Friday, 29 January 2010

BBSRC Announces Five Year Plan

The BBSRC launched 'The Age of Bioscience' yesterday, which outlined its priorities for the next five years. It intends to focus on three areas: food security; bioenergy and industrial biotechnology; and the basic bioscience underpinning health.
Underpining these strategic priorities are three further themes: knowledge exchange, innovation and skills, exploiting new ways of working and partnerships.
More detail on these themes is available via the link above.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Head of the ERC Steps Down

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced that Prof Fotis Kafatos, President of the organisation since its inception three years ago, has stepped down. In his resignation letter Prof Kafatos stated that 'it is now appropriate for me to focus on the continuity of the ERC, and to pass on the leadership of this outstanding organisation to another member of the Scientific Council.'
In a press release, Janez Poto─Źnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research, commented that 'under his leadership the European Research Council has grown into a fully-fledged funding body, known and respected not just by European scientists but throughout the world. I am pleased that he has decided to continue as a member of the Scientific Council. I thank him for his outstanding commitment and achievements which will be the foundations for the ERC's success well into the future.'
It's understood that Prof Kafatos wishes to spend more time on his research at Imperial, where he is based.

Lib Dems Join Tories in Questioning Impact Assessment

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, has outlined his party's aims for science and research. Among the list are some thoughts on research funding. He said that funding should be allocated according to 'broader priorities' rather than being 'distorted by narrow impact assessments.' In addition, he expressed some concern over the impact agenda, and in particular the REF. He stated that he wanted to find a way to assess research that did not damage fundamental science.
Overall, his speech to the Royal Society was short on detail, and he did not go as far as the Tories in saying that they would delay the REF. However, it did demonstrate that he seemed to be thinking more along Tory lines than Labour.

MRC Move to Swindon - Sort Of

It's been announced that the bulk of the MRC's operations will move to Swindon to join its sister councils in Polaris House. However, it's reluctant to abandon London completely, and, whilst it will move out of its Portland Place residence, it will find alternative accommodation in the capital for 90 or so staff dealing with 'science strategy and policy, high-level management of the council's portfolio and funding partnerships.'
The MRC has justified this split by saying that it needs a London base 'to bouild on our collaboration with our partners such as the National Institute for Health Research, as well as providing a London location for use across the research councils.'

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Research and 'Strategic Priorities'

There was an interesting article in this week's Times Higher, which highlighted the potential (or, in the case of Queens University Belfast, real) conflict between the research of individual academics and the aspirations and positioning of managers.
At QUB, proposals for a new appraisal system state that - to quote THE - 'all academic research projects must be aligned with the stated goals of the department or school in which they are undertaken.'
It brought to mind two things. One was a visit from the University of Maastricht that I was involved in last week. At Maastrict they have gone one step further than this. Rather than merely having 'stated goals', the University has been restructured around clearly defined interdisciplinary groupings, and there are clear themes into which you need to fit.
The second thing that the article brought to mind was the increasing move by the Research Councils towards 'managed programmes' in priority areas, such as Living with Environmental Change.
So is this the shape of the brave new world of research? Perhaps it's the first step towards rethinking departmental boundaries, of understanding what a department is. After all, the departmental structure of most universities is now more than a century old, and perhaps it is time to think again about how disciplines are grouped. However, it would be a shame to take this too far and slavishly follow the prevailing political wind, overlooking or dropping unfashionable but important subject areas that 'don't fit.'

Friday, 22 January 2010

Notes from the First Grants Factory Masterclass

Notes and slides are available from the first Grants Factory 2010 Masterclass, given by Prof Peter Taylor Gooby, and focused on how applicants can help their research become known to individual funders and make projects appeal to specific schemes.
Prof Taylor Gooby was well place to discuss this. During his academic career, Peter has won over 40 research grants with a total value of over £7 million. This includes several (Research Council and EU) grants worth over £1million each. His work as a panellist means he is also familiar with the decision-making process and 'mindset' of many of key UK funders including the Leverhulme Trust, British Academy, ESRC and Nuffield Foundation.
The notes and slides are available on the Research Services website.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Impact to Play Larger Part in ESRC Assessment?

Research Fortnight reported today that the changes to the ESRC assessment system, to be introduced in the summer, would allow for more account to be taken of impact. Quoting Phil Sooben, Policy Director at the Council, the ESRC 'will...take a wider view of the criteria to be used in decisions on which applications at the margin should be funded, and impact may play a part in that discussion.'
He goes on, 'the inclusion of impact in proposal assessments reflects goals set out in the ESRC’s strategic plan of 2009,' but he insists that impact will only affect proposals in cases where a large number of applications of equal academic excellence have been submitted.

