Thursday, 30 June 2011

She Would Say That, Wouldn't She?

Over in Brussels, in an item that will shock no-one, the EC's research commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, is proposing that the research budget be increased for Horizon 2020 (nee FP8). She suggested that it be increased from the €50bn for the current Framework Programme to over €80bn, a rise of some 46%.

To misquote Mandy Rice Davies, well, she would say that, wouldn't she? It might have been more newsworthy if she'd thrown up her hands and said, 'guys, I've been thinking. Perhaps we should slash the research budget, and scrap the post of research commissioner. I mean, who needs it?'

More deliciously, she claims that the proposed increase would be 'better value' for the taxpayer. Which is reassuring: everyone's a winner. The budget will now be considered by the European Parliament and Council, which, as you know, are famous for quick, decisive responses.

I sound cynical, but it would be great if the 46% increase is approved. In a time of recession ploughing money into research and development is one of the safest ways out of it. However, as a news item, 'research commissioner suggests more money for research' ranks alongside 'dog bites man' or 'small earthquake: no-one hurt' as an exciting headline.

Delpy: I'm into Something Good

Prof David Delpy, looking for all the world like an ageing member of Herman's Hermits (or should the be Derek Smalls?), has been interviewed in Physics World. The EPSRC CEO robustly defended the Council's blacklisting procedure, pointing to the fact that the success rate has risen to 30% - way ahead of that of its sister Research Councils.



However, Prof Philip Moriarty, a condensed-matter physicist from Nottingham University, questions what he sees as the arbitrary nature of the blacklisting rules. He suggests that the EPSRC runs "a simple experiment" to test its assumption that grants falling in the bottom half of a ranked list are necessarily of poor quality.

"They should take the same set of proposals, send them out to different referees, and then give them to five different panels [and] look at the correlation in the ranked lists," he says. "If they are so confident that the principle underlying the blacklisting process is robust, then why not do this experiment? It would silence me and all the other critics of the scheme."

Well, don't hold your breath. I think EPSRC are quite happy with the new procedures, thank you very much, and won't be making a move any time soon to test the fairness of their underlying assumptions.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

ESRC Launches Future Leaders Scheme

The ESRC has officially launched its Future Leaders scheme. This scheme was announced in the Council's Delivery Plan in December, and discussed at the London workshop and regional events.

The scheme will use a two part application process, which suggests that the ESRC expects a high number of applications, despite limiting the eligibility to less those with less than four years experience since their PhD (measured as the thesis submission date). This might be a narrow window, but the view's far-reaching (if you'll excuse the tortured metaphor): it's open to people from anywhere in the world, as long as they've got the support of a UK institution.

You can apply for up to £215k (100% fEC - or £172k at 80% fEC, which is what they'll actually give you), for support for up to three years. They aim to fund 70 awards. The deadline for applications is 15 September 2011.

So what will a successful FL project look like? Well, you'll need to have the following:
  • a mentor 'of high international research standing';
  • a programme of research skills development;
  • a programme of knowledge exchange skills development;
  • plans for maximising potential impact, and a 'clear strategy to build relationships and networks with potential beneficiaries and users';
In terms of the type of research they want, it's open, but they're keen on:
  • research proposals involving secondary analysis of existing datasets and the application of innovative research methods;
  • inter/multidisciplinary working both within and beyond the social sciences;
  • international working;
  • strong impact.
That's not much to ask, is it? So really, it's an international multidisciplinary analysis of existing datasets involving end users, or nothing. Get your thinking caps on.

Proposals will be assessed using the following criteria:
  • Originality;
  • Academic potential of applicant;
  • Research design and methods;
  • Collaborations;
  • Outputs and dissemination;
  • Knowledge exchange, including impact plans;
  • Organisational support, including mentor, and commitment of organisation to applicant's career development.
Finally, from what I understand they're not so much looking for applications from established academics, but more from those hoping to enter the profession with the potential to be 4* researchers, who will move into a permanent position when the grant finishes. In addition they expect the applicant's salary to be (at least 40%) match funded by the host university. So in essence it's a little like a combination between the RCUK's erstwhile Academic Fellowships, and the Leverhulme Early Career Fellowships.

