Friday, 30 September 2011

Kent Peer Review Goes Live


The University will be introducing an internal peer review system from 1 October.

Kent Peer Review (KPR) comes in response to the stated intentions of the Research Councils to introduce ‘demand management’ systems. The EPSRC has already introduced a ‘blacklisting’ system for individuals; the BBSRC has introduced a grading system that may lead in time to a ‘triage of grant proposals based on referee scores, in order to eliminate lower-scoring applications before the committee meeting’; and the AHRC is suggesting ‘introducing sanctions...if self-management proves ineffective’. The ESRC has recently consulted on different options for limiting the numbers of proposals it receives, and has stated that
‘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.’
The new system has been developed in consultation with Directors of Research over the past six months. It is intended to be supportive rather than oppressive, and is targeted at three specific types of applications:
  • Research Council applications;
  • First substantial external grant applications;
  • Large grant applications.
If your proposal fits one of these categories, it will be seen by two reviewers: one will have a knowledge of your discipline, one a knowledge of the funder. More detail of the new system is available on the Research Services website.

If you'd like to talk about KPR do get in touch with your Faculty Funding Officer, who will be able to answer any questions, and guide you through what you need to do.

Meanwhile, on the Horizon...

UKRO have had sight of the most recent proposals for Horizon 2020. There's not a lot of change in the structure of the new Framework Programme (which Keith Sequeira outlined at the UKRO conference); it will still be based around four pillars, as follows:
  • Tackling Societal Challenges (containing details of the six societal challenges);
  • Excellent Science Base (covering the European Research Council, Marie Curie, Future and Emerging Technologies, and Research Infrastructures);
  • Industrial Leadership and Competitive Frameworks (covering Key Enabling Technologies – ICT, nanotechnology, materials, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, and space – as well as Access to Risk Finance and Innovation in SMEs);
  • The Joint Research Centre.
However, there is a substantial change in the suggested reimbursement rates. As you will remember, earlier this month UKRO was seeking feedback on the proposed rates at the time of 75% for research activities, with overheads of 75% of personnel costs. There was some disquiet over this, and the Commission is now proposing 100% of direct costs and 20% overheads on all eligible direct costs.

It will be interesting to see what difference this makes. For more detail of what's proposed have a look at the UKRO webpage, which you can access if you belong to a subscribing institution like Kent.

Bring on the Visionaries

The AHRC is seeking out 'visionaries' for its revised Fellowships scheme. The scheme aims 'to develop and promote visionary individuals who set research agendas, lead research communities, provide intellectual leadership in their own disciplines and beyond, have a transformative impact on their subject area and also act as advocates for the value and benefit of arts and humanities research beyond academia.'

I think they missed 'an ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound' off that list. I'll give them a call to rectify that.

The new scheme has a whiff of the ESRC's 'Future Leaders' to it. Not only should they undertake Nobel Prize-level work themselves, but they should also undertake 'a substantial programme of activities which support the development of the Fellow’s leadership role.' These could include networking, knowledge exchange, international collaboration, public engagement and defeating Lex Luthor.

Of course, identifying these visionaries will be no easy task, and the AHRC don't want individuals or institutions to take it on lightly. Whilst not setting specific limits on the number of people who can apply, they are expecting universities to identify suitable candidates, provide an 'appropriate package' of career and leadership development for them, internally sift potential applicants, and monitor their visionary prowess during the lifetime of the award.

Applications will be for between £50,000 and £250,000 fEC and will be for periods of between 6 and 18 months (or 6-24 months for applications from early career researchers). If you think you might have the necessary background - being born on the planet Krypton and brought up by a Kansas farmer, say - then do get in touch with me or my colleague Lynne Bennett.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Keepers of the Keys

I went along to 'the Athens of the South South West' (Swindon) on Tuesday for an ESRC Study Visit. Such events are always - inevitably - a bit of a curate's egg: a lot of known and/or irrelevant information, peppered with some gems which make the whole thing worth the three hour cross-country schlep.

