Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Research Councils Refocus Priorities

As well as the changes at the ESRC, the other Research Councils have announced changes to their funding priorities in light of the Government's budget allocation, which saw 3% cut from all except the MRC:

  • Capital funding will be cut entirely;
  • It will ditch the Creative and Performing Arts Fellowships, Practice-led Research Grants and Applied Route KT Fellowships and Catalyst schemes;
  • It will introduce 4 priorites: digital transformations; translating cultures; care for the futre, and science in culture. In addition, it will invest in 3 areas of 'strategic need': modern languages, design and heritage.
  • It will also increase investment in cross council programmes, especially 'connected communities', 'living with environmental change' and the 'digital economy'.
  • It will up its investment in 'impact' activities, including knowledge transfer, and 'creative economy hubs'.
  • Full Delivery Plan available here.
  • There's a suggestion in the Plan that it will move away from blue skies research: “The intention over this period is to effect a greater alignment of the basic underpinning bioscience investment into the critical strategic priorities within the available funding envelope.”
  • Most of the funding cut will be shouldered by research grants (cut by 6%), although fellowships will take a bigger percentage hit (from £9m to £6m);
  • As with the other councils, it will plough more into impact/knowledge exchange activity;
  • Thus, its priorities will be industrial biotechnology, food security and bioenergy;
  • It will also increase its contributions to cross-council programmes;
  • Full Delivery Plan is available here.
  • EPSRC is positioning itself as a 'sponsor' rather than a 'funder', so it's seeking to provide more strategic leadership, and encourage collaboration with industry.
  • Capital funding cut by 50%. The EPSRC wants to see more sharing of facilities as a result;
  • It will focus on 4 main themes: maufacturing, energy, the digital economy and healthcare technologies. Funding in these areas will increase over the period, whereas more general responsive mode funding will decrease by c£58m pa by the end of the period (2015);
  • Full Delivery Plan available here.
  • Big cuts to its own institutes;
  • However, it will increase external grant funding by £23m by end of period (2015);
  • The Plan seems to draw back from international focus, instead emphasising the importance of meeting national objectives;
  • It also wants to 'concentrate' funding in fewer organisations, although it already gives 4/5ths of its money to just 25 institutions;
  • As with others, it's encouraging more interaction with external organisations, for instance in renewable energy and risk management.
  • Full Delivery Plan available here.
  • MRC was the only Research Council to see an increase in funding.
  • Much of the income rise is set to come from a change in policy that will see the council keep more of the money it makes from commercialisation. This will be reinvested in developing translational medicine.
  • Full Delivery Plan is available here.
  • STFC has split its budget into three streams in order to protect its grants funding from the demands of international activities and currency fluctuations, from which it has taken a hit in the past;
  • Full Delivery Plan available here.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The End of ESRC Small Grants

As Adrian Alsop intimated when he visited in the autumn, the ESRC is going to cut its Small Grants scheme. Instead, it will concentrate its funding support on large projects costing more than £200,000.This is in response to the Government's resource allocation, announced yesterday. The ESRC will receive £5m less per annum by the end of the period.

The Small Grants scheme will end on 1 February, so I'd encourage anyone who was thinking of applying to it to get their skates on. In addition, their minimum level of funding for Standard Grants is £200k per project. As they say in their Delivery Plan, they are focusing their dwindling resources on 'longer, larger grants that deliver ambitious social science'.

The Council will also introduce a 'Future Leaders' scheme, which will replace their Postdoctoral Fellowships and First Grants schemes.

Interestingly, Research Professional has done a close reading of the Delivery Plan, and detects a change in its rhetoric. 'The delivery plan signals a shift from global to UK focus and greater emphasis on impact,' says RP. 'The introduction to the plan makes no mention of the ESRC's formerly prominent commitment to research projects on global poverty or population change and migration.'

Not good news, I'm afraid. If you want to discuss other possible funders for your research, do drop me a line.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Research Councils Welcome Settlement

The Research Councils have greeted the Government's settlement with muted optimism. The allocations were announced by David Willets at a press conference this morning. The £4.6bn per annum funding for science and research programmes has been protected in cash terms and ring fenced against future pressures during the spending review period. HE research funding in England has been included within this ring-fence.