Monday, 27 June 2011

New Interim NERC Boss

With Alan Thorpe's imminent move to the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts on 1 July, NERC has announced that Dr Steven Wilson will be caretaker boss whilst they recruit for a permanent replacement.

Looking at Steven Wilson's potted biography on the NERC press release, he looks to be a NERC journeyman. He's been there for 13 years, in various different, shifting roles. Which is quite something, given he looks to be about 12 in the accompanying photo. He was most recently Director, Strategy & Partnerships, with responsibility for developing and implementing the NERC Science & Innovation Strategy. Prior to that he was at the Met Office. Given their - ahem - 'patchy' ability to forecast 'barbecue summers', let's hope he has a better eye for predicting (and coping with) the stormy funding weather ahead.



Friday, 24 June 2011

A Wellcome Visit

The Wellcome Trust will be visiting the University on July 8th 2011. They will discuss their biomedical funding schemes, including the New Investigator Awards, and their vision for UK funding.

The agenda is as follows:
  • 11 – 12 Talk (BLT1, Stacey Building)
  • 12 – 1 Lunch (Howard Rogers Room, Ingram Building)
  • 1 – 3 Individual meetings (Howard Rogers Room, Ingram Building)
Do let my colleague Carolyn Barker know if you would like to attend the talk and/or the lunch, and if you would like to book an individual session with the Wellcome officers.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

ResearchActive Newsletter: Summer Edition Available

The summer edition of the Research Services Newsletter, ResearchActive, is now available. A hard copy has been sent to all staff, but if you've not received it do get in touch and we can send you an electronic version. It's a bumper six pager this term, and includes:
  • Details of the University's new Internal Peer Review system;
  • Information on the research interests of new staff;
  • Highlights of some recent awards;
  • REF update;
  • Changes to RCUK equipment costs;
  • Details of how we use the data that EPSRC sends us on 'blacklisting';
  • Notes from the Leverhulme visit, and Grants Factory events;
  • and, of course, some choice cuts from the Blog.
Get it while it's hot!

And the Winner Is...

News has come through on the wires from our Brussels correspondent: the EC has announced the winner of the 'Name FP8' competition. Hurray! Get ready with the party poppers, but don't touch the twiglets and low alcohol cava til I say.

As I'm sure you remember, the EC was looking for a snappier title for the new, all encompassing Framework Programme. Something that summed up the brave new world of funding. Something aspirational and forward looking, European and twenty-first century. Something better than the 'Common Strategic Framework for Research and Innovation.' They selected three suggestions from the general public, and put these to a vote.

I can now announce the winner. In reverse order:
  • 'Discover 2020', with 2478 votes;
  • 'Imagine 2020', with 2785 votes;
  • 'Horizon 2020', with 3055 votes.
And I therefore declare 'Horizon 2020' the new FP8. The full and official name will apparently be 'the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation'. Now call me an old cynic, but if that's the full name I bet it will get shortened to 'the Framework Programme' rather than 'Horizon 2020'. But we'll see. I wish it all the best, and hope it has more luck than it's close namesake, Deepwater Horizon. Or indeed the Talbot Horizon. Or the crew of 'Event Horizon.'

Hmm. Not an auspicious group. Is it too late to change my vote to 'Monster Raving Loony 2020'?

Interestingly, it turns out that there is already a European initiative called 'Horizon 2020'. Ah, only in Europe. A zillion Euro budget, an army of bureaucrats, some of the greatest minds in the Western world, and they still don't know what's going on down the corridor.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Lunchtime Seminars: Call for Topics

The PVC’s Lunchtime Seminars have now been running for four years. They have given staff and pg students an opportunity to explore a research area from a multidisciplinary perspective, and have focused on issues as varied as violent and non-violent protest, genetic disease, risk, institutions, the environment, vocations, neuroscience and security. Over the years more than eighty academics have taken part, and hundreds have come along to listen, question, and meet others.

Over the summer we will be preparing the programme for next year. If you’ve got a good idea for a subject that would benefit from an interdisciplinary approach and would be willing to lead on it, do get in touch.

