Friday, 28 May 2010

Cable: 'Do More with Less'

Vince Cable, the Government's Business Secretary, has written to universities to say that 'Starting now and in the years ahead we are all going to have to do more with less and stop doing some of the things we currently do.' The letter comes after the announcement of a further £200m cut in the higher education budget, and warns of further dark skies ahead: 'The drive to control public finances will remain with us and there will be a need within the next Spending Review, to look again at options for further savings.'

Some Lessons to Come out of Peer Review Sessions

We’re currently running a series of internal peer review panels, and those who have participated have got some useful feedback on their proposals, as well as an insight into how quickly the fate of their applications is decided. Some useful general points have come out of these exercises:
  • Help the introducer: the person introducing your application is time poor and might not be able to read your application in detail. They don’t want to appear foolish in front of the other panel members, so give them the information they need on a plate. Don't make them trawl through acres of text to get the main points of your project. Give them an overview of your application (what the research question is, why it’s important, how you will answer it, and how you will disseminate the outcomes) up front. Better still, give them some key phrases that they can use when introducing your application, and make the proposal readable, both in the English and in the format.
  • the ‘Zing’ factor: remember that the panel see scores of applications: give them a reason to care about yours. Grab them, and make it clear why your project is important, and funding it is crucial.
  • Methodology is key: don’t take too long on the background, and concentrate on what you are actually going to do during the project.
  • Write defensively: the panel are looking to pull your application apart, and find reasons to reject it. So defend any choices you make, and be up front about any potential problems (such as access to data).
This is just a snapshot of some of the points raised at the panels, and many more points came up during the hour and a half session. We’re intending to run them on a regular basis, so do come along and give your proposal the benefit of exposure to critical and constructive feedback from your peers. More information on the sessions, and on all the Grants Factory events, is available from Jacqueline Aldridge.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Grants Factory Masterclass: Working the Case for Support

Prof. Simon Thompson will be giving the lastest Grants Factory Masterclass today. He is an experienced EPSRC Research Council panel chair and has led the assessment of hundreds of funding applications. Most funding bids centre on a six page research proposal and most funders have similar requirements for the content and layout of this all important document. This hour long session will look at how to best structure and present proposals so that they have maximum impact with reviewers and panellists.
It starts at 2pm in Keynes Lecture Theatre 3. If you'd like to come along get in touch with Jacqueline Aldridge.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

ESRC Director of Research to Visit Kent

The ESRC Director of Research, Adrian Alsop, will visit the University on 13 October 2010. It will be an opportunity to ask him about the new system for peer review that the ESRC has recently introduced, as well as sounding him out about what the ESRC priorities will be in these strained economic times.
It's some time off, but do make a note in your diary. In the meantime here's some more info on the man himself, and his cats.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Third Funding Stream for the ERC?

There's news from Brussels of the ERC introducing a third, intermediate funding scheme. They currently provide funding for 'Starting Researchers' and 'Advanced Researchers', but nothing for those who fall between these two stools. So, if you're more than 10 years from your PhD but not yet in line for a Nobel Prize, there's nothing for you. It's currently being talked about as a 'Consolidating' award, and, if it does get the green light, will be introduced in 2011. We watch with interest.

NIH Podcasts on Grant Writing

The National Institutes of Health, the US Government's agency for distributing health funding, has started providing podcasts on issues such as Jump 'Starting Your Research Program for New Faculty Members', 'Grant Writing for New Investigators', and 'Considerations for Early Stage Investigators'. The podcasts can be accessed here.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

BBSRC Seeks Nominations for its Strategy Panels

The BBSRC are looking for people for their Strategy Panels, Pool of Experts: Peer Review and Training Awards Committee. The Panels play leading roles in the development and implementation of the Council's policies and priorities. The Pool of Experts: Peer Review and Training Awards Committee play key roles in delivering BBSRC's Mission by carrying out peer review of research grant proposals, the awarding of studentships and fellowships and assessing final reports on funded proposals. Appointments will commence in January 2011 for one year initially, with anticipated extension for a further two years.Further details, including role of the Panels, Pool of Experts: Peer Review and the Training Awards Committee, Person Specification and Expression of Interest Form can be found here.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

BBSRC Deadline Changed

The BBSRC has pulled forward its next deadline, from 14 July to the 23 June 2010. No indication has been given as to the reason for this, and when I called to ask the BBSRC there was no clear explanation on hand for it.

