Thursday, 31 March 2011

Are Friends Electr(on)ic?

The MRC has announced that it will be using the Joint Electronic Submission System (JeS) from now on. The other Research Councils have been using it for some time. Medical researchers may be unsure whether to break out the champagne or the black crepe. Whilst the MRC's own EAA system was far from perfect, JeS does have a habit of bewildering and confusing newcomers. All those sections! All those attachments! Do get in touch if you want a quick tour through the system. Once you get used to it the advantages do begin to become apparent, such as the facility for sharing your application with others.

Incidentally, I was interested to read about Impact in the MRC's announcement. Some of you will remember that the MRC was, at best, agnostic about the merits of predicting the impact of its research. Indeed, one very senior MRC officer once described impact to me as 'bullsh*t'. To them, the impact of their funded research was part of their raison d'etre, and having to explain it beforehand was almost demeaning.

Well, now that they're part of the JeS congregation they have to sing from the same hymn sheet, however much the words stick in their throats. In somewhat cool terms they describe themselves as being part of 'an RCUK project' that would 'encourage researchers to be actively involved in thinking about who could benefit from their research.' Makes the whole impact agenda sound a little like an intriguing play thing, a tentative pilot project that probably won't come to anything. Not the hoop-jumping administrative behemoth it's been for the rest of us for the last couple of years.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

'Haldanegate'

The spat within the humanities community over allegations in Sunday's Observer that the AHRC had been forced to include the 'Big Society' in its research plans has now got its own name: haldanegate. I love the delicious combination of irreverence, scandal and hysteria that the name implies.

I mentioned the controversy in a post a couple of days ago, but a more measured (and hilarious) overview of the timeframe of 'haldanegate' has been provided by James Sumner of the University of Manchester. There's also a piece in the most recent Research Professional (issue 365) arguing that, rather than running counter to Haldane, the idea of research serving the needs of government was there from the start. What's different here, as Sumner says, is that the 'Big Society' is a party political initiative. And that's the worry.

In addition, whilst the AHRC has effectively refuted the Observer claims, there's still the question of how the Big Society ended up in the Delivery Plan. In some ways its worse that the Council's arm wasn't twisted: instead, they seem to have offered themselves up willingly to the service of Dave et al.

Finally, whilst the Observer journalist has been shown to have misquoted and conflated the thoughts of Peter Mandler, the chief source for the piece, there's still the question of his allegations over the British Academy. He said that he was talking about the BA rather than the AHRC. This doesn't seem to have been followed up by anyone. Sure, it was a smaller scale funder who was involved, but still...

Haldanegate will rubble on for some time, I think.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Leverhulme Visit: Programme Announced

More details are available about the programme for the visit on Monday 4 April by Professor Sir Richard Brook, Director of the Leverhulme Trust.

Professor Brook is a materials scientist whose career has included Chairs at the Universities of Leeds and Oxford, Director of the Max Planck Institute and Chief Executive of the EPSRC before joining the Leverhulme Trust in 2001.

There are two parts to the day: first, a series of talks by Kent award holders that highlight both the international reach of Leverhulme, and a specific area of interest (i.e. understanding the past). They also demonstrate the range of funding that the Trust offers. The second part is Professor Sir Richard's talk about the work of the Trust. All staff and postgraduate students are welcome to both.

Talks by Kent Award Holders

International Collaborations and Research
  • 11.00 – 11.15 Alan Story (KLS) Research Project Grant - ‘The North to South transplantation of copyright laws and values'
  • 11.15 – 11.30 Professor Donna Landry (School of English) Study Abroad Fellowship - ‘Hoofprinting: Evliya Çelebi and Lady Anne Blunt’
  • 11.30 – 11.45 Professor Sarah Spurgeon (EDA) ‘Visiting Professorship for Professor Utkin’
Understanding the Past
  • 11.45 – 12.00 Professor Ray Laurence (SECL) Research Project Grant - ‘Age and communications in the Roman Empire’
  • 12.00 – 12.15 Professor Alan Chadwick (SPS) Emeritus Professorship - ‘Nanoparticles as agents in conservation’
Talk by Professor Sir Richard Brook
  • 13.15 – 14.30, in the Senate Chamber
If you haven’t already contacted Lynne Bennett, please let her know if you intend coming along to either the award holder talks or the talk by Richard Brook (or both) so that she can get an idea of numbers.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Find a Name for FP8

Don't you just love it? Something to cheer you up on a Monday morning. The EC has launched a competition to name the new framework programme. No, no, none of that 'FP8' talk at the back!
Yes, it's all a bit Multi-coloured Swap Shop, but none the worse for it. So think of a name, ideally something that sums up your experience of European funding, with an acronym that isn't a word for a bodily function in any of the EC's 23 official languages.

Hmm...it's harder than I thought...

You can submit your entries here by 10 May 2011. The winning name will be announced by Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn at the Common Strategic Framework conference in Brussels on 10 June.

Haldane RIP?

For anyone who read the splurge of thematic priorities that was the AHRC Delivery Plan 2011-15, there was an interesting twist to the tale in the Observer on Sunday. Apparently the government had the Council 'over a barrel', and was demanding that they prioritise work on 'the Big Society', otherwise it would withdraw £100m of funding.
It's depressing news. Not only do the arts and humanities already receive the smallest share of the science budget, but a chunk of what they do get now has to be directed towards the spurious goals of the 'Big Society'.
There's a wider issue here. The government's alleged demands infringe on the demarcation between political priorities and independent research marked out in the Haldance principle 90 years ago. Whilst the origin of the principle is up for dispute, it's establishment since the 1960s should be treasured and guarded. Instead, a recent government - ahem - 'clarification' of the principle said (to quote the Observer) 'that research bodies must work to the government's national objectives, although the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that ministers will not meddle in individual projects.'
Not very reassuring. So will researchers take the King's shilling and scrabble aboard the Big Society, or make a stand against this political interference?

Friday, 25 March 2011

ESRC Demand Management: This Time They're Serious

After the ESRC's messed up with its last consultation on 'demand management', which went off half cocked and was only sent out to one sleepy, post-Christmas academic and his dog, the Council is now trying to do it properly. It's issued a new consultation document, and is seeking responses by 16 June 2011.

To be fair to the ESRC, it has, in the interim, developed a more thorough and thoughtful document. Whereas the previous one was a relatively breezy eight pages, the current consultation document is a meaty 25 pages.

And this time they're serious.

They will be introducing an ‘initial programme of measures’, starting in June 2011, which will be a fairly light touch form of demand management. This includes:
  • Universities/individuals having to demonstrate that they are ‘looking at ways to improve self-regulation’.
  • Providing more ‘performance data’ to institutions;
  • Invited-only resubmissions;
  • Earlier ‘sifting’ of applications, and greater use of outline application processes.
They’ll review this after 12 months to see if it’s had any effect. Depending on this, they may look to introduce some further ‘demand management’. They suggest that this could be:
  • Researcher sanctions: limiting the number of applications from individuals who consistently fail to meet an agreed quality threshold – along the lines of the EPSRC’s ‘blacklisting’.
  • Institutional sanctions: limiting the number of applications from institutions which don’t meet an agreed quality threshold. This could take the form of limiting applications to 50% of the number submitted before, followed by a 12 month ban if quality hasn’t improved. Quality threshold may be at least 50% of applications Alpha rated or above each year.
  • Institutional quotas: institutions would be put into one of four quota ‘bands’, based on previous performance, and could be ‘promoted’ or ‘relegated’. The four bands would be: top ten, next twenty, next thirty, and all the rest.
  • Charging for applications: The ESRC is suggesting a maximum of £1k per application, refundable if the application passes a quality threshold.
More details of these proposals are available here.

It’s worth noting that it looks like demand management will come in for all Research Councils, that they’ll be some consistency between them, and that they will expect institutions to have their own peer review systems in place, as suggested on p8 of the document:

‘The Research Councils, where possible, will harmonise their demand management strategies. There is general agreement that HEIs should be encouraged to self regulate with a particular emphasis on structured peer review aimed at the submission of significantly fewer but better quality applications. This self regulation will be underpinned by the regular supply of performance data to institutions alongside better applicant guidance.’

As I said, the deadline for responses is 16 June 2011. You can respond using the form here. They will discuss proposals and announce the outcome in autumn 2011. Once they’ve reviewed the ‘initial programme of measures’, they’ll announce any new measure in October 2012.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Phil Willis: Concentrate Research

The former Chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Phil Willis, has been sounding off in the Times Higher about the future of research in the UK, suggesting that the country needs a "real gloves-off rationalisation of university research".

Echoing the implied (or, in some cases, explicit) call for concentration in the Research Council's Delivery Plans, he suggested that research should be focused in 'no more than 30' universities. The rest should retire gracefully from research, and become US-style liberal teaching only community colleges.

Whilst Willis does not weild as much power and influence as he did as an MP, these are still worrying thoughts. The RAE2008 made positive strides in identifying and rewarding excellent research, wherever it was found. Why penalise pockets of excellence in (let's be frank) non-Russell Group institutions? In some areas of hard science, there may be a case to be made for economies of scale and the sharing of large - and expensive - equipment and infrastructure. But in the social sciences and humanities? Hmm.

Moreover, the concensus is that excellent research informs and drives excellent teaching. Separating the two creates a two tier system, consigning the majority of students to second class teaching, removed from the cutting edge of research, and the elite minority to the ivory towers of excellence.

Separating the two is, I think, a retrograde step. For students at institutions like Kent, on the cusp of that 'no more than 30', as well as all those further down the league tables, there are uncertain times ahead.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

PVC's Lunchtime Seminars: 'Reworking Work'

After the stimulating discussion at the last Lunchtime Seminar, it’s time to look forward to the next, on April 6th.

'Reworking Work'
Wednesday 6th April 2011 12.30-2pm
Keynes Seminar Room 17

This will be the launch event of the University of Kent’s research network on work. Staff from across the University will give short talks on their research followed by a discussion about developing the network in the future. We would especially like to encourage postgraduate students to attend the event.
  • Dr Tim Strangleman, Reader in Sociology, SSPSSR, ‘Visualising Work Identity’
  • Dr David Hornsby, Senior Lecturer English Language and Linguistics, SCEL, 'Language, work and social network'
  • Dr Patricia Lewis, Senior Lecturer in Management, KBS, 'Revealing Masculinities and Femininities in Entrepreneurship'
  • Dr Joachim Stoeber, Reader in Psychology, School of Psychology, ‘Personality at Work’
  • Dr Dawn Lyon, Lecturer in Sociology, SSPSSR, ‘Working Bodies and Space’
A light lunch will be available from 12:30pm. Do let me know if you intend to come so that I can arrange the catering.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Less Money = More Interesting Research?

An interesting, dissident blog entry from 'Science Punk' Frank Swain. Whilst making a Radio 4 documentary he interviewed Jaroslav Flegr, a Czech academic who claimed that 'the relatively meagre funding available [to his research team] had led them to study areas overlooked by bigger institutions. If more money had been available, he said, there would have been a pressure to design complex experiments in order to justify (and receive) large grants.'

An interesting idea. Frank asks for the thoughts of others. The comments that follow seem to (generally) concur. 'Jim', the third person to comment, suggests that 'I can think of any number of labs in my field that feel the need to 'sex up' their research proposals with fancy equipment, and also look (often in a rather contrived manner) for international collaborators and other tick boxes that make for sexy applications.'

Taken to its natural conclusion, might it be seen that research funding (or rather, the way it's distributed and the unintended consequences that lead on from this) is actually bad for research?

What are your views? Is there truth in this, or is he barking up the wrong tree? Do go on to his blog and add your thoughts.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Thoughts on the 'Vocation' Lunchtime Seminar

I went along to the excellent Lunchtime Seminar yesterday. A wide ranging panel tackled the concept of vocation from different perspectives: Iain Mackenzie looked at the vocation of teaching, Stefan Rossbach considered the religious vocation, Abdulrazak Gurnah the artistic or writer’s vocation, and Farzin Deravi the academic. There was a refreshing disagreement amongst the panellists on how vocation should be understood, and the audience engaged and challenged them. Issues of excellence, professionalism, commitment, sacrifice, responsibility and visibility were raised, and these were interrogated and questioned to see if they were integral or irrelevant to vocation.

Talking to people afterwards, I got the sense that the discussion had energised and inspired people, but that it had also raised awareness of people and ideas outside of their immediate disciplines. It was what I’d always wanted the series to be: a chance to take an hour out of the academic routine to look beyond your own School and find out what’s happening elsewhere on campus, and potentially be stimulated by alternative disciplinary viewpoints.

There are two Seminars left this year: ‘Reworking Work’ on 6 April, and ‘Violent and Non-violent Protest’ on 11 May. Do come along if you are able.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

ARMA Election Shock

Exciting news from a tense election night at the Association of Research Managers and Administrators. In a result that would have moistened with tears of pride the eyes of a Politburo member, the ARMA cadre nominated each other for election and were duly returned unopposed, as follows:
  • Director of Training and Deputy Chairperson of the ARMA Board 2011: one valid nomination was received from Mrs Jill Golightly, Newcastle University: proposed by Pauline Muya (Birkbeck College, University of London) and seconded by Douglas Robertson (Newcastle University). Mrs Golightly is declared elected and no ballot is therefore necessary.
  • Director of Conference Planning of the ARMA Board 2011: one valid nomination was received from Mr David Coombe, London School of Economics and Political Science: proposed by Lita Denny (University of Manchester) and seconded by Linda Parker (King`s College London). Mr Coombe is declared elected and no ballot is therefore necessary.
  • Treasurer of the ARMA Board 2011: one valid nomination was received from Ms Steff Hazlehurst, Institute of Education, University of London: proposed by Peter Townsend (Loughborough University) and seconded by Ian Carter (University of Sussex). Ms Hazlehurst is declared elected and no ballot is therefore necessary.
  • Non-Executive Director of the ARMA Board 2011 (three years): one valid nomination was received from Dr Stephen Conway, University of Oxford: proposed by Kathy Brownridge (University of Leeds) and seconded by Jill Golightly (Newcastle University). Dr Conway is declared elected and no ballot is therefore necessary.
  • Non-Executive Director of the ARMA Board 2011 (one year): one valid nomination was received from Dr Nathaniel Golden, Keele University: proposed by Sheena Bateman (Keele University) and seconded by Katie Holland (Nottingham Trent University). Dr Golden is declared elected and no ballot is therefore necessary.
Yes, yes, I know, this fabulous result is due to apathy from the rest of us. But maybe there's a lesson to be learnt from this, and ARMA should push for wider participation from the sector, before it disappears into its own navel.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Visit by Director of Leverhulme Trust

Professor Sir Richard Brook, Director of the Leverhulme Trust, will be visiting the University on Monday 4 April. Although the final timings for the programme are yet to be finalised, we are expecting him to give his talk to University staff at about 1.15pm in the Senate Chamber (J12 on this map). There will also be a series of brief talks by Leverhulme award holders from 11.00am (also in the Senate Chamber) – again the programme has yet to be finalised.

My colleague Lynne Bennett will circulate the final programme once it is available. Please let her know if you intend coming along to either the award holder talks or the talk by Richard Brook (or both) so that she can get an idea of numbers.

The picture's not Richard Brook, in case you were wondering...it's the man on whom the Leverhulme Trust is built, William Lever, the 1st Viscount Leverhulme himself.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

ERC: Rumours of a New Collaborative Grant Scheme

Hot on the heels of the news that the ERC would be rolling out a new 'Proof of Concept' scheme (which will probably be launched on 17 March), the word on the funding street is that the Council is planning a fourth scheme.

Provisionally called 'ERC Plus', my understanding is that it will provide funding for more collaboraitve research than is currently offered by the two current schemes. Thus, you will be expected to have between 2 - 4 investigators, all of whom should have a stellar track record. The intention is that ERC Plus projects will be 'more than the sum of their parts.' Together, the investigators will achieve more.

Initial signals are that it will have a 'pilot' round, offering €15om, with consortia able to apply for up to €15m for up to 6 years. So expect a rush of applications and resultant poor success rates. Keep an eye on the ERC website as details of the scheme are unveiled, probably when the next Work Programme is published.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

PVC's Lunchtime Seminars: 'Vocation'

The next PVC’s Lunchtime Seminar is due to take place on Wednesday 16 March at 12: 30pm, and will focus on 'Vocation'.

In our target-driven academic culture, it can be difficult for scholars to find a deeper sense of meaning or worth in their research and teaching. This seminar, involving people from a number of different disciplines, is about the nature of ‘vocation’ and what it can tell us about the scholarly enterprise. Drawing on both spiritual and secular approaches, and speaking from personal and theoretical perspectives, the contributors will explore if and how their university work can be seen as a kind of ‘calling’ that transcends the immediate box-ticking requirements of the job. This is important, for it is surely only work done out of real conviction that is of the highest quality.

Those speaking at the event will include:
All are welcome; as ever, the seminar is intended to be of interest to those working in a wide range of disciplines. The event will take place in Keynes Lecture Theatre 6 (KLT6). Lunch will be available at 12:30pm, and the talks and discussion will be between 1 – 2pm. Do let me know if you would like to come so that I can arrange catering.

The Tough & Uncertain Life of a Postdoc

An interesting column from Jennifer Rohn in Nature yesterday. She lifts the lid on the difficult and insecure career path of postdocs, particularly in the life sciences, which is her area. The uncertainty and relatively poor terms and conditions for postdocs is wasting generations of scientists, she argues. What we need instead is a different kind of researcher position, a permanent post with the security and conditions that go with it. Whilst this may appear to be the expensive option, it would have considerable benefits for labs, which won't lose the knowledge and experience every 3 or 4 years.
The idea is supported by the various comments that follow the piece, although all question if and how such a concept would work in practice. Do take time to have a read through to get an insight on the difficulties that postdocs face as they make their way into academia.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

An interesting idea from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The National Health Council is setting up a database of all the projects that were highly rated by NIH but didn't get funded. The idea is that other funders can window shop and may back some of these projects that lost out on federal funding.

Interesting idea, but...well, it's not like there are funders out there with spare millions rattling around their pockets, saying 'if only someone would relieve me of this funding burden!' The impression I get is that all funders are being equally stretched, and all have more worthy calls on their cash than they can ever fund.

But good luck to this. I'd love to be proved wrong.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

REF Panel Members Announced

Just back from a half term break, and catching up on research funding news. The big news last week looks to have been the announcement of the REF panel members. So, just in case you missed it, here are the lists of those on both the main panels and the sub panels:
If you feel slightly out of the loop on things-REF, do get in touch with our REF guru, Clair Thrower , or check our Kent-specific REF webpages.