Shearer West to Visit the University Today

The Director of Research for the AHRC, Prof Shearer West, will be visiting the University today. She will be talking to all staff at 1pm, and her talk will be followed by presentations from some of the staff at Kent who have had AHRC awards. Do come along if you are free: it will take place in the Senate Chamber. Lynne Bennett's organised the event, so get in touch if you would like to attend. More details are available here.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

More Justification

If you are thinking of applying to one of the Research Councils you should be aware that the guidelines for the Justification of Resources have changed. It can now be up to TWO pages, and they give fuller guidance (including the headings to be used) here.

Monday, 18 January 2010

ESRC Changes: How it will Work in Practice

You might have heard that the ESRC are changing the way they assess applications, mentioned in a previous post. I wasn’t clear about the new system, so gave them a call. Below is an outline of the process your applications will go through:

  • Standard Grants:
    o Review: When you submit, your application will be looked at by an ESRC officer who will decide (using the key words you gave in the application form) who are the most appropriate people from the new ‘Peer Review College’ to review it. The Peer Review College will be made up of 1500-2000 academics and users. Depending on the amount you are asking for, it will be seen by between 3 – 6 reviewers. You will not have a Right to Reply unless your application is for more than £500k.
    o Panels: Based on the grades given by the reviewers (1(poor)-6 (excellent), which will be the same grading structure used by all of the Research Councils), subject to meeting a minimum grade applications will then be assessed by members of one of three new 3 grant assessment panels. These panels will be discipline based, though the delineation between them has not yet been decided. The three panels will meet at the same time in the same place, and members of each might be called upon by the other panels if there is an application which falls between the disciplines of the panels. The panels may also take on addition members from an ‘Assessors College’, depending on the subject range of the applications before them. The Assessors College is different from the Peer Review College, and is intended to provide members for the panels, but also to assess Small Grants (see below) and other ESRC fast track schemes.
    o Decision: The final decision is made by the Grants Delivery Group (made up of Chairs of the Standing Panels, the vice chair of the Research Committee, and a member of the Training Committee (where appropriate)) supported by ESRC officers, based on the prioritisation list drawn up by the Panel and the available budget.

  • Small Grants
    o Review: as at present, applications will be reviewed by 2 people from the Panels or the Assessors College but will not be considered by the full Panel.
    o Decision: the highest rated applications will be funded within the budget available.

Staff can put themselves forward to stand on any of the bodies mentioned above. Details of how to do so are available here.

Friday, 15 January 2010

International Collaboration and the Research Councils

I'm sometimes asked what applicants can apply for from the Research Councils in relation to overseas collaboration. It's quite a murky, confused picture, but generally it's only the MRC and the ESRC that allow co-investigators to be based overseas, and the ESRC limits the budgetary contribution to be 30% overall. But here's the picture in full:


  • Overall, RCUK state that ‘research has always been an international endeavour and international collaboration is an important aspect of the work of each Research Council. UK researchers already have an excellent record of working across borders. The UK is committed to remaining a leading nation in the fields of research and innovation. The UK produces 9 per cent of the world's research papers, with those papers receiving 12 per cent of global research citations, demonstrating the high relative impact of UK research. Moreover, 13 per cent of the world's most highly cited papers are from the UK. In a world of increasing global competitiveness, this strength in research and innovation is a major part of the foundation on which our future economic prosperity and quality of life rests. Almost half of all PhD students and around 40 per cent of all researchers in the UK are non-UK citizens.’ (taken from this webpage). RCUK’s International Strategy is available here (pdf).

  • AHRC: You can’t include the costs of an overseas collaborators time, unless they are listed as a ‘consultant’. You can apply for their travel and subsistence costs that are a necessary part of their collaboration. There is no limit to the percentage of the budget that can go to the overseas collaborator. The AHRC’s International Strategy is available here.

  • BBSRC: Do not fund overseas collaborations. However, applicants can ‘subcontract’ part of their research abroad, but overseas subcontractor will not have any IP rights. Their international strategy is here (pdf), and their International Research page is here.

  • EPSRC: An office move has meant their phones are down. However, from their website they look like they are along the lines of the AHRC, as follows: ‘ you can include the costs of collaboration, for example, travel and subsistence for research staff to work in a partner's laboratory overseas, as well as the usual UK-based costs like staff, equipment, UK travel and subsistence, and consumables. You can also use funding flexibly, for example, to fill postdoctoral researcher and project student places with candidates from a partner's laboratory.’ As I said below, 13% of their grant funding goes on overseas collaboration.

  • ESRC: applications can include international co-investigators, but overseas costs are limited to 30% of overall budget. Internationalisation (and international impact) is now part of their Strategic Plan 2009-14 . They have a dedicated webpage and more info on international links here.

  • MRC: You can include the cost of overseas co-investigators – more detail here. No prescribed limit, but PIs need to talk to the Programme Manager before including these costs.

  • NERC: Not surprisingly given the nature of their work, NERC seem to take international collaboration very seriously – as their International Plan (pdf) makes clear. However, applicants can only apply for the direct costs of collaborations – along the lines of EPSRC and AHRC.

  • STFC: You can include costs of overseas co-investigators, but only if they are at the handful of STFC-approved institutions. These tend to be observatories or CERN.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Tories Pledge to Delay the REF

David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, has been talking to the Times Higher, and revealed that the Conservatives would delay the REF 'to establish whether a sound and widely accepted measure of impact exists.' He continued, '[we] do not believe that the current proposals pass those two tests. Unless the review is able to establish a measure that does, we would not include impact in the REF.'
Not sure if it will win many votes among the wider electortate, but it looks like they're winning over the academic sector with this manifesto pledge. More details on the Times Higher site.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Extra PVC Lunchtime Seminar Announced

An extra PVC's Lunchtime Seminar has been added to this year's programme of events. It will take place on 31 March, and will focus on 'Religion, Community and Violence'. It comes out of the violence research cluster that has been developing this year, and will act to showcase the range and breadth of research going on in this area. Hosted by Prof Larry Ray, it will include Drs William Rowlandson (SECL), Lucy Williams (SSPSSR), and Chris Deacy (SECL), and Glenn Bowman from Anthropology. Do get in touch if you would like to come along.

Monday, 11 January 2010

RCUK Announce New End of Award Report System

RCUK has launched it's 'Research Outcomes' system project. This has been rumbling on for some time, partly because the Research Councils recognised that the current system isn't fit for purpose as it doesn't capture outputs that are more than a year or two after the end of an award. The idea, from what I understand, is that award holders will complete a simplified end of award report, and then will be responsible for updating the system as and when new outputs resulting from their funded research become available.
They're currently, they say, consulting with the research community 'to establish requirements for the new system, and the project team is working closely with HEFCE to align, where possible, with similar requirements for the Research Excellence Framework (REF).' Joined up thinking? Surely not!
RCUK will then invite tenders to develop and implement a system, and the project is expected to have a pilot system in operation by summer 2011, with full roll out in late 2011.

Grants Factory 2010

Today we announced a new programme of events to support all staff applying for research funding. This will be led by a group of senior academics with extensive experience in winning funding, sitting on grant committees and coaching colleagues. The programme includes master classes, practical workshops and mock panel events, as follows:

Master Classes: what the guidance doesn’t tell you
Keynes, LT3 2.00-3.00pm

Grants Factory Workshops: the grant-writer’s toolkit
Led by Prof. David Shemmings

  • Mon 8 Feb: Grimond Seminar Room 8, 9.30am-12.00
  • Tues 9 March: Keynes Seminar Room 5, 1.30-4.00pm
  • Wed 26 May: Rutherford Seminar Room 5, 1.30-4.00pm

Peer Review Panels: test drive your project

Each of these lunchtime events takes less than 90 minutes, needs no advance preparation and will be led by senior academics with experience of the relevant funding panel.

  • EPSRC: Prof Peter Clarkson and Prof. Simon Thompson
  • Wellcome/MRC/NHS (biomedical & experimental psychology): Prof. Mick Tuite
  • BBSRC/NERC (biology, ecology & conservation sciences): Prof. Peter Bennett
  • ESRC/BA/Nuffield: Prof Dominic Abrams and Prof. Peter Taylor-Gooby
  • AHRC: Prof. Paul Allain

Full details will be available later in the week on the Research Services website; in the meantime contact the Research Funding Officer for your Faculty for further information:

Friday, 8 January 2010

Impact may cause Brain Drain?

According to the UCU, a third of academics they questioned said they'd consider leaving the UK if the government's impact proposals go ahead. Over two thirds of them did not support the proposals. More detail on their survey is available here.
Whilst we know impact is generally unpopular amongst academics, I think the UCU poll should be treated with a pinch of salt. UCU are, after all, the instigators of a 14,000 strong petition against impact, so they are not exactly an impartial actor in this. But interesting nonetheless.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Random Academic Sentence Generator

I love this 'academic sentence generator'. Even better is when it arranges some random phrases for you in a way that sounds like it makes sense, but is actually gobbledigook. I'm thinking of creating one for research funding applications. Any suggestions of the phrases I should include?

