Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Notes from Leverhulme Visit

There was a good turnout in the Senate yesterday to listen to a talk by Prof Sir Richard Brook, Director of the Leverhulme Trust. He was an engaging speaker, and his talk stimulated a good discussion around the philosophy and function of the Trust.

The Leverhulme Trust was founded on a bequest left by the soap baron and founder of the Lever Bros, Lord Leverhulme, in 1925. It had a simple remit to provide ‘scholarships for education and research.’ This has been interpreted broadly since then, and it provides about £50m worth of funding per year for people (rather than infrastructure and equipment) across the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

The Trust Board is the most important body within the Trust. It decides on policy, but it also decides on who gets the awards. So it’s worth spending a little time on understanding its membership and thinking. It is made of ex-Unilever employees, almost all of whom have been the CEO of the company. They are not academics, and many don’t have a background in the UK. So they’re straight talking, straight acting businessmen, often with an international background. With this in mind, the Board should be viewed as:
  • Generalist: They don’t understand your discipline. Unless it’s business, of course, in which case you should be very, very careful...
  • Decisive: these are businessmen. Don’t flannel. Tell it like it is. And they’ll tell you if they think you’re worth backing.
  • Resistive to fashion: don’t bang on about impact, or the REF, or how your research fits with whatever government initiative. It won’t wash. They don’t care.
What they do like are projects which have:
  • Originality;
  • Forward significance;
  • Lateral significance (i.e. significance for other disciplines);
  • Risk.
In addition, the icing on the cake would be:
  • A clear individual vision;
  • An apparent fresh direction;
  • An unawareness of traditional disciplinary boundaries.
And whatever you do, make sure your project avoids:
  • ‘empire sustenance’: I’ve been ploughing this furrow for the last 30 years, I’ve got a lab of 20 people dependent on me, and this project will sustain them.’ No.
  • ‘initiative sustenance’: just because your area has been dropped as a priority by another funder, it doesn’t mean that Leverhulme will be interested.

What they’re completely bored with are applicants who:
  • Make a claim to status entirely in metrics (eg how many 4* publications, which journals, which award, on which panel etc)
  • Think there’s some kind of hidden agenda. Really, there isn’t.
  • Talk in jargon. Remember, they’re non-academic generalists.

Sir Richard made it clear that Leverhulme was refereshingly unfettered by the political demands of government, and that it ‘tries to avoid rules’. Above all, it wants to fund interesting research that has the potential to make a difference to the individual, to their discipline, and to others more broadly. To this end it doesn’t so much encourage interdisciplinary research as research that is blind to subject distinctions – what he called a ‘disdain for disciplinary boundaries.’

You could almost hear the collective release of breath from those in the room. At last! A funder with the imagination and freedom to fund what they want, untethered from the policy fashions du jour.

If you want to find out more about Leverhulme and its schemes, or would like help with putting together an application, do get in touch.

1 comment: