Report - £600m Cut to HE and Science

Last week's Pre-Budget Report was every bit as sobering for higher education as had been expected. The Chancellor Alistair Darling said that £600m would be saved "from higher education and science and research budgets from a combination of changes to student support within existing arrangements; efficiency savings and prioritisation across universities, science and research; some switching of modes of study in higher education; and reductions in budgets that do not support student participation."
However, it's not clear beyond these broad brushstokes as to how these cuts will be divided. It's got the sector worried though; have a look at the various people quoted by the BBC .
There's talk now about 'discussions with stakeholders' about how best to wield the scalpel. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Love Me! Love Me! Love Me!

The ESRC have commissioned a survey to find out how wonderful they are. Or not. Want to take part? Here's the link.

BA: Less would be More

The British Academy has posted its response to HEFCE's REF proposals. They're generally supportive of the process and the form of assessment, but think the percentage dedicated to Impact should be reduced from 25% to 15%, with the extra 10% being distributed between outputs and environment. They also make the point that humanities and social sciences rely more heavily on the block grant, so the REF needs to be fully aware of the needs of these disciplines, and the make up of the panels needs to reflect the sector, and not distort it or make it difficult for the panels to assess the work of the discipline. More detail of the response can be found here.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

PVC's Lunchtime Seminar: 'Institutions'

A quick reminder about tomorrow's PVC's Lunchtime Seminar. Prof Jeremy Carrette in SECL has drawn together an interesting and diverse panel to discuss the notion of 'Institutions,' broadly defined. Institutions are part of the fabric of our social world. We live and work inside them, we are shaped by them and organised by them. They can range from social habits and behaviours to more formal organisations. They can be personal engagements, like marriage, and public international structures, like the EU and the United Nations. They can be physical buildings and invisible social contracts. They can create conflict and be mechanisms to resolve conflict. In the wake of the world economic crisis the politic of institutions returned to intellectual debate: banking institutions failed and government institutions prevailed. The crisis reopened the problem of individualism and government; it sparked old debates about freedom, power, individual choice and the very nature of our institutional life.

This seminar, following the style of the previous PVC seminar, takes the Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ format to explore the issue of institutions in the present global climate. Are institutions the source of knowledge and power in the contemporary global world?

Friday, 4 December 2009

Microprocessors Had 'Biggest Impact' - But Who Would Get Attribution?

EPSRC have conducted a poll which has resulted in the microprocessor being voted the scientific discovery with the biggest impact on the planet in the last 50 years.
But who should we thank? Which researcher could claim their 25% when the REF comes around? And when was the impact felt? In the seventies with pocket calculators and digital watches? In the early eighties with all those BBC micros and ZX Spectrums? In the nineties with mobile phones? In the noughties with superfast laptops, mp3 players and iPhones? Surely by 2008-13 the impact has already peaked and passed...
EPSRC have highlighted the work of Federico Faggin. But look at the history of the microprocessor, sketched out by Wikipedia, which begins by saying that 'three projects arguably delivered a complete microprocessor at about the same time.' I don't envy the REF panels the job of untangling the gordian knot of impact attribution. Unless, of course, it's decided to slice it off altogether...

Thursday, 3 December 2009

RCUK Chief Warns MPs About Funding Cut

Alan Thorpe, Lloyd-Webber lookalike and chairman of Research Councils UK, gave evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on the work of the research councils yesterday. He stressed that a drop in research funding could seriously harm the UK research base for years to come.
Whilst the councils were confident of getting the money that they had been promised for the next academic year (2010-11), there was the assumption that funding would flatline thereafter. Anything less than this would damage the UK's research reputation internationally, he suggested.
One MP, Brian Iddon, reported that there was a rumoured 11% cutin the offing. However, Thorpe said the he was unaware of this, and had not been told that this would be the case.

Violence Research Group

I went to a very productive meeting of the new 'Violence Research Group' on Tuesday. It was a small gathering - many couldn't make it because of teaching commitments - but there was an obvious enthusiasm for developing the Group as a forum for meeting others with shared or complementary interests around research into violence, for exploring issues and for engaging with people outside the University. Those attending agreed to host two public debates in the New Year: one on religion and violence, and the other on the biological or social causes of violence. They also suggested getting involved in the PVC's Lunchtime Seminars. More details to follow. The Group will be meeting next on 12 January; come along if you are interested in finding out more.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

'Blue Skies Ahead' Debate Video Available

The video of the Drayson debate, hosted by Times Higher and entitled 'Blue Skies Ahead: the prospects for UK science', is now available here.