The Squeezed Middle: Redrawing the ESRC 'Bubbles'

As I reported elsewhere, the recent ESRC events in London and Brighton gave a good insight into developments at the Council, and how they are planning to implement their Delivery Plan. One of the slides in Adrian Alsop's presentation was a graphic representation of how their schemes fitted together neatly to fill the career of a social science academic, from 'early' to 'senior', and from £100k to £5m+. Here it is:
However, I think this is a little disingenuous. It suggest that there is a wide range of funding available to a wide range of academics at pretty much any time in their careers. It suggests that early career researchers (including those doing PhDs) can apply for Centre and Large Grants, as well as having a pretty good crack at the whip when it comes to Research Grants.

However, given the size of these grants, I think the ESRC is really looking for someone with a considerable track record, both for their research and for the management of grants. So, more realistically, it should look something like this:
So, on the left are the Future Leaders who are less than 4 years from their PhDs, and on the right are the more senior researchers with at least 10 years postdoc experience. This leaves a big gap in the middle where there's not a lot, apart from the soon to be announced Secondary Data Analysis Initiative and various international and knowledge exchange schemes.

This area - let's reclaim the political phrase du jour and call it the 'squeezed middle' - is ill served elsewhere. Perhaps the 'deserted middle' is more accurate. The BA does have the 'Mid-career Fellowship', but this only offers 40 grants annually. To both those in the social sciences and humanities. Nationally.

The forthcoming 'risky' research route will redress this somewhat, but what about mid career researchers who are doing good, solid work that doesn't rely on risks? Bide your time and don't bother us seems to be the message from the redrawn ESRC bubbles.

Friday, 17 June 2011

ERC Success Rates

Interesting stats from UKRO on the ERC Starting (StG) and Advance (AdG) Grants. There's now been three complete calls for each scheme, and UKRO's statistics show how the success rate for both StG and AdG has risen:
  • Starting Grants: 3.3% (2007-8) to 14.9 (2009-10)
  • Advanced Grants: 12.7% (2007-08) to 13.2% (2009-10)
Interestingly, the success rates for Grants hosted at UK HEIs is higher than the European average for StG (17.3%), but only marginally so for AdG (13.6%).

Now compare these figures with those published by the ESRC in their Demand Management Consultation Paper on the recent success rates for all the UK Research Councils:
  • AHRC: 16%
  • ESRC: 17% (small and standard grants combined)
  • MRC: 19%
  • BBSRC: 22%
  • NERC: 24%
  • EPSRC: 30% (following the introduction of its blacklisting procedure)
  • STFC: 53%
So the ERC success rates aren't a million miles away from the bottom three Research Councils - and the UK Starting Grants are actually the same or better than the AHRC and ESRC. No wonder the ESRC is making moves to introduce demand management measures, and the AHRC is following fast in its footsteps.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Notes from FP7 SSH Event

The National Contact Point for the Socioeconomic Sciences and Humanities in the EC's Framework Programme (FP7) held an event at UCL in London yesterday on the forthcoming call.

It was slightly disappointing: it fell into the trap beloved of those dealing with European funding of battering the audience with dense, text-heavy Powerpoint slides. I was hoping for a little insight beyond the published Work Programme, but instead we were treated to a deathy - but skimpy - overview of it. They took no prisoners: the title of every topic was incanted, but no detail or background given beyond that.