For me, one of the most useful insights was the issue of 'introducers' rejections'. As I'm sure you know, when you submit an application to the ESRC it doesn't go straight to panel. It goes through a sifting process, including:
  • Office sift: roughly 10% of applications get rejected at this stage on technicalities, such as not having the right attachments, sections not being filled, format not being adhered to, etc;
  • Reviewers' sift: roughly 30% get rejected at this stage. If the reviewers identify substantial flaws, and grade the applications accordingly;
  • Introducers' sift: I think this has been in place for some time, but I hadn't realised the scale of it before now. Each application is allocated to two introducers, who will have the responsibility of introducing the application to the panel. However, they can reject applications before they get to panel if they think that, realistically, they don't stand any real chance of getting funding, and it would be wasting the panel's time to discuss them.
The ESRC said that, after these sifts, they would only expect 30% of applications to go to panel. Given this figure, it looks like the introducers are expected to strip out 30% of the applications. That's quite a substantial figure.

In practice I imagine that this is fairly straightforward. There will be obvious applications that don't have anything wrong with them, but are never going to fly. However, it does make me worry slightly that the responsibility for identifying these is bestowed on so few people. Given how 'political' sub disciplines can be, what happens if your application is sifted out be someone who disagrees with your work, rather than allowing a wider range of views to input?

Anyway, the lesson to take away from this is to look at the grants panel membership (pdf) and try and identify the two people who are likely to be the introducers. Do a bit of background research on them and their interests, and try to key your proposal in with what makes them tick. They are the keepers of the keys to the kingdom - or at least to the grants panel.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Kellogg's Neutrinos

Exciting news from the world of particle physics today. Apparently Italian researchers have discovered a particle that travels faster than the speed of light. Whilst this is exciting as it has the potential to overturn Einsteinian relativity, it's far more exciting as it offers Kelloggs the chance to build a new breakfast cereal around the name of the new particle, 'neutrinos'.

'Neutrinos' combines the best elements of 'new,' 'nutrition' and 'Cheerios', with the added element of unbelievable speed. So get your sugar-fuelled brains into gear and think of a strap line for this delicious breakfast treat that will inspire a new generation of scientists. I'll start you off:

'Late for school? Want breakfast but don't have time? New, nutritious Neutrinos are faster than the speed of light, and tastier than Schrodinger's cat.'

Hmm. On second thoughts...

Thursday, 22 September 2011

MRC 'Neither Up Nor Down' Shock

Oh you couldn't make it up. Paul 'Shriek' Jump made it a hattrick in last week's Times Higher by bemoaning the fact that the MRC success rate had - wait for it - stayed the same.

To recap:
  • On 1 September Jump suggested that the fall in its success rate reflected badly on the ESRC...
  • whereas on 8 September Jump suggested that the rise in its success rate reflected badly on the EPSRC;
Now, with its success rate pretty much static (it actually fell by 1%), Jump was wringing his hands about how badly this reflected on the MRC.

Spookily, in a comment on this blog Adam Golberg had foreseen this scenario almost exactly: 'Next week in the Times Higher: The XRC Research Council announces unchanged success rates. Does this stagnation spell the beginning of the end for the XRC?'

Does he know something we don't? Does he have access to lines of communication which are - frankly - supernatural? Is he, in fact, Robert Johnson?

We should be told.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

EPSRC Tweaks Its Blacklisting Procedures

Ah, EPSRC: they are the story that keeps on giving. You can always rely on them for a headline.

No sooner have they got chemists spitting blood at their remit changes, than they're saying that only certain disciplines can apply to their fellowships, before crowing about their blacklist-fuelled success rates. You've got to love 'em.

Yesterday, having not made any pronouncements for literally days, they issued a press release on changes to their blacklisting procedure. It's only really tweaking, so put the placards down. In fact, most of the changes are for the better, as follows:
  • When calculating your success rate, EPSRC will no longer include applications that were thrown out because your research didn't fit within its remit;
  • Similarly, if you applied to a scheme that has a second/interview stage, and you manage to get to that stage but get rejected after, this will not be held against you in the calculations;
  • Finally, if your application was ranked against nine or fewer other applications by one of EPSRC's panels, and came in the bottom half, this will not be included in their calculations.
So generally a move in the right direction. Now all they need to do is tweak their 'Shaping Capability' remit changes, and we'll be there.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Responding to Reviewers' Comments: Notes from Grants Factory Session

What turns panellists against an application? For Peter Bennett, who has had experience reviewing applications for NERC and other funders, it’s arrogance. ‘There’s no greater turn off in a grant application,’ he said at Wednesday’s Grants Factory event. Applicants should practice humility, and let the facts speak for themselves. Avoid bombast, pomposity and exaggerated claims. Successful proposals talk with assurance, clarity and confidence, and they respect the opinions of reviewers and panellists.

A good application ‘makes sense’, and doesn’t need to swagger. It will be built on a strong track record and a well-matched research environment, will acknowledge the key previous works, and will contain an unbreakable kernel of original, significant work.

Bad applications, on the other hand, are bloated beasts. Pedestrian and dull, they shout their ignorance, and betray their hasty construction with flawed methodology, speculative theory, and a lack of focus. The applicant’s limp track record drags along behind, and the whole just doesn’t hang together well.

When it comes to replying to the reviewers, then, it is the measured, thoughtful, clear attitude that will win through. Don’t flare up and respond in haste. Step back, take time, and plan your response. Extract the criticisms from the text, and work out how you will respond to them. All of them should be treated as valid, even if you feel that some are ridiculous. Remember, humility: thank the reviewers for their comments, and either:
  • Address their concerns head on: if their feedback is valid, say that you have taken it on board, have made the necessary changes, and that the proposal is stronger as a result;
  • Sweeten the pill: if their feedback is invalid, say that you consider it to be an interesting idea, but that the nature of the current project would not allow you to incorporate their suggestions, and that it might be possible to do so in a future project.
Respond to all the comments with humility, respect and honesty; it will get you much more of a hearing than if you rail and swear and curse.

Peter’s slides will be available on the Research Services website shortly.

Notes from European Funding Clinic: ERC Applications

Yesterday's workshop on European Funding was a good chance for participants to 'test drive' their proposals. All those who attended were willing to both receive and give feedback on their proposed projects. Some of the general points that were raised included:

  • Projects need to be both exciting and feasible, offering a step change in knowledge whilst also being grounded. The EC want to fund world-changing research, but also want to be reassured that you’ve thought through your project, that it’s achievable, and that you’re using an appropriate methodology with a realistic work plan.
  • Therefore think about:
  1. Presenting an exciting question: the first step of the assessment process is for the panel to decide on who to shortlist for interview. The panel is very broad, and is unlikely to have experience of your area (see the full panel list, here (pdf)). Use the 5 page ‘extended synopsis of the scientific proposal’ (which is the only part of the proposal the panel will initially see) to ‘hook’ them in. Remember, the ERC is keen on ‘high risk/high gain’ research. Sell it to them: offer them a tantalising question, and follow it up by offering them a way to find the solution.
  2. Balancing them with a realistic work programme. Think about the structure, and break it up into achievable ‘work packages’. Think about the team: who do you need in order to complete these work packages? The ERC is offering generous funding, and it is more likely to fund a project that involves a team than one with a lone academic. However,everyone must be there for a reason: there can’t be any ‘passengers’ or‘baggage’. Their inclusion has to make sense. Don’t just include eminent or senior academics to show that you’re well connected, or to lend your project a glow of established credibility. The Starting Grants are for newer academics to become independent leaders, so don’t jump on the coat tails of others.

  • Language: whilst the Work Programme may be ‘endlessly hyperbolic’ and ‘frantically bold’ (as one of the participants yesterday suggested), you need to be more low key and simple. Remember, the panellists (and later, external reviewers) will be from across Europe, and English is unlikely to be their first language. Keep it simple, and don’t ‘over conceptualise.’ Whilst you should make bold claims about your track record and the potential of your research, you should always ground these claims with evidence and demonstration.
  • Experience: not everyone will have the perfect track record of publications and grants. However, capitalise on what you have achieved. Talk about how previous collaborations or small grants have demonstrated your ability to manage projects and lead groups, or how your previous work leads naturally on to your current proposal.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Changes to AHRC Fellowships: Blackout Ahoy!

The AHRC has announced that it will be making some significant changes to its Fellowships scheme, in line with its Delivery Plan 2011-15 (pdf), during the final week of September 2011. As a part of implementing these changes they will be amending their application forms. Accordingly the last date for submitting Fellowship applications will be 17 October 2011, and they will reopen again in January.