Prof Rick Rylance, the AHRC's chief, said that "in a time of austerity in public spending, the AHRC’s settlement to 2015 is very welcome news indeed. It indicates the Government’s support for the value of the arts and humanities and the major contribution they make to our economic, social and cultural vitality."

Meanwhile the STFC saw the settlment as “extremely welcome." However the STFC Chairman, Professor Michael Sterling, sounded a note of caution, saying that "the next four years [are] not without challenges."

Professor Alan Thorpe, Chair of RCUK, said: “This allocation as part of the 2010 spending review confirms the value that Government has placed on research investment for the UK. In the context of a very difficult public sector settlement, it is very encouraging that the allocations to the Research Councils have fared so well. Of course, to manage within our budgets there will need to be rigorous prioritisation by Councils and some difficult strategic decisions will need to be made. The cut to the capital budgets of the Research Councils will present particularly significant challenges going forwards, but we have a good foundation, and excellence with impact will remain at the core of what we do.”

The full details of the settlement are available here.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Protecting Social Sciences & Humanities within Europe

The University Association for Contemporary European Studies has raised concerns about the Socioeconomic Sciences and Humanities stream (SSH) within the EC's Framework Programme. In particular, it highlighted:
  1. The downgrading of socio-economic and humanities research in DG Research from a department to one single office (taking effect January 1, 2011);
  2. The plan to abolish broader, long-term integrated projects in social sciences and humanities in the 8th Framework Programme. Instead, a focus on "grand challenges" with topics that are more applied than basic research and are supposed to foster European competitiveness on global markets (social science as an ‘auxiliary’ discipline to be mainstreamed into the other sciences);
  3. The downsizing of funding for socio-economic and humanities research projects in the 8th Framework Programme.
So how much truth is there in these concerns, and should we be worried? I turned to UKRO for some answers. They said that there had been a significant re-structuring of the European Commission's Directorate General (DG) for Research. As part of this, the Directorate which previously managed SSH, Directorate L: Science, Economy and Society, has been discontinued.

Is this a sign of the downgrading of SSH in the eyes of the EC? Well, the eurocrats wouldn't see it like this: SSH has been taken over by the new Directorate B: European Research Area, which have equal levels of staffing to the units moved from the old Directorate L. So a structural shift, but the same commitment.

As to the future, nothing concrete has been decided about FP8, in terms of structure, research themes or instruments. However, UKRO thought that it may be possible that it may take more of a 'Grand Challenge' approach. The place of SSH within this is less clear.

If you're concerned about this, make sure your voice is heard by responding to BIS' current Call for Evidence. Before you do, take a couple of minutes to read through UACES' arguments for the importance of keeping SSH, as follows:

Why do we need a European Social Science and Humanities Research programme?
  • The European Union is far more than an economic integration area. It needs SSH research to look at questions of democracy, participation, European identity, multilingualism, social and cultural cohesion, peace and international cooperation.
  • SSH investigate prejudices and give early warnings of dangers and problems in society. Politically sensitive issues are often discussed across the social/cultural border, highlighting the effects of policy on wider society.
Who needs SSH research?
  • SSH researchers engage already in multiple collaborations with public authorities and policy makers, international organisations, think tanks, media, NGOs, churches, business and employee’s organisations, companies, museums, citizen fora etc.
  • Researchers and these collaboration groups fulfil different tasks in society. Researchers are more independent and offer a differentiated analysis with a medium-term view beyond current situations.
  • Politics is complicated and contested by various actors. Researchers cannot give simple answers, but highlight sound criteria according to which decisions should be taken and clarify consequences of policies. They enable policy makers to make decisions based on scientific evidence.
Why does research funding need to come from the European Union?
  • The European Research Area aims to create a European-wide open space for knowledge. Without European funding, cooperation projects with four to ten European partners would not be carried out.
  • Bilateral cooperation cannot replace European projects. Community and national funding are complementary, creating multiple synergies to transfer knowledge from one level to the other.
  • SSH research has only begun in FP5, but seen a huge success in the scientific community.
  • For small research fields, for instance, Chinese or Islamic studies, only very few researchers are established within one member state European research projects enable the necessary exchange.
Doesn't it cost too much?
  • No. About half of the professors at many universities work in SSH, yet less than 2% of the cooperation budget goes to SSH. In FP7, a large number of excellent research proposals could not be supported due to funding limitations. Therefore, the budget for the specific cooperation programme for SSH needs to be doubled in FP8. Even then, SSH would remain the least expensive theme in cooperation.
Which European research funding instruments do we need?
Overall, a framework programme needs to offer four instruments for SSH:
  • More SSH ERC grants are needed, by increasing the absolute budget for SSH.
  • Small- and medium sized cooperation projects (three to ten partners) are the best way to support sustainable innovation. SSH projects are very cost effective, needing only one toive million Euros. These projects bridge between the risky and individual ERC-projects to build a broader consensus involving several institutions. A wide array of topics ensures competition of ideas and enables participation of outstanding young researchers. Topic selection should be made both bottom-up (by the research community) and top-down (by the European political institutions).
  • Only a very small share of the SSH budget should be dedicated to large projects
    (beyond ten million Euros). Research themes should not be monopolised.
  • The funding for Marie-Curie programmes needs to be increased substantially to contribute to excellence and mobility in research. It is extremely important that Marie-Curie programmes are not narrowed down to intersectoral mobility into industry, but also open to public institutions and civil society, briefly mobility into all sectors outlined above.
Why is it not sufficient to open SSH participation to tackle grand challenges such as climate change?
  • While SSH have undoubtedly great contributions to make to various grand challenges, these contributions are complementary to intrinsic SSH research. Intrinsic SSH research is researchers’toolbox to contribute to specific existing questions and to adapt to newly arising challenges.
  • That is not to say that SSH should not also contribute to wider programmes, although interdisciplinary projects need to ensure a larger share of funding for SSH.
What could be improved?
  • To make the process of topic selection even more transparent, the Commission should organise an online consultation (or event) each year before drafting the work programme to give interested researchers the chance to highlight new topics. A roadmap with a few broad themes helps the research community for planning, when keeping a balance with newly upcoming themes.
  • The European Commission should consider a slightly higher European contribution per project partner. It is extremely important that the entire actual research costs are reimbursed.
For more on the University Association for Contemporary European Studies go to their website here.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

KentHealth: Strategic Development Fund

Hot on the heels of its Studentships is another opportunity from KentHealth. The Strategic Development Fund will provide small grants (less than £3k) in order to:
  • encourage the development of a collaborative research culture between the University and health practitioners within Kent;
  • build the University’s capacity to respond to health-related research priorities of the Funding Councils and other external funders;
  • foster collaborative research with non-University health-related research groups in Kent.
Collaborative bids are invited from University and non-University health researchers, as detailed below, and will be considered 4 times a year with the following closing dates for consideration: December 31st2010, March 31st, June 30th and September 30th 2011.

Contact Karen Allart for more details and an application form.

Friday, 10 December 2010

RCUK Success Rates & Demand Management

Interesting piece in the Times Higher this week. The success rate for EPSRC has gone up, from 26% to 30%, whilst many of its sister Councils have seen rates decrease. No surprise there, but it will act as a spur to the others to introduce some form of demand management, as Adrian Alsop of the ESRC suggested in his talk to us in October. He said that the ESRC was considering a range of options, including barring individual serial low achievers,spreading best practice, introducing institutional quotas, or demanding financial deposits.
The case for formalising internal peer review is getting stronger and stronger, a fact recognised by the Directors of Research at their recent Network meeting. However, any system should be supportive, non-bureaucratic and relatively quick. Otherwise it will act as a disincentive, and may put people off from even considering applying. As Oxford's PVC noted in the Times Higher article, 'it is a bit demoralising when you see your proposal has only a 10 per cent chance of success, but it is worse if you exclude ideas from being aired and evaluated.'
Do read the article in full if you get the chance. In the meantime here are the Research Councils' current success rates:

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Grants Factory: 'Eurovision: Is European Funding for Me?'