In fact, the event only came alive when Prof Evelyn Welch arrived and spoke about her specific experience of managing a framework project. She infused her talk with the personality, experience and subjectivity that had been so absent from the administrative talks. In particular, she highlighted:
  • the need to have had a substantial background in managing project before even thinking of going for European funding. She had run five projects already, from the AHRC, ESF and Marie Curie.
  • she had applied for - and got - funding from the Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) scheme, which was a partnership between national funders (such as the ESRC and AHRC) and the EC.
  • you should 'promise what you want to deliver.' You should apply for funding because you actually want to do the research, not because your institution is forcing you to do so, or you feel a sense of obligation to the other members of the consortium. The acid test is: would your heart leap or sink if the award letter came? The research, the project, has to be something you actively want to do.
  • a lot of academics in the humanities struggle with the idea of 'work packages', because it's not part of their culture. Work packages are discrete subprojects. However, they should all feed in to and help answer the overall research questions of the project.
  • your consortium should be built on a trusted network of contacts, and should 'make sense'. It shouldn't be a flag of convenience. It is also good to involve 'associate partners' - i.e. users and groups outside of academia such as museums or policy bodies.
  • you must, must, must include a project coordinator, and ask for the cost of this as part of the application. The academic shouldn't manage the project: it's too large a task, especially as the PI would also be leading one of the work packages. A project manager is expected by the EC, and they might question how you could possibly complete the project without one.
Prof Welch finished by summarising why people should get involved with European funding:
  • That's where the funding is. As national funding shrinks, the Framework Programme is increasing;
  • It offers you the opportunity to work wiht an exciting, diverse range of people with different skills and backgrounds;
  • It gives you access to materials and expertise and information that would be impossible to put together on your own.
  • It's good fun.

She illustrated this by giving an example from her HERA project which was looking at the reasons why fashions came and went. At a project meeting at a small town in Finland they uncovered a teasure trove of costumes from the seventeenth and eighteenth century that completely changed her understanding of how contemporary fashion had spread through Scandinavia. Such revelations, such insights, would not have been possible had she not had the impetus and the framework of a European research grant.

The next SSH call will open on 20 July, with a deadline of 2 Feb 2012. If you want any more information on it, do get in touch.

Changes to the ESRC - Part 2

Last week I wrote about imminent changes to the ESRC funding schemes. Yesterday I went along to their regional event at Brighton, and got further clarification and detail about how they see these changes being implemented:
  • Risky research. As mentioned before, they will be introducing a new mechanism into their grants scheme for risky research, with a 'breakpoint' mid way through at which the success or otherwise of the pilot project will be assessed. However, they made it clear that, in effect, this would mean the reintroduction of the small grants scheme, but with a very specific remit of encouraging risky, innovative, ambitious research.
  • Advanced Sifting. As well as outline applications, the ESRC would introduce 'advanced sifting' of their Research Grants. In practice, this would mean that applications go through an initial peer review by 2-3 academics. If it's an application for a small amount, this might be all the assessment it gets: depending on the outcome, the application will get funded or rejected. If it's for a larger amount, this peer review will decide whether the application goes to full panel.
  • Outline Applications. The ESRC will simplify the JeS form for outline applications, including the costing element. They will shortlist approximately three times as many applications as they can fund, so that the success rate for the second stage (full applications) will be around 33%.
  • Right to Reply. A right to reply would be built into all their funding schemes.
  • Demand Management. The deadline for the consultation process on the demand management options closed on 16 June. They will now consider the responses. It is hoped that they will not have to introduce any of the more draconian measures. They will allow a year to see how the 'interim measures' have worked - eg outline applications, no uninvited resubmissions, encouraging HEIs to implement 'quality assurance' procedures. They admitted that a year might not be enough for these to have a real effect, but it should be enough to see the 'direction of travel'. If they are happy with the 'direction', they will allow more time for them to have further effect.
  • Statistics. To support the demand management measures, the ESRC will provide HEIs with stats on their comparative performance. These will be provided three times a year and, it is hoped, they will be more nuanced than just presenting simple success rates. For example, they should show the relative position of an institution's applications in the peer review panel's prioritisation list, so that HEIs can get a sense of the quality of their applications.
  • Working with the Other Research Councils. The ESRC made clear that they will be working with their sister councils to implement a common form of demand management. Of course, this will have to allow for variance that arises from the culture and patterns of those working within a council's disciplines. Thus, what works for the EPSRC wouldn't necessarily work for the ESRC. However, as far as possible they hoped for a consistency across RCUK.

Hints for Postdocs Applying for Funding

On Monday I took part in the Graduate School's Postgraduate Research Festival. It was a good opportunity to meet research students and to read about some of their research in the poster exhibition. I gave a talk on putting together a good funding application, but I also listened to Dr Mario Weick, a lecturer in Psychology, as he gave some personal insights into what it takes to get into academia.

