Tuesday, 30 August 2011

BA Reinstates Small Grants

Well, fresh back from my hols, I'm ploughing through the emails and finding out what I've missed. Firstly, good news from the British Academy: it has reinstated its Small Grants scheme. Hurrah! God bless the BA for swimming against the tide and backing a popular scheme that plugs that small grant-sized hole in national research funding provision.

I spoke to Ken Emond, Head of Research Awards at the BA, to check whether this would be a one off, or whether it would continue to fund the grants. He said that the intention was that it would be on-going, and that they would make 'strong representations and arguments' to BIS to do so. Whilst this is excellent news, it's still uncertain if it will run twice a year as it has in previous years: it might be reduced to an annual round.

So, good on the BA Fellows and Officers, who - very unfairly - I always imagine as inhabiting a private members club in Piccadilly, complete with leather wing back chairs and a grandfather clock ticking away in the distance somewhere. A few of the older members might be slumbering under their copies of the Times and dreaming of steamed sponge puddings, along the lines of Rowley Birkin QC. Please, if you work for the BA, don't shatter my dream and tell me it's all beige offices and power suits.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Changes to NERC Schemes

With all the changes at ESRC, EPSRC, STFC and AHRC, it feels like NERC has been dragging its feet somewhat. Not any more. It's announced that:
  • It's cutting its Small Grants.
  • Consortium Grants are being cut from two rounds per year to one, and an outline stage will be introduced.
At this stage these kind of changes shouldn't come as a surprise. There's barely a funder left standing that hasn't stripped out its small grants: the ESRC and BA have already done so, and the Royal Society dropped its Conference Grants. Small scale funding is so last year.

NERC does say that 'it will remain possible to submit proposals for small discrete projects, proof-of-concept studies and pump-priming exercises to the Standard Grants scheme, if they exceed the minimum scheme funding level'. That's defined by NERC as '£25,000 for directly incurred costs', which has always struck me as a slightly curious way of defining a lower limit. Why not a minimum that includes directly allocated and, perhaps estates and indirect as well? Whilst £25k may sound like quite a small amount, and way below the £65k maximum for the current Small Grants, when you add in directly allocated, estates and indirect costs you would be coming very close to this figure.

So, in effect, they will not be providing any small scale funding. I tried talking to them about it this morning, but unfortunately the relevant person was away from her desk, but I imagine the reason for cutting the grants is (a) they're getting too many applications and the success rates are plummeting, (b) what they have been funding has tended to be incremental and not paradigm shifting, and (c) universities should be funding it anyway.

Well, up to a point, Lord Cooper. I would suggest, in response, that (a) if you're getting too many applications, it's a sign of popularity, of a scheme that the sector actually wants. How about putting more money towards it and away from the flashy large scale schemes? (b) okay, it's small scale by nature, but then, sometimes research does progress in small increments, and current breakthroughs build on previous knowledge, and (c) universities have the cash?? Ha!

However, something tells me that NERC aren't going to backtrack on the decision, especially when all their sister funders are doing the same. So we need to work in the changed climate. If you want to apply for funding for a small project get in touch with me and I'll help you identify other possible sources of funding, or how to frame your project in such a way that it could fit within NERC's Standard Grants scheme.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

London Riots: How Long until RCUK Issues a Call for Proposals?

As someone who’s spent a good deal of time on the funding block, I’ve always been impressed at how the Research Councils are able to jump on contemporary political bandwagons. Of course, they wouldn’t see at it as such. They would see it as providing research that will answer societies concerns. After 9/11 and 7/7, it was all about answering the threat from terrorism, particularly Islamic terrorism. Around the same time as Kyoto, it was all about ‘Living with Environmental Change’. In the most recent Delivery Plans all the talk was informed by the 2008 economic crisis, of ‘enabl[ing] the development of robust government and private sector strategies to ensure sustainable growth’ (ESRC Delivery Plan 2011-15). Sometimes they take this too far, and the AHRC has had its fingers burnt by appearing to not only jump on the ‘Big Society’ bandwagon, but sit beside the driver and do his bidding.

