Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Future of Marie Curie after 2013

UKRO has been listening to Dr. Georges Bingen, Head of the Marie Curie Actions Unit, speak about the future of the Marie Curie actions. As some of you know, Marie Curie actions are fellowships intended to encourage movement of researchers in Europe. Whilst popular and successful, the actions have been criticised for being overly complex.

Dr Bingen suggested that, after 2013, they could be streamlined so that there were just three:

  • one for early stage researchers (ESRs), which would be a development of the current Initial Training Networks (ITNs). Industrial participation would be crucial for this scheme.
  • one for experienced researchers (ERs), which would possibly merge the three current Individual Fellowship schemes: the Intra-European Fellowships Scheme, the International Incoming Fellowships Scheme and the International Outgoing Fellowships scheme.
  • and one for staff exchanges, which would be a single, more open integrated programme allowing for collaboration/exchanges across sectors and between countries inside and outside of the EU.
As with research funding more generally after 2013, Marie Curie will have to fit squarely within the vision of an 'Innovation Union'. Finally, there is likely to be a focus on ‘alumni services’: there have been 50,000 Marie Curie fellows since 1996, and there is currently no central database of all of them. Again, this is likely to be initiated in the 2012 People Work Programme.


Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Peer Review Panel Archetypes

Another great post from Prof Athene Donald, which chimes in with what our own Prof Mick Tuite spoke about in his recent talk. Delicacy has meant that I drew a veil over his own descriptions of panel archetypes - you have to come along to his next Grants Factory talk to find out how he defined his fellow members! - but Prof Donald provides a great typology, including:
  • Dr Mouse: inaudible, tentative - and ubiquitous;
  • Dr Underprepared: but always an excuse on hand for his being so...
  • Drs Centre of Attention & Bore: a Jekyll and Hyde combination, holding centre stage at the opposite end of the spectrum from Dr Mouse.
Read the rest of her excellent and eye-opening blog for more on those - and other - archetypes. And do make sure you come along for Mick's next talk to get his take.

Impact: a Scientist Speaks

A great blog entry from Athene Donald, Professor of Physics at Cambridge. She's currently Chair of Committee C of the BBSRC, so has seen a few Pathways to Impact statements in her time. She knows how vague and aspirational most of them are. 'Whatever it is they are going to do,' she says, 'it will solve all the ills of mankind, revolutionise the production of something or other and allow us to fly to the moon. This is not really helpful.'

Instead, applicants should focus on the quantifiable. 'Surprisingly often a committee member will want to know about the economics,' says Donald. What is thi size of the problem? How many people suffer from the disease you will cure? What is the potential size of the market? Do some background research, and give some figures. Similarly, for outreach work, be explicit about exactly how many schools you hope to visit, how many public lectures you hope to give, how many articles you will write for the general public.
Finally, don't make the mistake of resting on your laurels and talking about how many patents you've secured in the past. Look to the future and explain what you're going to do, and how past experience might facilitate it.

She finishes by asking you to take pity on weary panellists.

'You should consider that I and my colleagues will have read dozens of these statements over a rather short period of time in the run-up to the committee meeting, so have some thought that just maybe my eyes glaze over when faced with yet another page of statements along the lines of:

This proposal aims to develop new functionalities of [insert generic technology here] to support the next generation [insert protocol here] which will transform the production of [insert your favourite molecule here]. We will concentrate, just as we always have, on writing lots of peer-reviewed papers and travelling the world to exotic places to talk to our friends at high level conferences.


Do please take a few minutes and read her blog entry in full. It could make or break your Research Council application.

Friday, 11 February 2011

'No FP8' Shock

The Commissioner for Science, Research and Innovation, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn is quoted in this week's Times Higher as saying that there will be no Framework Programme 8.

Blimey. But read on, and her grand vision becomes clearer. Speaking before the FP8 Green Paper was launched earlier this week, Ms Geoghegan-Quinn said that "we have been told that the bureaucracy is too much, that there is a huge administrative burden...European research funding is currently spread across too many small programmes...(and) in some cases there are different rules and procedures between them, making it more complicated to apply for funding."

So, instead of a speparate FP8 there will be a merged programme with the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme and European Union funding for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. This central funding pool - the Common Strategic Framework - will allow researchers to make just one application for funding from all streams, and successful applicants will face just one accounting system when they receive a grant.

Simples, as that irritating meerkat says. Well, let's hope so. Thing is, there's been talk in the past about simplifying European funding, and it's not materialised yet. We'll watch and wait.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Wellcome to Introduce Investigator Awards in Humanities

As some of you long term grant watchers will know, Wellcome introduced 'Investigator Awards' in biomedicine some time ago. These were intended to release excellent researchers from the treadmill of having to reapply for project funding. Instead, Wellcome would identify the 'brightest researchers with the best ideas' and give them enough money to keep them going for some time.

Well, now they're rolling out the Awards to the Medical History and Humanities. They plan a May 2011 launch of the Senior/New Investigator schemes in this area, with a Sept 2nd 2011 first round deadline. They're suggesting that there may not need to be a CV check in these disciplines because they anticipate fewer applications. The Awards must be historically-grounded, and driven by historical methodologies.

Elsewhere, they're hoping to (ahem) 'homogenise' the plethora of smaller grant schemes they have in this area, such as research expenses, travel grants, conferences, symposia etc.

So keep an eye on Wellcome's website, and let me (or, more likely, my colleague Lynne Bennett who deals with the Humanities Faculty) know if you're interested in these awards, and we'll update you when more information is available.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Grants Factory at the Hospital

Last year we planned to run a Grants Factory at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital. Unfortunately the weather intervened, and it was snowed off.

Well the good news is it's been rescheduled, and will be taking place on 24th February 2011, 9.30am-12.00pm in the Tutorial Room, Canterbury Education Centre, Kent and Canterbury Hospital. Participants will learn practical skills to help them prepare killer funding applications. The session will be led by Prof David Shemmings, following his recent involvement in an ESRC-funded research development programme. These half-day events use the same techniques as Prof Andrew Derrington's popular grant-writing seminars and will be specially aimed at health-related applications.

We hope that a variety of University and NHS staff with an interest in research will attend so that there will be an opportunity to network with interested parties and initiate new collaborations.

Places are limited so please let Karen Allart know as soon as possible if you would like to participate.

Friday, 4 February 2011

New ERC 'Proof of Concept' Grant

UKRO have found out more about the new ERC 'Proof of Concept' (PoC) scheme. As many of you will know, the ERC currently runs two schemes: the Starting Grant and the Advanced Grant. The PoC will be a third string to their bow. It was mooted in October, and is intended to provide translational funding to speed outcomes of research on to the market place. The PoC will only be available for those who already have an ERC award, although it doesn't have to be on exactly the same subject. UKRO gives this example: the PoC grant could be looking at commercialising discoveries made during an ERC grant such as a marker for cancer, even if the orginal grant was not about cancer, but the researchers happened to find a cancer marker when researching something else. The outcome of a PoC grant will be a package that can then be presented to venture capitalists.

UKRO believe that the first call could be launched on 15 March 2011, with closing dates on 15 June and 8 November 2011. The budget for the calls is expected to be €10m overall. This will be split between the two deadlines. However, if they're inundated at the first deadline they may cancel the November round. The intention is that applicants will be able to resubmit to future rounds.

From this pot roughly 66 projects may be funded (each project being worth up to €150k). There are currently about 1,600 ERC grant holders who may apply, but many of these grants are in the early stages, so it is hard to estimate how many proposals will be received.

UKRO believe the proposal format will be:
  • a 7 page application long, with additional attachments such as 'letters of support', which will include the following sections:
  • A short description of the idea and its relation to the previous ERC grant (although this is not specifically judged during peer review, it is still likely to be checked by the ERC Executive Agency staff);
  • Outline an early-stage innovation strategy for the idea;
  • Outline a reasonable and plausible plan of the activities; and
  • Budget: list of requested resources and proper justification.
UKRO go on to give more info on the assessment criteria and the peer review process. To find out more, go to the UKRO site, which is restricted to subscribers (of which the University of Kent is one).

Do note, however, that this is early information, and details could well change, so treat with caution.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

In the Belly of the Beast: the Peer Review Panel

Another day, another great talk. This time it was part of the Grants Factory series that has been running since last year. Prof Mick Tuite gave some insights into how peer review panels work in practice. Mick's had over 25 years experience of sitting on review panels for both research councils and charities, and has seen many changes. These include:
  • The process has become slower and more involved;
  • The number of non-academics and admin staff on the panels has increased;
  • Funders are finding it increasingly hard to get reviewers to look at applications. He suggested that funders were having to ask 3 academics for every 1 review they got back.
  • The overall quality of applications had gone up. When he'd started roughly 50% of them were poorly written and/or unfundable. These days almost all were well formatted, well thought out, and over 90% were 'internationally competitive'.
This made the panel's job extremely difficult. They were having to be tougher, and on average each application had only 2 minutes worth of discussion before its fate was decided. This was partly because the 'introducing members' (IMs) were expected to have read the application in full beforehand, and be able to recommend whether to prioritise it to the rest of the panel.

With this in mind, some key messages follow on from this:
  • Try and find out who's on the panel, and particularly who is likely to be your IMs;
  • Get to know them, and, if possible, make them aware of you and your work;
  • Take time to really work on your Lay Summary. This is crucial, as it is the first part (and sometimes the only part) of the application that the non-IMs will read. Make your project clear, important and achievable;
  • Use clear formatting, a readable font, and make sure you avoid sloppy and avoidable typos and grammar;
  • When responding to referees' statements, keep it succinct, courteous, and include new information if necessary.
Mick finished but summarising some of the different 'types' of panel members. I'm sure many of these will ring true for those of you who have sat on panels, and I'd recommend you coming along next time Mick delivers the talk to see what you're up against.

If you're in the process of drafting an application, get in touch with us and well help you polish and prepare your proposal so that it has the best chance of succeeding with the panel.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Medical Research & Non-Standard Funding: Notes from a Seminar

I went along to an excellent PVC's Lunchtime Seminar this afternoon on medical research and non-standard sources of research funding. There were 30-40 others there with me, from the University and beyond (including the NHS), and we heard from four people with different experiences in this area.

Prof Darren Griffin kicked things off by outlining his experience of working with charities, and how this differed from the more conventional Research Council route. In Darren's view, Research Councils had got to the stage whereby the appilcation process was akin to a bureaucratic lottery, and the monitoring of awards could be burdensome. Charities, by contrast, were more interested in flexible partnership. However, one should carefully target which charities to approach:
  • is your research relevant to the stated (and unstated) aims of the charity?
  • are you likely to have results that will fulfil the goals of that charity?
  • do you have personal connections with the charity?
  • what can you do to help promote the charity, by acting as an advocate or directly fundraising for them?
Charity funding varied hugely, and he demonstrated this range by highlighting a number of recent awards at Kent, from £1.7m to £150. It is useful, therefore, to have in mind a 'tariff' so that a charity can get a sense of what can be funded. For instance:
  • £1m would fund a 5 year programme;
  • £300k would fund a 3 year postdoc;
  • £10k would fund 1 year of consumables;
  • £1k would fund reagents;
  • right down to £100 for a micropipette or £50 for a printer.
Prof Bill Gullick and Mary Buchanan then spoke about the work of the Kent Cancer Trust. KCT was established six years ago to bring together clinicians and scientists in the county to develop new treatments based on observed patient need. Mary is Chair of Trustees of the KCT. KCT had provided small amounts of funding that had been effective in enabling research, often at PhD level. One example was £8k for a studentship that enabled a MPhil student to carry on to do a PhD. The student had then raised £5k herself for consumables, and had the potential to have a considerable effect in the fight against cancer.

The final speaker was Alison Coles of the Development Office. She spoke about philanthropic donations, and how she can help in facilitating interactions between faculty and donors. She also highlighted both internal and external matched funding schemes. Interestingly, she noted that whilst a number of academics had come forward to enquire about funding, none had done so for health research. Bill suggested that this is something that those in the audience should remedy.

The session ended with a discussion of some of the issues raised in the talks. If you would like slides from the seminar, do get in touch. Alternatively, if you'd like to find out about the next events in PVC's Lunchtime Seminar series, have a look at the dedicated page here.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

New Website - Same Terrible Functionality

About two years ago I was invited up to London to take part in a focus group run by the ESRC. They recognised that their website was not ideal, they said, and they wanted to get the views of the users as to how it could be improved. Well, as you can imagine if you've ever had to use the ESRC's website, we all let rip. That should give them enough to be getting on with, we thought.

Well, two years later, and the new website's been unveiled. It's sleek, with plenty of white background. It's less crowded and busy, which is good. However, it's still got an awful, awful search function. Try searching for 'Research Grants'. And this is what you get. Which is fine if you want to read a lot of end of award reports, but not otherwise.

The problem the site has always had is it's trying to do too much. It wants to be a repository and an advocate for Social Science research, as well as a source of information and guidance on those who want funding. And it ends up doing both badly, and choking up the search function with lists of previous research.

If you look for 'Research Grants' via the 'Funding and Guidance' tab at the top instead of via the search function, you're taken to a sub menu of 'funding opportunities' and 'guidance'. What? Surely there's a huge amount of overlap here? If you're looking for pportunities, what you're really looking for is guidance on how to apply? Aren't you?

Or am I being obtuse? Still, having a separate tab for 'funding opportunities' does give them the opportunity to list all the schemes which they're closing...