As well as outlining the different (funded) routes you can take, he gave the students some tips on what to bear in mind in the difficult times ahead:
  • Think globally. Academic research isn't limited by national boundaries, and you need to be flexible in where you work. Sure, you might want to aim to work in a particular country, but it pays to open your mind and think more broadly about where you can work;
  • Develop a portfolio of applications. Each scheme has different success rates, and a different level of risk. You need to develop a portfolio of applications to different schemes in order to balance these risks;
  • Make contingency plans. Following on from the idea of a portfolio of applications, you might have 'fallow periods' when you're not receiving any salary or funding. Make sure you save for these fallow periods, or have a plan C, D and E to cover them.
  • Network. Around 50% of researchers and academics found their job though contacts, so you need to make sure that you're tuned into networks to hear about opportunities as soon as you can. Sign up to email lists, twitter accounts, conferences, workshops and any other place you might hear about things through the grapevine. Being in the right place at the right time means being in lots of places at lots of times.
  • Get feedback. This is as true for postdocs as it is for permanent academics. Get as much feedback from as many different sources as possible. It's easy to miss something, or be so wrapped up in your project that you can't see its weaknesses. Get feedback from other postdocs, academics, your supervisor, PI, Research Services, people inside and outside your discipline, and inside or outside your institution. Anyone.

Social Science Small Grants

Times have been tough recently for those seeking small grants in the Social Sciences. The past year has seen the BA, Nuffield and ESRC all cut their dedicated small grants schemes. But don’t despair: things aren’t as bad as they seem. Recent news from the ESRC, and a little creative thinking, means the funding horizon isn't as gloomy as it may seem:

  • ESRC Secondary Analysis: the ESRC will be offering small grants for those whose research involves analysis of existing datasets;
  • ESRC ‘Risky’ Standard Grants: the ESRC will be introducing a new mechanism to fund innovative or ambitious risk-taking projects. Funding will be in two parts: the first tranche will be for a pilot project, the second for a full scale follow up after a ‘break point.’ In effect it’s two grants, the first of which is essentially a small grant. They're ironing out the details of both of these schemes, and more information should be available over the summer.
  • ESRC Reciprocal Grants & BA Country-specific Funds: If your research involves working with colleagues abroad, have a look at the countries that the ESRC and BA have agreements with. They include Germany, France, and the Netherlands. And, if your research involves travelling abroad, think about:
  • Leverhulme Study Abroad Fellowships: provide the direct costs of working abroad. Success rates tend to be higher for these than for other types of fellowships and grants, as they are inevitably more self-selecting. Overall you can apply for up to £22,000, and eligible costs include: reasonable replacement cover whilst the Fellow is overseas; travel to and within the overseas country or countries; a maintenance grant to meet the increased expense of living overseas; and essential research costs. And, whilst thinking of Leverhulme:
  • Leverhulme Project Grants: these can be 'up to' £250k - but can be for a lot less. They cover all disciplines, including social sciences, and are looking for interesting blue skies research with has a healthy disregard for disciplinary boundaries.
  • Nuffield Project Grants: whilst they’ve explicitly cut the small grants (for less than £15k) their project grants are still available, and the starting point is a low £10k. However, your research has to fit within their specialist areas of interest, namely 'children and families,' 'law and society' and 'education'. If your research doesn't fit within these, there's still hope. As long as your research meets their overall aim of 'advancing social wellbeing', you could try their catch-all 'open door' route. Both Leverhulme and Nuffield have an outline stage, which means that you don't have to wade through torturous, extended application forms. However, they do still expect your project to be well thought through and accurately costed, so don't think that you can cut corners in the designing your research.
So there is hope. Do get in touch if you want more information on these, or help with putting together an application.

Reporting on Research

One of the joys of taking the train up to London is the opportunity it gives you to catch up with the day's news in the discarded newspapers. These days I usually catch up with the world via websites, and it makes a nice change to reacquaint myself with newspapers.

