Tuesday, 20 December 2011

I Fought the Law, and the Law Published Proposals for Post-2014 Funding

Now, as if all the excitement over the publication of the Horizon 2020 proposals wasn't enough, news is coming through that the European Commission is busily rearranging deckchairs elsewhere within its future funding provision. The Directorates General for Justice, Home Affairs and Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion have got together to simplify the smorgasbord on offer. Less, in this case, may be more.

Currently DG Justice runs six - yes, six - programmes, covering various justice, rights and equality issues. These will be simplified to just two:
  • Justice Programme, which aims to promote 'judicial co-operation in civil and criminal matters...where obstacles in cross-border judicial proceedings are eliminated.' The Programme will have €472m to play with, and hopes to tackle judicial cooperation, access to justice and reducing drug demand and supply.
  • Rights & Citizenship Programme aims 'to contribute to the development of an area of freedom, security and justice, by promoting and supporting the effective implementation of a Europe of rights.' They have slightly less than Justice (€439m), and the hope is that this should be enough to do away with discrimination, basically.
Over in DG Home Affairs they're replacing their two current programmes with two more, 'same but different' programmes.
  • The Asylum and Migration Fund does what it says on the tin, and deals with issues of migration. Its overall budget will be around €3.9bn.
  • The Internal Security Fund will support the EU approach to law enforcement co-operation, including the management of the EU's external borders. It's budget will be around €4.65bn.
Finally, in DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, they're relabelling their three current programmes as a shiny new 'Programme for Social Change and Innovation (PSCI)'. I'm sure I don't need to remind you what the three current programmes are:
  • The Programme for Employment and Social Solidarity (PROGRESS), which will get €574m;
  • The European Employment Services (EURES), which will get €143.7m, and
  • The European Progress Microfinance Facility, which will get €191.6m.
Thanks to UKRO for the headsup on this. Now as you were: back to the mince pies and mulled wine.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Further Changes to NERC Schemes

The Natural Environment Research Council has announced several changes to its responsive mode portfolio, which will take effect from 1 January.

Consortium Grants replaced by Large Grants
The Consortium Grant Responsive Mode scheme will be replaced by a new Large Grant scheme. The Large Grant scheme will continue to support adventurous, large-scale and complex research tackling big science questions, which cannot be addressed through other NERC funding opportunities. Key changes in comparison to the previous Consortium scheme are as follows:
  • There will no longer be a requirement for a minimum of three eligible investigators based in separate participating organisations.
  • A minimum funding level of £1·2m (100% FEC) will be introduced (the maximum funding level of £3·7m remains unchanged).
  • There'll be an outline stage. This will be assess on 'potential excellence' and 'fit to scheme'.
  • Next deadlines are: Outline Proposal Closing Date: 1 March 2012; Full Proposal Closing date: 15 November 2012 (tbc).
  • The assessment process and documentation required for submitting Large Grant full proposals is unchanged from the Consortium scheme.
Standard Grants
A maximum funding level of £1·2m (100% FEC) will be introduced for Standard Grants. This change is to provide clear differentiation between the Standard Grant scheme and the new Large Grant scheme. The minimum funding level for Standard Grants is also amended to £65,000 (100% FEC).

New Investigator Grants
Following completion of the 2012 call (deadline 1 Feb), the New Investigator competition will cease to operate as a separate scheme and will be incorporated into the Standard Grant scheme. Eligibility will not change. New Investigator proposals will no longer be subject to any specific funding limits or restrictions. The ability to submit a New Investigator application via the Standard Grant call will be available from the December 2012 closing date onwards.

Urgency Grants
Some modifications will be made to clarify the remit of the scheme and circumstances that will be accepted as grounds for an Urgency application. The application and assessment process will also be updated.

There's no indication as to whether these changes are the result of the new moptop director,Duncan 'call me Rick' Wingham.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

EPSRC & the Difficulty of 'National Importance'

I wrote last month about EPSRC's plan to include 'national importance' as a criterion for judging funding applications. At their Regional Event in London yesterday they gave a little more idea what they had in mind. However, it was clear that they were still (as Catherine Coates said) in 'listening mode', and were keen to get feedback on their proposals.