Confused Signals from MRC on Impact

It was a simple question: does the MRC require an Impact Plan (or 'Pathways to Impact', as they're now called), as all the other Research Councils do? The EAA Guidance suggests that in the Justification of Resources you 'need to justify any resources requested to support the impact plan', and the Applicants Handbook has a whole section on how the assessors are going to be checking on societal and economic impact.
But after some digging, and uncertain 'we'll get back to you's when I phoned the MRC, the message came back: no Impact Plan is needed, though the Case for Support does need to give a nod to impact. The sense I get is that the MRC are not entirely on board with the impact agenda, and take the impact of their research as a given.
It will be interesting to see what happens when they go over to JeS system in the autumn, though...

Friday, 14 May 2010

BA Faces up to Possible Cuts

The British Academy President, Professor Sir Adam Roberts, sent out a letter last week that covered various matters, including the prospect of cuts in their funding. In it he stated:

'Thought is also being given to an altogether grimmer matter: how to cope in the event of significant cuts to the Academy’s government grant, on which we rely for almost everything that we do. This would inevitably be painful: there may be valuable and productive programmes or activities in respect of which difficult decisions will need to be taken. When we consulted Sections in January, there was a clear message that we must do all we can to sustain postdoctoral fellowships and small research grants, with perhaps less of a priority to be accorded to BARDAs. Various scenarios are being examined, which Council will consider in June'.

The BARDA success rate is already in single figures, so we'll wait to hear with interest what decision they come to in June.

Proposal to Simplify EC's Funding Process Published

Good news from Europe: an EC proposal to cut the bureaucratic nightmare of applying to the Framework Programme has been published. It's intended to cut the byzantine rules governing the negotiation of the funding contract, but retain the necessary accountability and transparency.

The proposals also suggest that the payment procedures be simplified, including allowing researchers to submit expenses claims in full rather than having to submit hundreds of smaller ones for individual items. Researchers will have to show that project milestones—or outputs—have been met, but they won’t have to account for every single euro.

It is hoped that the proposals will also make the auditing of Framework projects less onerous.

Reported in Research Fortnight, the proposals will suit those applying for funding for basic, or frontier research projects. They are intended to attract more applications from organisations such as small businesses, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the research commissioner, said.

This leaner approach has received widespread praise. “It is a breakthrough on the scale of the ERC,” says Jerzy Langer, a member of Academia Europaea, the European academy of sciences. “As various institutions have different cost systems, this flexibility and understanding will make the programmes much simpler and easier to deal with.”

“One can see the amount of thinking that was put behind this communication [from the Commission],” says Thomas Estermann, a senior programme manager at the European University Association. “Finally this issue is being taken seriously by all players, and it is accepted that some areas of the Framework programme do not work well and need to be addressed.”

The Commission’s proposals will now be forwarded to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, who will discuss the paper and publish their responses. Changes to Framework’s legal or financial structures need to be approved by the European Parliament.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Willetts Named as Universities and Science Minister

Research Fortnight is reporting that David Willetts has been named as minister for universities and science. He was previously the Conservative's shadow higher education minister. He will work within the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, under Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary.
Willetts has been given the rank of Minister of State. He is not a Cabinet minister but the Cabinet Office says he will attend Cabinet meetings. Former science minister, Paul Drayson, also attended in this capacity, but held an additional place on Privy Council, which Willetts will not.
Willetts has previously said he would like to delay the Research Assessment Exercise by up to two years and look again at the importance attached by the Labour government to assessing the impact of research in the exercise.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

European Funding and the Current Crisis

Some academics have been in touch expressing concern that the current economic turmoil and bail outs in Europe will affect the EC's research budget. I asked UKRO about this, and they confirmed that they will not affect the budget of FP7. This budget is set in stone and can’t be touched. In fact the amount of money set aside for FP7 Calls each year is increasing up until 2013, so not only is the budget protected, it is actually increasing each year up until that point.
This is an important message as a lot more people are now turning to FP7 for funding given the question marks over national sources of funding, even people that have sometimes been put off in the past.
However, after 2013, when it comes to FP8, then this is when there is no certainty. A whole new financial perspectives will have to be agreed and whilst we are still some way from that point it would be foolish to assume that Member States, most of whom will still be battling to cut deficits then, will be as keen to contribute as much as they did in the past.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Germany Sets Out its Stall for FP8