Given the nature of my trip to London I was tuned in to issues of research. So I was particularly intrigued by the research stories that the papers picked up on:
  • Olive Oil 'Cuts Risk of Stroke by 41%'. The Daily Mail reported this finding from the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Bordeaux. They 'observed' 7,625 people over 65, who self-classified their use of olive oil as 'none', 'moderate' or 'intensive'. After 5 years 148 of them had suffered a stroke. 2.6% of non-users had a stroke, 2% of moderate, and 1.5% of intensive. This all sounds very dodgy (the other lifestyle factors were not listed), and I'm not really sure what, if any, conclusions should be drawn from it. One to refer to Ben Goldacre, I think. However, it's postively Nobel Prize winning stuff compared with:
  • An analysis of the 700 head injuries suffered in the Asterix books. Yes, you read it right. Reported in the Daily Telegraph - shame on you! - researchers at the Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf set themselves the task of analysing 'the epidemiology and risk factors of traumatic brain injury in the Asterix illustrated books.' With an apparently straight face, they report that about half lost consciousness, and 188 had hypoglossal paresis, or an outstretched tongue. However, even this seems serious and sensible compared with:
  • 'Secret to a Perfect Cuppa.' This was reported in the Mail, Telegraph and Metro. Scientists - broadly defined, and hopefully not research council funded - at the University of Northumbria had produced a formula for creating the optimum cup of tea. Hot water first, brewing time 2 mins, temp 60 degrees, since you ask.

Hmm. I would tell you about a second item in Metro on research into a Harry Potter-style 'invisibility cloak', which was reminiscent of the Third Policeman ('...made up of cells so small they are not visible to the human eye...'), but even I can only take so much. What must the average reader make of researchers? I imagine news of funding cuts garners little sympathy with these stories as the public face of university research.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Feedback from FP8 Conference

The EC held a conference in Brussels on 10 June to discuss 'the Common Strategic Framework for EU Research and Innovation'. Yes, I know it's a bit of a mouthful, but don't yawn and click on to a more interesting page. This is important, as it sees the EC taking the first faltering steps towards formulating the replacement for the Framework Programme (FP7).

UKRO have provided an excellent summary of the conference. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, fed back the findings of the recent consultation on FP8. No great surprises here: people were generally supportive of the proposals to coordinate and amalgamate a number of European funding streams, that there was a need for 'radical simplification' (hallelujah!), keep what works, jettison what doesn't, and cover all stages of the research process, from blue skies, to directed, to follow on and exploitation.

Her talk was followed by those of a number of different stake holders, including representatives from the ERC, CERN, and EuroHORCs, as well as the erstwhile Commissioner for Research, Janez Potočnik. There was some talk about the need for an increased budget, but I do worry that research funding will be a casualty to the tough economic times we're living through, and the bail out of Greece and Ireland will leave little room - or appetite - for bigger central budgets. But let's hope.

And finally...the conference was an opportunity to hear the shortlist for the new framework's name. They - foolishly - ignored my suggestion of FP8, and went instead for either:
  • Discover 2020
  • Horizon 2020
  • Imagine 2020
Which all make me feel a bit queasy, if I'm frank. Sort of remind me of people standing around a field holding bottles of Coke and watching the sunrise, singing. Or, worse still, an infantilisation of research, like they're aimed at getting five year olds interested in science. Can you really see yourself suggesting to an academic that they consider an application to 'Imagine 2020'? With a straight face? No, me neither. Anyway, you can vote for your favourite before 17 June.

Shame there's no option for 'none of the above'...

Monday, 13 June 2011

Fellowships Applications: Notes from the Grants Factory

‘I looked at the criteria and thought, ‘that’s me!’’ Prof Darren Griffin kicked off the latest Grants Factory event by highlighting the importance of ‘fitting’ the funder’s scheme. The event focused on fellowship funding, and Darren was talking about his experience of applying for a BBSRC Career Development Fellowship.

Fellowships offer more flexibility and freedom than standard project grants, but both you and your research have to be ripe for it. To do so you have to piece together the past, present and future of your research, and demonstrate its momentum and trajectory.