Another application blackout! Whey-hey! The AHRC does like its blackouts. Remember the move to the Shared Services Centre? That necessitated a month long blackout. Before that, their move to Swindon required a three month blackout. A cynic might suggest that they're a bunch of work-shy fops, wilting at the first sign of disruption, the whole office flaked out on day beds.

But that's cynics for you.

Anyway, what are the gnomic 'significant changes' that the press release refers to? Looking at the Delivery Plan, there are 12 references to fellowships, the most relevant of which are:
'The AHRC will allocate the majority of its Fellowships to areas of strategic priority and national capability (e.g. languages, digital humanities, creative economy, heritage, and interdisciplinary research with science subjects) and to deliver research of exceptional scale and importance' (section 1.4, p4)
and
'The Fellowship scheme will be further developed. Fellowships will be used for particular purposes as above and to develop research leadership skills, collaboration (where appropriate) and early-career support' (section 1.7, p5)
So come the end of the blackout expect a much closer grilling on how your research ties in with their strategic priorities or (ahem) 'particular purposes'. I've also heard that the AHRC will be expecting universities to do more of the filtering of fellowship applications, as the Council moves into line with the ESRC and EPSRC demand management strategies, and that they will allow ECRs an additional year post-doctoral experience to qualify for the early career route.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Guardian Live Chat: Research Funding

I took part in the Guardian’s Live Chat discussion on Friday. It was focussed on ‘Securing Research Funding’, and brought together an impressively diverse panel, including Anne Dixon (MRC), Tennie Videler (Vitae), Nathaniel Golden (ARMA), Jo o’Leary (BBSRC), and Tseen Khoo (RMIT University, Australia), as well as my blogging colleagues David Young (Lincoln) and Adam Golberg (Nottingham).

It was an interesting, but slightly unnerving, experience. Partly this was down to the technology. It took the form of a comments thread, which you needed to update regularly: by the time you’d written and posted a response to one comment, the board had updated with a number of subsequent comments, and the thread was lost.

However, it was also down to the nature of research funding: there are so many issues bubbling up at the moment that the discussion could have been twice as long and still only scratched the surface. Thus, it was slightly superficial and erratic, but interesting none the less.

It kicked off with a discussion of what makes a bad application. Plenty of ideas here, including: lack of novelty; an ill-defined hypothesis; unsuitable methodology; confused design; vague management; insufficient resources and inadequate expertise. The panel emphasised the need to stick to the funder’s guidance, and write a proposal that made clear what the research question was, why it was important, how it was going to be answered, and how the findings were going to be disseminated. Above all, applicants should take time to properly plan and draft their proposal, and try to communicate their enthusiasm for the project.

The moderator, Eliza Anyangwe, then asked what the main issues in research funding were at the moment. The panel licked its lips and piled in. In a wide ranging discussion several issues came to the fore, including: coping with cuts and the ‘Grand Challenges’ at the Research Councils; impact; the removal of many small grant schemes; the push for interdisciplinary projects and 'concentration' of funding; and demand management.

It was interesting to hear that many of the issues in the UK were shared by colleagues in Canada and Australia, and vice versa. Jo van Every from Canada spoke ‘of more strings [being] attached to the money', and ‘of increased pressures on universities to bring in more external funding’, which resulted in ‘competition for the funds available [being] much stiffer and success rates...dropping.’ Similarly, in Australia, Tseen Khoo was dealing with the ERA, which is their equivalent of the REF.

There was also some discussion of provision for early career researchers and postdocs, and the struggle to get into academia, let alone getting on the funding ladder. The panellists generally agreed that ECRs needed to remain mobile – as much as possible – and keep their options open, although they sympathised with those for whom this wasn’t an option.

So what do researchers need in order to succeed in this increasingly difficult environment? Well, a thick skin and a willingness to persevere are important, but academics also need to network and collaborate, and be open to different opportunities.

However, Jo van Every noted that ‘your goal is NOT to secure research funding. Your goal is to do go great work. Funding will help you do ever more great work. Or even greater work.’ Adam Golberg concurred: ‘applying for funding isn't always the right decision for any given individual at any given point in time, and contrary to what some university managers seem to believe (no-one here, I'm sure) it's just [not?] possible for all academics to produce outstanding fundable research ideas to order on a regular basis.’

David Young finished by raising two interesting points: firstly, the discussion had demonstrated that such a forum was useful, and suggested that ARMA consider providing a space for such issues to be shared. Secondly, and more provocatively, he questioned the ‘business-as-usual model’ which has resulted in the difficulties identified during the discussion. It is ‘making life increasingly precarious for early career researchers as well as arguably driving research towards serving the needs of industry first and foremost. Should we just accept this? Is there are mechanism or a space for us to resist?’

That’s fighting talk, but people questioned the will – or the ability to act collectively – that would enable this to happen.

The Guardian will summarise the key points of the Chat in due course, but do browse the comments which are still available here.

Monday, 12 September 2011

UK National Contact Points for European Funding

Ever feel you're in FP7 quicksand? Feel like you're about to drown in euro-speak? The more you struggle, the more desperate your situation? Wish there was someone on hand with a rope and a plank?

Well wish no longer. Believe it or not there's a network of plank and rope handlers out there, ready, willing and - yes - able to pull you out of the mire. They're the UK's National Contact Points (NCPs), and between them have a wealth of knowledge and experience in dealing with the Framework Programme. Their details are available here, but true to the nature of the Grand European Project, this is somewhat muddled and unclear. I've taken this info and cut to the chase: below are contacts - and numbers - that count.

Cooperation Themes
  • Energy: Helen Fairclough (Enviros Consulting) 0161 8743636;
  • Environment: Chris Barker (DEFRA) 0207 238 1629, or Catherine Holt (Beta Technology) 01302 322633;
  • Health: Victoria Brewer (MRC) 0207 670 5418, or Graham Hughes (Beta Technology) 01302 322633;
  • ICT: Peter Walters (TUV/NEL) 01932 251260, or Craig Sharp (TUV/NEL) 01355 593836;
  • KBBE: Tim Willis (BBSRC) 01793 413247, Chris Barker (details under 'Environment'), or Jane Watkins (Beta Technology) 01302 322633;
  • NMP: Alastair McGibbon (TUV/NEL) 01355 593810, or Craig Sharp (details under 'ICT');
  • Security: Derek Gallaher 07852 556502;
  • SSH: Samantha McGregor (ESRC) 01793 413141;
  • Space: Robert Lowson (Beta Technology) 01302 322633;
  • Transport: Cliff Funnell (Cliff Funnell Associates) 01243 552921, or Gill Richards (GR Aero Ltd) 01908 583916;
European Research Council
  • Jo Frost (UKRO) 00 32 2 2896121;
Marie Curie
  • Emma Carey (UKRO) 00 32 2 2305275;
Capacities
  • SMEs: Steve Bradley (Beta Technology) 01302 322633;
  • Science in Society: Stephanie Remola (ESRC) 01793 413146
  • INCO: Kate o'Shea (UK Collaboration on Development Sciences (UKCDS)) 0207 611 8276.
There's a number of others, but I think these are the main ones you will deal with. If anyone comes across a phone number that no longer works, or a responsibility that's changed, drop me a line and I'll update this post.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

EPSRC Success Rate Rises to 36%

Paul 'shriek' Jump is once again questioning the Research Councils in the Times Higher. After his 'off with their heads' piece last week on the ESRC, he turns his ire on the EPSRC this week and questions its steadily rising success rate. From a low of 26% in 2008-09, the Council's success rate has risen to 36% in 2010-11.

Good news, you would think. EPSRC put it down to the success of their blacklisting policy (although they don't call it that: to them it will forever be the 'Policy for Repeatedly Unsuccessful Applicants'). This limits those who have had three or more rejections, or have been in the bottom half of the prioritisation list, in a two year period and have a personal success rate of less than 25%, to only submitting one application in the subsequent year. With me so far?

However, Jump quotes two academics who suggest that the success of the policy is debatable: Ian Walmsley suggested that applications are down across the research councils (although this seems to run counter to Jump's piece on the ESRC), and David Price claimed that the policy was deterring weak and strong applications alike.

Whilst it's clear that Jump is a glass-half-empty kind of a guy, I agree that EPSRC's news should be greeted with caution. The Council has recently been in the headlines about it's - ahem - 'consultation', which suggested cutting funding to a number of disciplines within its remit. This has been met by horror in the sector, and has left David 'Derek Smalls' Delpy crying into his beer and saying that it wasn't really a consultation anyway.