‘Eurovision: Is European Funding for Me?’
A Grants Factory Event
19 January 2011

Have you been considering applying for European funding, but felt that you don’t know enough about it, or feel that it’s too complicated? The next Grants Factory event is aimed at you. There’s never been a better time to look to Europe, as funding for the Framework Programme is ring-fenced, is not affected by the current economic downturn, and in some areas will actually increase over the next couple of years.

Prof Simon Thompson (Computing) and Jenny Billings (CHSS) will explain what European funding is all about, and will cover:

• Pros and Cons of European funding;
• What it’s really like to apply for, and manage, a European grant;
• Dos and Don’ts in dealing with the Commission.

Both have had substantial experience in getting European funding, and they will talk simply, realistically and honestly about their experience. The University’s representative at the UK’s Research Office in Brussels (UKRO), Andy Smith, will also be on hand to provide more detailed information and advice if needed, and there will be an opportunity to talk to him individually after the event.

The event will take place at 12:30pm on 19th January, and lunch will be provided. All are welcome, but do let me know if you intend to come along so that I can book the catering.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

REF Impact: Case Studies Published

Following the publication of the findings of the REF Impact Pilot Study last month, we now have more idea of what makes a 'good' case study - in HEFCE's opinion. The Funding Council has made available a limited number of the case studies prepared by the participants in the Pilot Study.

To view them, go to the HEFCE site here, and scroll down to the Case Studies at the bottom of the page.

NIHR Seeks Panel Members

The National Institutes of Health Research Trainees Coordination Centre (NIHR TCC) manages a number of different programmes, predominantly for individuals and aimed at applied research with relevance to the NHS. They are seeking members for their Panel, which assesses applications.

I've said it before and doubtless I'll say it again, but I'd encourage anyone with relevant experience to get involved. Being part of the peer review process, and seeing how a funder works, is invaluable for when it comes to writing your own application. It gives you a real insight into the issues, the problems, the choices that have to be faced by the panel members and the funders.

So have a look at their website and complete the Expressions of Interest (EOI) form if you're interested. If you have any questions about the EOI process please contact Dawn Biram or Dawn Burgess by email at

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Problems with Multidisciplinarity

An interesting article in the Times Higher this week highlights the problems that peer review has with multidiscliplinary projects. The example they give is of an article, published by Science, reporting the findings of a multidisciplinary project that claimed to have found a way to identify all enzyme activity in a cell. It turned out that the project had made some fundamental mistakes in the chemical analysis, but that these hadn't been picked up in the peer review of the article because no chemists had been asked to look at it. It was just too multidisciplinary, and not all the scientific bases had been covered.

THE's contention is that current peer review systems are not up to the task of assessing multidisciplinary research. It's just too broad for them, and the journal format is not big enough to contain the shades of grey, and the quantity of data, needed to do the research justice.

Some have suggested that journals should adopt the working practice of funders, whereby individual reviewers provide reports, but a decision is made collectively by a panel.

However, my experience has been that multidisciplinary research, whilst encouraged by the CEOs and strategists at the funders, is often sidelined by the panels. Individual panellists tend to either think that they can't comment on a project which falls outside of their expertise, or will not treat it as a priority as its not squarely within their discipline. Mark Walport, Wellcome's chief, makes a similar point: 'you can end up making decisions on the basis of the least imaginative member of the group.'

There are certainly benefits to be had from multidiscplinary working, but also dangers, as was clear from the Grants Factory workshop earlier this term. I guess the lesson to take away from this is to do your homework and be prepared. See who is in the review college or on the panel, and who is likely to take the lead on your reviewing your application. Look at their background and work out whether they will be hostile to or supportive of your proposal, and try and gear your Case for Support towards their interests or understanding. It's tough, I know, to put in this extra effort, but it might just pay dividends when you're asking reviewers to take a punt on a new, interesting - but ultimately risky - collaboration.