Prof Paul Allain continued by highlighting the necessary ‘craft’ in preparing a fellowship application:

  • Read the guidance, but also read the guidance for the funder’s other schemes so that you can understand the specific aims, and specific requirements, of the fellowship. Where the funder has stated their ‘strategic priorities’ make sure that your fellowship fits with them and, ideally, show them how it does. Quote their Delivery Plan back at them;
  • It’s all about the person, stupid: highlight your ‘pedigree’, and how previous work, publications and practice lead inevitably to this fellowship. Show how you are the person, the only person, who can deliver on this research. Create the picture;
  • Use diagrams and timelines. This both breaks up the text (see below), but also gives a sense of certainty and deliverability – making the ‘picture’ more believable;
  • In terms of the language, keep it simple. No jargon. Check and double check for typos. Make the format clear, with paragraph breaks and bullet points. You’re not writing for an academic journal, and the requirements are different here. As Paul said, ‘you can’t be too subtle.’ Use frames and signposts, interlinked phrases, repetition and emphasis;
  • Don’t hypothesise: what are you actually going to do? Avoid hesitancy and conjecture, and use active verbs. You want to develop a sense of a momentum that can’t be stopped, and that you’re ready to go if they give the word.
As with all funding, you’ve got to think of the peer review panel members on the train, rattling towards London for the panel meeting. They’re reading through applications for the first time. There’s someone barking into a mobile phone next to them, and a child bouncing on the seat in front of them. The conductor’s coming down the aisle in one direction, and the refreshment trolley down the aisle in the other. Take pity on them, and keep your application simple, realistic and compelling. They need to know quickly and clearly:

  • Who are you? What's your research? Why now? (‘Tickets from Birmingham New Street, please’)
  • Why should I care about any of it? (‘Can you hear me? We’re just going through a tunnel...hello?’)
  • Okay, okay, so you're right for the fellowship - but what are you actually going to do - and can you succeed? (‘Mum! Muuuuum!’)
  • How are you going to tell people about your findings? (‘Tea, coffee, hot chocolate?’)

If you can do that, and keep their attention amongst all those distractions – well, yours is the fellowship, and all that’s in it. As Kipling very nearly said.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Leverhulme: Volleyball, Pulp Fiction, and Cars

Over at Leverhulme there's been a (minor) shakeup of the Trustees. As you may remember, the Trustees play an important part in deciding which projects get the funding, so it's worth taking a little time to understand who the Trustees are, and what their interests might be. Of course, you can't necessarily play to them but it's worth knowing your audience.

So here are the changes in full. After the death of the Chairman, Sir Michael Angus, last year, Michael Perry ('he has a ruddy face, a strong nose, small eyes and a gently self-deprecating sense of humour that at times can make you feel like you are taking tea with a tense bishop,' muses Management Today) has stepped up to the plate to be chairman, and the Board has been added to with:
  • Rudy Markham, a philosopher-king, who tells the FT: “You are one of the few people who can work out where the ship is, because you can read maps, triangulate positions and work out what happens if the ship goes faster or slower. You’re not responsible for the ship, but all that knowledge is useless if you can’t convey to the captain that if you continue at this speed you’ll run out of fuel or hit the rocks."
  • Paul Polman: enjoys mountaineering, volleyball and classic car racing. Though not at the same time.
  • Stephen Williams: likes 'contemporary art, professional football, pulp fiction or vulgar automobiles'. You can imagine the pre-meeting chats he and Paul have.
There’s also a new Director taking over from Richard Brook. Gordon Marshall, for it is he, is VC at Reading, and will be taking over in October. His background is in the social sciences, and in particular social exclusion, equality of opportunity, distributive justice and the culture of economic enterprise. We've no detail of his interest in cars, vulgar, classic or otherwise, but we'll keep you posted.

So if you've got a project looking at the distributive justice in the crime novels of Sara Paretsky, which involve VI Warshawski driving a muscle car, Steve and Gordo will be on your side and you're well on the way to getting that grant.

Monday, 6 June 2011

EPSRC Makes Open Access Mandatory

EPSRC has announced that it intends to make open access mandatory. It will apply to all research articles submitted for publication on or after 1st September 2011. In a statement on 3 June EPSRC stated that the Policy on Access to Research Outputs had been 'agreed by our Council and which we are introducing with immediate effect. The policy states that all EPSRC-funded research publications must be published as openly accessible documents – that is, freely available online to anyone who has access to the internet.'