Cutting both the number of disciplines and the number of eligible individuals within the remaining disciplines will, eventually, lead to a success rate of 100% for the Council. Hurray! Their work will be complete. Or certainly will be until this plummets back to 0% as there'll be no-one eligible left to apply.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Break on through to The Other Side

If you've ever tried contacting the relevant research and development office at your local NHS Trust, you'll know the frustrations of trying to get the name of someone to call. Yesterday I tried to track down the contact details of the Maidstone & Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust Research and Development Department. Their website was very welcoming and positive, proclaiming that the Trust was 'committed to ongoing research and development to seek out new ways of improving health and healthcare.'

Great. But who do I call?

They suggested the switchboard. Hmm. If you've ever tried calling the switchboard of a small organisation (not pointing any fingers, BA), let alone a sprawling behemoth like an NHS Trust, you'll know that's a non-starter.

However, help is at hand. Nicole Palmer, the Ethics & Governance Officer here at Kent, is a past master at cutting through the complexities of NHS structures, and suggested that I should start with the NHS R&D Forum. This is a network for those involved in managing and supporting R&D in health and social care, and aims to (whisper it) facilitate interaction, and share best practice. Better still they have a list of the contact details of every R&D dept of every NHS Trust in the country.

Swoon! So you no longer need to bang your head against the wall as you're put on hold by the switchboard operator. Thanks very much to Nicole for this top tip.

Monday, 5 September 2011

I Predict(ed) a Riot (Research Funding Call)

Cast your mind back 26 days. Yes, I know, it seems like decades ago now. Before the holidays. Before the return to work. Even before the return to school. Well, 26 days ago I was trying to predict when the Research Councils would issue a call for proposals on the London Riots.

The piece led to a short Twitter exchange in which I discussed the possible timeframe for a call. I was thinking it would be about six months, but Catherine Baker noted that there was already a call for papers on Breivik, around 20 days after the events in Norway. In the end I have to give it to Kate Bradley who accurately suggested four weeks. I thought that was hasty, but lo and behold, the LSE today announced that it had been funded to look at 'the causes and consequences of the English riots last month.'

Fabulous! The only thing stopping me handing over a big, glittering prize to Kate for her shrewd insight that, frankly, borders on clairvoyance, is that it was the Joseph Rowntree Foundation funding the research and not the Research Councils. 'There have been no attempts to systematically speak to those involved in the riots', gushes the LSE press release. Well, it was just a month ago. Give them time.

Moreover, I don't remember seeing the call for this. Given the usually glacial timeframe for funders to issue a call and assess applications, the haste of this announcement borders on the unseamly. How was Professor Tim Newburn identified so quickly as the worthy recipient of Rowntree's largesse? Hmm, I'd love to know, so that I can be well positioned for the next big news story.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Vive la Révolution! Oh, on Second Thoughts...

An interesting piece in this week's Times Higher had Paul Jump baying for the ESRC's blood as the Council announced its plunging success rates. The overall success rate fell to 16 per cent, 'a decline of one percentage point' screeched Jump, a modern day Tricoteuse, calling on Robert Dingwall to be his Robspierre and release the blade on the ESRC. Dingwall duly obliged. 'It may be time to put the ESRC out of its misery,' he intoned, sadly, suggesting that it might be just as well to distribute the money via QR funding.

Dingwall's view echoes that of Baroness Greenfield, also quoted by Jump in the THE in May. 'Her "very heretical" suggestion...is to abolish the research councils and research excellence framework and divide the research budget, along with the "vast sums saved from the bureaucracy", equally among researchers.'

Is there some kind of agenda amongst the sans-culottes of the Times Higher? Part of me is quite attracted by these radical suggestions. There is a sense in the community that going for Research Council funding is now little better than a lottery. And perhaps Baroness Greenfield has a point: she suggests that we divvy the Research Council budget (c£2.5bn) amongst all those who submitted to the RAE. This, she calculates, would result in something like £82-£100k each per year. It would certainly save us all a lot of bother.