PVC's Lunchtime Seminars: 'Diagnosing Diseases in IVF Embryos'

Following on from the thoughtful and engaging discussions on ‘Experts’ and ‘Institutions’ last term, the first PVC’s Lunchtime Seminar of 2010 will be taking place later this month. Prof Darren Griffin (Biosciences) will be looking at the ethical, legal, social, psychological and biological issues around the diagnosis of diseases in IVF embryos. He will be joined by Prof Sally Sheldon from Kent Law School, and the audience will include a range of academics who will be able to contribute to the discussion, including some from SSPSSR, SECL (Philosophy) and the Centre for Health Service Studies (CHSS).

In addition, whilst Darren was in the process of putting together a course proposal for an MSc course provisionally entitled “Reproductive Medicine: Science and Ethics” he became aware of just how much interest there was in this field within the University (albeit from a range of different disciplines). Thus he would be interesting in hearing from people who might be interested in becoming involved in a research cluster around this area, which would meet 3 or 4 times a year to discuss various issues (perhaps a recent paper or piece of legislation) from a range of different perspectives, or invite an eminent speaker. This might, in turn, lead to new ideas for publications or avenues of funding.
Do let me know if you would like to come along so that I can arrange the catering. It will take place between 12:30 – 2pm on 27 Jan in Keynes Seminar Room 17. Lunch will be provided.

Wellcome Investment Portfolio Rises

Following on from my 'sunny side up' article on the state of the funding landscape, the news from Wellcome is an interesting addition. According to their press release, their portfolio of investments actually rose last year by 5%, some £580m. So, once again, it's not all doom and gloom...

ERC Success Rates

UKRO has published some information on success rates for the ERC Advanced Grants.
UKRO understands that the overall success rate for the second call, ERC-2009-AdG, was around 15%. This compares to an overall success rate of 12.6% for the first Call, ERC-2008-AdG (although the success rate for grants hosted in the UK success rate was about 20% for that call). UKRO understands that the ERC hope to fund around 230 proposals for the current call.

For the last call, the ERC has done some analysis of who got what. In terms of Host Institution, of the 200 ‘main list’ grants awarded, the UK had most grants with 52 (26% of the 200 grants, which compares to 21% of grants in the ERC-2008-AdG call). The other countries hosting grants were: Switzerland (27); France (26); Germany (25); the Netherlands (15); Italy (14); Sweden (10); Israel (9); Spain (8); Austria, Denmark and Norway (3 each); Belgium, Finland, Hungary, Ireland and Poland (1 each).In terms of PI nationality, of the 200 ‘main list’ grants, the most successful country is the UK with 48 PIs being of British nationality (equating to 24% of the 200 PIs having British nationality, which compares to 17% for the ERC-2008-AdG Call). Other PIs are nationals of: Germany and France (26 each); Italy (21); the Netherlands (17); Israel (10); Sweden (9); Switzerland and Spain (8 each); Austria, Denmark and Greece (4 each); Belgium (3); the USA (2); Cyprus, Finland, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania and South Africa (1 each).

More information available in the UKRO article here.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Brainstorming Impact

This year we’re hoping to provide academics with a bit more support when it comes to identifying the ‘Impact’ of their research. As you know, the Research Councils now expect all applicants to think about the potential impact of their research, and the Research Excellence Framework (REF) will be seeking evidence of the kind of impact research is having outside of academia.

Thinking about non-academic impact may seem a little daunting if you’ve not done it before, so Research Services, Kent Innovation and Enterprise (KIE) and the Media Office are getting together to help. We will be meeting regularly (fortnightly), and will pool our knowledge and experience to help identify areas that you can highlight as having a potential impact outside of academia.

If you would like us to help with your impact, drop me a line outlining your research and (if relevant) the particular project you are seeking funding for, and we’ll come up with some ideas for potential beneficiaries, audiences, markets or applications. Our first meeting will be on 14 January.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Glass Half Full

Despite recent headlines the outlook for research funding is not (yet) as gloomy as it might at first seem. Recently announced cuts to science and education will predominantly hit capital funding, and mask a rise in recurrent research funding of £106m next year. So, whilst times are getting tighter and there may be trouble ahead, we’re not there yet. In the meantime staff should not be put off applying for research funding – whilst the times are still good.

Happy New Year!

After two weeks out of circulation, I'm back at my desk, having frozen my feet off cycling in this morning. The campus looks like a spectacular winter wonderland, with more snow forcast, so what better time to hunker down and keep warm by the fire writing those grant applications!
In the meantime the latest Sciences Faculty Newsletter was waiting in my inbox. As ever, it's very professionally produced, and has some interesting articles about the wide variety of work taking place in the Faculty. Have a look at it here.