Germany has published a position paper on FP8. This lays out its thoughts on how the new Framework Programme should shape up. Nerves are obviously jangling around the Bundestag around the question of raising the budget, but otherwise it's quite a thoughtful paper. Here are the main points in summary:
  • Policy - FP8 should make a major contribution towards implementing the five Ljubljana initiatives central to the development of the ERA;
  • Central areas of FP7 should be continued - such as collaborative research, frontier research (ERC), SME measures, transnational and intersectoral mobility, research infrastructures and international co-operation;
  • Co-operation Specific Programme – should be continued (and that collaborative research continues to be the core of the FP);
  • Grand Challenges - research and development should contribute to the grand challenges of our time, such as climate, energy, mobility, digital society and health. Research aims should be developed for the coming decade and the FP specific programmes should work towards realising these aims. However, the aims must be open to all types of technologies and solutions, so that lead markets can be developed;
  • Key Technologies Specific Programme – this should be introduced to strengthen Europe’s industries;
  • Innovation - FP8 should contribute towards implementing the ‘innovation union’ of the EU 2020 Strategy. There should be an Innovation Specific Programme, and the EIT should be integrated into FP8, as well as innovation measures from the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP). The involvement of SMEs as drivers of innovation should be increased. Funds should be concentrated on strategic technologies and fields related to social challenges. This would support knowledge transfer. Research and innovation activities should be better linked and this should be integrated across FP8. There should also be infrastructure development, standardisation, education programmes and measures to support important lead markets. European Technology Platforms should become Technology and Innovation Platforms, and should also draft innovation strategies for the development of lead markets. There should be a ‘European High-Tech Strategy’. There could be further synergies within the knowledge triangle, and the EUREKA and EUROSTARS programmes could be integrated into FP8;
  • European Research Council (ERC) - this should be strengthened. The ERC should consider funding cross-border projects of excellent institutions or other structured measures;
  • Marie Curie Actions - researcher mobility is important and should be supported;
  • Peer review and the importance of excellence - scientific and technological excellence must be the decisive criterion for choosing projects in all FP areas and may not be weakened under any circumstances in favour of cohesion objectives. Cohesion instruments such as structural funds should on the other hand strengthen the development of excellence. More evaluators (peer reviewers) from industry should be used;
  • FP monitoring and evaluation - ex-post evaluations of the previous FPs should be used to develop future FPs. Monitoring the FP should be the responsibility of CREST (Comité de la recherche scientifique et technique);
  • International collaboration - FP8 should be open to international collaboration which should be included even more strongly in the thematic priorities than in FP7, and that there should be close co-ordination between FP Programme Committees and the Strategic Forum for International Co-operation (SFIC), with FP8 promoting the implementation of the SFIC roadmap;
  • Infrastructures - the co-ordination of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) and the infrastructure activities of FP8 should be strengthened. Existing infrastructures outside ESFRI that require European integration should also be supported under FP8;
  • Joint Programming - should be driven by Member States, use primarily existing instruments, and be financed by Member States and the FP;
  • SMEs - 15% of the FP budget should be used for SMEs if possible, primarily for their participation in collaborative projects, although SME specific funding measures should be continued – smaller projects which can rapidly be implemented should also be introduced;
  • Policy oriented research - should be funded within the thematic priorities;
  • On funding instruments:
    • New instruments should only be introduced with good judgement; the number should remain constant;
    • the Collaborative Project (CP) must continue to be the standard tool of the FP;
    • Networks of Excellence (NoEs) have often not been successful and should not be continued in the current form. They could be replaced by an instrument which aims at the formation of research and innovation-driven clusters consisting of public and private institutions and aiming at the pooling and joint use of R&D resources, the coordination of research and innovation activities, staff exchanges and knowledge transfer as well as the joint implementation of application-oriented projects (competence centres);
    • Co-ordination and Support Actions (CSAs), including ERA-NETs and ERA-NET+ should be continued. ERA-NET+ should be used to implement Joint Programming too;
    • Measures under Article 185 (ex 169) and Joint Technology Initiatives under Article 187 (ex 171) are welcomed in principle; in some areas however, currently complex procedures can be simplified. The Public Private Partnerships (PPP) created within the framework of the EU recovery plan have proved to be much less bureaucratic than the technology initiatives created under Article 187 (ex 171). To simplify things for applicants, these measures should be implemented by applying the FP rules for participation and the general legal FP framework;
    • A central problem of EU research funding is the growing diversification of EU programmes and instruments – this growing complexity and fragmentation of EU research funding and makes participation in the FP difficult. In future, a coordinated set of rules with simple and clear structures as well as standardised and co-ordinated procedures must be established;
    • Whilst collaborative projects and ERA-NET/ERA-NET+ should be continued, there should be increased funding opportunities for unconventional or risky projects;
    • There should be more demonstration projects;
  • On simplification:
    • The paper contains a whole section on simplification;
    • There should be considerable simplifications to procedures, characterised by mutual trust and the acceptance of nationally tested and recognized procedures – but transparency and fairness should be maintained;
    • Some interesting points raised include are:
      • Flat rates - the option of applying fixed rates when calculating project costs should be broadened to include the reimbursement of personnel costs in all programme areas. The possibility of using fixed rates for accounting, however, should never be obligatory or exclude the billing of actual costs. Fixed rates should be based on country-specific cost rates. Marie Curie fixed rates are a proven basis for reimbursements of personnel costs;
      • VAT - should be an eligible cost, which is possible after the amendment of the Financial Regulation and is applied in other programmes; and
      • Start dates - all projects should start no later than nine months after the deadline, with negotiations being simplified.