But hold on. A more sceptical - and balanced - view comes from Adam Golberg at Nottingham. He, generously, puts a lot of the rhetoric in the article down to old fashioned journalese. 'It certainly got my attention,' he wryly notes. We still need the Research Councils, he suggests: the benefit of the current, dual support system is that whilst the Russell Group fat cats gets the lion's share of research funding, the project funding offered by the Research Councils allow the 'pockets of excellence' to still get funding for quality projects, wherever they're found. In addition, he notes the difference between a success rate based on all applications, and one based on viable applications. Apparently some 43% of ESRC applications never even made it to panel, and were withdrawn by the office or shot down by assessors. So if the denominator is effectively halved, it makes a much more healthy success rate.

So put down the pitchforks and Phrygian caps, and pause for thought. Now, more than ever, we need to make sure that all have access to Research Council funding, and that there is a champion for the social sciences. The system might not be perfect, but it's better than the alternatives. Though I have to admit, 'vive le statu quo' doesn't have quite the same ring...

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Horizon 2020: What's it Worth?

Plans for Horizon 2020 (which, as I don't need to remind you, is the new name for FP8) are coming on a pace, and UKRO reported today that the EC is currently grappling with the Gordian knot of what the Commission should pay successful applicants. The obvious answer would be, 'well, what they ask for,' but it's not that simple. Most European funding is given on a part funding or 'co-financing' basis, often calculated on an algorithm that makes the calculation of Easter look simple.

The current 'reimbursement rates' for FP7 are here (thanks, EUResearch, 'your Swiss guide to European research'). It all looks so simple, doesn't it? However, it's not as straightforward as the Swiss would have us believe, because these figures need to be cross referenced against an indirect cost rates matrix, which varies between institutions, and can be the 'simplified (ha!) method', 'standard flat rate', or 'special transition flat rate'.

Anyway, looking forward, UKRO has read the runes and it looks like the EC might propose Horizon 2020 reimbursement rates as follows:
  • up to 75% for research activities,
  • 50% for innovation activities, and
  • 60% for combined research and innovation activities.
  • Marie Curie and ERC would be up to 100%, as at present.
These would be for all participants (both academia and industry) and would apply to an entire project, so there wouldn't be the distinction for non-profit public bodies, secondary and higher education establishments, research organisations and SMEs, or for different activities within a project.

Indirect costs would be a flat rate 75% of personnel costs, again for all participants. No 'real' indirect cost system would be available. ERC would have indirect costs of 25% of personnel costs, and support actions (CSAs) 7% of personnel costs.

UKRO has already had feedback on these proposals from a handful of institutions, most of whom are worried that the rates would work out worse than those currently being offered. They weren't sure that having a single rate was all it was cracked up to be, and were particularly worried that management costs would be less than 100%, making coordination a lot less attractive. Also, the lower reimbursement rate for mixed activity projects (including research and innovation, which the EC is particularly keen to encourage) might actually discourage organisations from participating in such activities. As to indirect rates, most would prefer the current 'special transition flat rate' (of 60%) to continue.

Those institutions that have done some modelling believe that only projects that are personnel-heavy would be better under the new regime. In addition, the ERC might be badly hit, with a move from a 20% flat rate for indirect costs to 25% for personnel-only costs could be significant. There might be some savings made in the cost of managing the grants, but these, it was thought, would be outweighed by the losses.

The full UKRO analysis is available here (you have to be a subscriber to access this) and they would welcome other feedback by 9 September. So get your calculators out and get modelling!

Forthcoming European Funding Events

Part of the problem with going on holiday - or rather, the coming back - is remembering what you've already publicised and what you haven't. I don't think I've mentioned these on the blog yet. If I have, well, nod politely, smile wanly, and pass on.

We’ll be running a couple of European Funding events this year:

  • European Funding Clinic (12-2pm, 15 September) This is intended for people who are applying to the current FP7 calls. It will be an opportunity for applicants to present and discuss their proposals with two experienced academics (Simon Thompson and Jenny Billings) who have been applicants, grant holders and reviewers for the EC.
  • Eurovision: Is European Funding for Me? (w/c 7 May, TBC) This will be a rerun of the well-attended event in January. It will look, honestly, at the pros and cons of European funding, and may include an overview of any draft Work Programmes we have at that point.
These event are free and open to all staff. Do let me know if you would like to come along to either or both of these.