Friday, 3 June 2011

ESRC Implements its Delivery Plan

I went along to an ESRC presentation in London last night at which the Council outlined how it was putting into practice its Delivery Plan. There will be some changes to its funding schemes as a result, and full details will be available on their website in the next few weeks. In the meantime here’s a summary of the main points that were raised.

Research Grants
o The introduction of a mechanism for funding innovative or risky research. Projects using this mechanism would have two phases: the first would be a pilot phase in which novel ideas and concepts could be tested. If this was successful the project could move on to a second phase of funding. The ‘break point’ for the project, when progress and potential would be assessed, would be agreed between the applicant and the ESRC. They stressed that the intention was for there to be no blame, or no sense of failure, at the break point, if the project did not progress to the second phase.
o Early ‘filtering’ of applications. Whilst they said that there would be more use of outline applications, it would not be introduced for all schemes. For Research Grants you would complete a full application, but proposals would be filtered at an earlier stage and not all would go on to full peer review.

Centres & Large Grants
o The Centres and Large Grants schemes would be combined. ‘Considerable’ investment was being made in the new scheme (some £20m), and grants of between £2m- £5m would be awarded.
o There would be a clear expectation of:
- ‘strong support’ from HEIs;
- ‘maximising impact’ through working with other investors and international collaborators;
o There would be an open competition, but with strong ‘steers’ towards areas of priority, namely:
- Economic Performance: in particular towards new approaches to macroeconomics, constructions of risk, and regulation and governance. In addition extra funding would be made available for entrepreneurship, rising powers (India, China, Brazil), and infrastructure.
- Influencing Behaviour: understanding risks at multiple levels and settings; the role of technology, social norms and signals as agents of change; and the interplay of childhood, family, community and wider society in influencing wellbeing;
- Vibrant & Fair Society: in particular, social mobility and getting minority voices heard.

Future Leaders Scheme
o This was intended to meet some of the concerns expressed by the sector when the Small Grants Scheme was abolished, by continuing provision for early career researchers (ECRs);
o ECRs with less than 4 years (not 6 as previously advertised) post doc experience would be eligible;
o The scheme would be open, but there would be a strong steer towards secondary data analysis and innovative research methodology. Approximately 70 grants would be available annually.

More generally, it was made clear that their three strategic priorities (economic performance, influencing behaviour, vibrant and fair society) would be ‘refreshed annually’ – i.e. that they would be amended according to the perceived need for research in specific areas. The Council was pleased with the Comprehensive Spending Review settlement, but there was still a need to deal with a 12% cut in programme funding. As such, it wanted to encourage secondary data analysis that would provide value for money insights using existing data. It would introduce a scheme to encourage such analyses, and small grant funding would be available for them.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Tempted away from Academia


Walking in this morning I met an academic who had been waiting for almost a year to hear back from the EPSRC on a grant application. We chatted in the bright spring sunshine.
'I got an invited resubmission,' he said, with a clear look of disappointment on his face. I tried to console him, and told him that invited resubmissions were a relative rarity these days. Apparently he had even had 'strong encouragement' from the Council to do so. He should take heart, and go once more unto the breach.
Only problem was that life had moved on in the meantime; a year's a long time to be kept waiting. In the interim the EPSRC had withdrawn the provision of studentships - so he'd have to rethink this - and some of the work outlined in the original application had now been done abroad. In addition the needs of his commercial partner had developed and changed.
'To be honest, I'm thinking about whether it's worth carrying on in academia,' he said, ruefully. 'Up until now I've had a succession of grants, but the last two applications have come just below the cut off. In the private sector a lot of people I know are now millionaires, and are fretting about how to spend their money.'
I suggested he put them in touch with me and I could help them out. We laughed, but on this warm summer morning, on this green campus, it did highlight a worrying trend: when funding gets this hard some of the best people will be tempted away from academia, and the UK's research base will suffer as a result.