ESRC Announces College Members

The ESRC has annouced the 1800 academics who will make up the Peer Review College, under their new peer review system. They will serve for four years (two initially, followed by a two year extension) from 1 July 2010.
Full details of the membership is available here.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Wellcome Announces Details of its New Awards

Wellcome has given details of its new 'Investigator' Awards, that will replace its current project awards. There'll be two types: New Investigator and Senior Investigator. Both provide £100-£425k per year for up to seven years. For the New Investigator Award you need to have less than five years from appointment to your first academic position.
At the point of application, researchers will no longer be expected to provide a detailed methodological description of how their work will be carried out or a line-by-line budget. The application form will ask researchers to outline their research vision, their approach to answering their key research questions and the approximate costs needed.
They say that they do not intend to make a pre-determined number of Investigator Awards per year. If you're unsuccessful the first time, you can apply again, but only after one year (for new investigators) or two years (for senior investigators). Applicants do not need to be already in position at their host institution, but there does need to be a written guarantee by the host.
The first round of applications for Investigator Awards will open on 1 October 2010, with the first awards due to be made in May 2011.More detail, including FAQs, is available here.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Australians Gear Up for their First REF

An interesting article in the Times Higher about the Australian equivalent of the REF, the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA). No funding allocation is based on its results - yet. But it's interesting to see that they will be using a 'basket of metrics' - considered by HEFCE but ultimately thought to be too unreliable in the UK. In particular, the idea of grading the journals that articles appear in comes in for some criticism: who decides on this ranking?

Nuffield Relaunches Small Grants Scheme

After a hiatus of almost a year, the Nuffield Foundation has re-launched its Social Science Small Grants Scheme. Previously the remit of the scheme was wide open, but they've decided to be more prescriptive about its areas of interest, and have increased the amount available. The Foundation is now offering grants of up to £15,000 for research projects in line with the Foundation’s areas of interest including:
  • Children and families
  • Education
  • Law and society
  • Older people and their finances
  • Government, law-making and constitutional change
  • Poverty and disadvantage
  • Cross national comparisons
  • Reviews of government policy or practice
  • Development in Africa

Applications will be considered until the end of 2010. Full guidance and further information is available from the Foundation’s website.

The also mention, in the letter to Deans, that they are 'likely to take a different and
more strategic approach to fostering social science research capacity from 2011, to provide
funding that will increase quantitative research skills and other research skills in other areas
of long-term interest to the Foundation through some sort of centres competition. We
expect to have reached a final decision and make a public announcement in the autumn of

More Demand Management from EPSRC

The EPSRC has issued guidance on the number of applications it will accept to it's Postdoc Fellowships in the Mathematical Sciences.
This year it will only accept five per institution. In subsequent years, it will alter this allowance, depending on the quality of applications submitted previously, according to the following criteria
  1. The cap will increase by one if all proposals submitted by that research organisation ranked above the quality cut- off as determined by the peer review panel.
  2. The cap will remain constant if between 70% and 100% of proposals submitted by that research organisation ranked above quality cut-off.
  3. The cap will decrease by one if between 50% and 70% of proposals submitted by that research organisation ranked above quality cut-off.
  4. The cap will decrease by two if less than 50% of proposals submitted by that research organisation ranked above quality cut-off.
A minimum of two applications per research organisation will be guaranteed at any given year (independently of the above table). Also, no more than eight proposals will be accepted by any research organisation at any given time.
Every year, the Sift Panel will be asked to draw the quality cut-off, which will be used to determine variations on the number of proposals for the following year. EPSRC will email HoDs and Research Offices to tell them how many applications can be submitted.
At the moment this cap is being limited to the Mathematical Sciences, which is particularly oversubscribed. I called them to get a sense of whether it would be rolled out into other areas, and they were adamant that they would not. But watch this space...