So how long do you think it will be before a call for proposals is issued around gangs, riots and criminality? My guess is six months to a year, perhaps shoehorned into the ESRC’s ‘Influencing Behaviour’ or ‘Vibrant and Fair Society’ strands. However, there’s a warning from a blog I read recently about the dangers inherent in adjusting your research funding policy in light of current affairs. Remember all the funding that went on terrorism in the mid-noughties? Has it had any real effect? Are we any closer to understanding or preventing terrorism or acts of carnage? Or has the cycle turned, naturally, to other issues? The events in Norway show that individuals or groups can still kill indiscriminately, and that ‘Global Uncertainties’ are no nearer resolution.

Whilst I accept the rationale behind the Research Council's wish to meet contemporary challenges, and of the push to integrate university research with the wider society through the impact agenda, perhaps the time has come to recognise that following the curve of current events is somewhat fruitless. Should the Research Councils now unshackle academics so that they can pursue whatever research is good rather than whatever research is political?

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

SSC Shortlisted for Award Shock

For anyone who's every had any dealings with the RCUK Shared Services Centre, or has read about its growing pains, this news will come as something of a shock. The SSC has been shortlisted for an award! And it's not even the award for the organisation least likely to be able to organise a piss-up in a brewery. No, its the National Business Award for (the slightly tautological) Transformational Change of the Year.

Transformational Change? What does that mean? Well, I'm glad you asked me that. 'Pioneers of transformational change...enhanc[e] the citizen and customer experience, achiev[e] more with less, and creat[e] better value for stakeholders.'

Really? Is this the same SSC we're talking about?

It goes on: 'this award has been designed to recognise the entity that has successfully refocused, restructured or strategically re-aligned to significantly reduce cost while improving efficiency; increased productivity, market share or revenue; enhanced the citizen’s/customers experience; and engaged staff, suppliers and all relevant stakeholders in the implementation of new systems and technologies to drive sustainability.'

Hmm. I guess that depends on how you measure 'success'. Or 'efficiency'. If they're measured by quick turnaround times and knowledgeable responses to queries, then SSC might struggle to secure the prize. However, let's be optimistic: the NBA panel might be assessing the potential for future growth and performance. And if that's the case, it's in the bag for the SSC because, as Yazz said, the only way is up.

Grants Factory: Responding to Reviewers' Comments

We’re currently putting together the Grants Factory programme for the forthcoming year. One of the first events will look at the thorny issue of Responding to Reviewers’ Comments. Most of the Research Councils (and some other funders) allow you to respond to the comments that their reviewers give your application. Often the comments seem uninformed, and it’s easy – and tempting ! – to respond quickly and angrily to these. However, there is a knack to dealing with them effectively, and if you can master this you can turn round the negative feedback and actually get your applications funded.

The workshop will take place at 2pm on 14 September 2011 and will be led by Dr Peter Bennett from the Durrell Institute of Conservation Ecology (DICE). He has had considerable experience as both an applicant, reviewer and panel member for NERC, as well as a number of other funders. His insight and advice will be relevant to academics in all three faculties, as there are common themes that apply to funders in all disciplines.

The event is free and open to all staff. Do let me know if you would like to come along.

Monday, 1 August 2011

REF: the Plot Thickens

With the publication of the panel assessment criteria last week, we now have a clearer idea of what the REF is going to look like. And it's not a level playing field for all the panels. Research Professional did a good run down of how it differs between each, and here it is, in summary:

The Thorny Issue of Citations

Remember when the REF was just a glimmer in David Sweeney's eye? When all the talk was of bibliometrics and light touch review? Hah! Well, as we've known for some time, you can forget all that. The REF looks pretty much like it's the RAE with Impact, and is peer review-centric. In fact, citations are only going to be allowed in a minority of the 36 sub-panels, as follows:
  • Panel A (Life Sciences): will allow citation data in all sub-panels;
  • Panel B (Physical Sciences): will only allow citation data in sub-panels 7 (earth and environmental sciences), 8 (chemistry), 9 (physical sciences) and 11 (computer science)
  • Panel C (Social Sciences): will only allow citation data in (some of) sub-panels 17 (geography, environmental studies and archaeology) and 18 (economics and econometrics). No panels will use journal impact factors.
  • Panel D (Humanities): no citation data allowed.

Put Out by Outputs

As well as variation on citations, there's a wide variety on what's deemed acceptable as assessable outputs. 'RePro' (as no-one but me calls Research Professional) gives the example of the physical sciences vs life sciences. Life sciences are strictly 'old skool', and you can only include 'edgy' outputs like textbooks, databases or abstracts “exceptionally”, 'where they embody original research'. The physical sciences, on the other hand, are much more 'new wave', and you can submit patents, book chapters, computer algorithms and software as evidence of research output, alongside peer-reviewed publications.

The Impact of Impact

Finally, it's our old friend Impact. Generally there's a broadbrush consensus on what impact is all about, and the definition is wide enough to allow for a fairly catholic understanding of it. However, there is a minor spat in the offing when it comes to the impact of teaching. Within Panel B, research impact can include actions that have an effect on teaching or students where they extend significantly beyond your institution. However Panel C will not accept such heresy, and you can't include examples of this in your submission to them.

So, interesting times ahead. Thanks to - ahem - 'RePro' for their overview of the HEFCE docs. You can have your say on them by responding to HEFCE's consultation before 5 October.

Virginia Tech Partnering Program - Awards Announced

This year marks the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech-University of Kent Partnering Award Program. The Program is aimed at encouraging and facilitating collaboration between the two institutions, and this year three awards were made.

Ms Bilge Daldeniz (Kent Business School, University of Kent)
Dr Nancy Gard McGehee (Dept of Hospitality & Tourism Management, Virginia Tech)

Ms Daldeniz and Dr McGehee will examine the impacts of volunteer tourism on host communities. Volunteer tourism is a niche that has grown significantly in recent years, but little is known about its effects on host communities. Dr McGehee has worked on volunteer tourism for over a decade, whilst Ms Daldeniz is an emerging scholar in the area; the former’s research experience and theoretical background will complement the latter’s extensive contacts in the field. Together they will submit an application to the UK’s Economic & Social Research Council, to develop a robust, evidence-based framework for future planning, management and hosting of volunteer tourism.

Dr Todd Mei (School of European Culture & Languages, University of Kent)
Prof Nicolaus Tideman (Dept of Economics, Virginia Tech)

Dr Mei and Prof Tideman will discuss economic and philosophical concepts of land, and how related questions of rights and justice can be developed in new ways. The investigators do not share identical views on these areas, but a fertile mixture of agreement and difference exists that will lead to a healthy and critical dialogue and develop each scholar’s thought and contribution to their respective fields. Their collaboration will lead to two proposals to the UK’s Leverhulme Trust: one for a project grant, the other for a Visiting Professorship.

Dr Joao Macieira (Dept of Economics, Virginia Tech)
Dr Diogo de Souza Monteiro (Kent Business School, University of Kent)

Certification – such as that for organic farming standards – tends to be implemented and monitored by third parties (e.g., The Soil Association), and there is now a fast growing global market for the provision of these services. However, there has been little empirical research examining the performance of this market. Drs Macieria and Monteiro will undertake a pilot project to do just that, focusing initially on the organic food sector in the USA, UK and Portugal. This will lead to a joint paper, and the development of a grant proposal targeted at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in the US, or the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK.

Congratulations to all those involved in these partnerships. They offer an exciting opportunity to make connections and explore shared research which will, we hope, lead to both a productive collaboration and fruitful long term ties between our two universities.