Since announcing their plans, EPSRC have taken time to try and pin down 'national importance'. It is currently envisaged as research that will have an impact in 10-50 years time, and that:
  • is key to maintaining the health of other research disciplines;
  • directly contributes to addressing key UK societal challenges;
  • contributes to current or future UK economic success;
  • enables future development of key emerging industries.
Whilst it might be tempting to dismiss this as too vague and too long term to be worth engaging with, I'd urge caution. After all, 'national importance' is now the second criterion after research quality, with impact, track record and resources/management trailing behind.

However, it will still be a challenge to put meat on these bones, and also to make the case for today's research being key to developments in fifty years time. Imagine if EPSRC had introduced this in the 1980s: the issues of national importance would have been the coming ice age and the threat from the Soviet Union. As for smart phones, Star Trek Communicators were as close as we got. And you couldn't even text on them. And that was only thirty years ago.

So looking into the future to predict national importance is tough. Moreover, even though this is the Number 2 criterion, it will have to jostle for space in the 'Case for Support.' It will not have a separate attachment, unlike the Number 3 criterion, impact.

And, whilst it's going to be tough for applicants to try and make the case for national importance, it's going to be every bit as hard for the peer reviewers to sift on this basis. This was clear when EPSRC got us to have a go, using abstracts from previously successful applications. We sat there, huddled around the abstracts, trying to second guess where the research might lead.

However, Paul Thompson rounded off the session by bringing a sense of perspective. There was already an expectation that applicants should make the case for the importance of their research; all the EPSRC were doing was making this explicit. As with impact, get others to have a look at your application, and get help from Research Services in identifying and framing national importance.

Pass Notes: EPSRC Regional Event

Ooo! Regional Event! Brilliant! Is that like the Radio 1 Roadshow? Um..

I love the Radio 1 Roadshow! Gary Davies, Bruno Brookes, Sinitta singing her latest hit...Hmm. I think you'll be a little disappointed with the EPSRC Regional Event, then.

What? Are there no celebrities? Not even a minor pop star? No, I'm afraid not. Although EPSRC's Liam Blackwell does bear a passing resemblance to Evan Davis off Dragons' Den.

He's not exactly the Hairy Cornflake, though, is he? Well no, but he is very knowledgeable about the changes to the EPSRC's peer review process for deciding on equipment.

Is that anything to do with 'Bits & Pieces'? In a way, yes. When EPSRC's capital budget was cut by 50% they had to decide what they were going to do about equipment costs.

50%! Blimey! Blimey indeed. It meant that EPSRC had to rethink how it was going to share out what was left.

I imagine they came up with something simple and transparent. Hmm. Well. If you are applying for less than £10,000, it goes through the normal channels. However, if it's for £10,000-£121,588 you'll only get 50% of the costs, and you'll have to share the equipment and justify the costs. More than that, and the equipment can't be limited to a single project. The application will get seen by a separate Strategic Equipment Panel, and you'll have to sign your name in blood, and get a special dispensation from the Queen.

Really? Well, the last bit was stretching the truth a little...

So did Evan – I mean Liam – say anything else? He did give some hints and tips for those wanting to apply for equipment costs. Before you do anything else, talk to EPSRC about your plans. Check whether the same or similar equipment is available at your university or elsewhere...

Slow down! I'm trying to write this down, but my Simon Bates pen has run out. Just listen and try to remember it. So talk to the EPSRC; check whether similar equipment's available close by already; work out how you're going to share access, and charge for it; and check how hard it is to actually get that bit of kit.

So basically do your homework first. You're not as stupid as you look.

It's all the Radio 1 Roadshows I used to listen to. There's nothing you can't learn from Steve Wright in front of an excitable audience on the seafront at Bridlington. Hmm.

Do say: Hello, you don't know me, but I hear you have a Large Hadron Collider going spare...

Don't say: I can pay you in Radio 1 merchandise.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Catapults Are Go!

The new Innovation and Research Strategy was published today by the Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). This sets out what the Government is going to do to encourage collaboration between the private and public sector, and embed innovation in the heart of any recovery.

The marvellous Mark Leach has had an early look at this, and has summarised the doorstop document brilliantly in the WonkHE blog. As he says, 'it's long, it’s nebulous and it can sometimes read more like a laundry list than a truly coherent strategy document.' So you're in for a treat.

He's done a great job in summarising it, and I won't try to do the same. If you want to get a flavour of what BIS are planning, go to his blog. However, one of the highlights of the Strategy is the strange construction toy language that the BIS use throughout. They talk of the Research Councils developing a 'gateway to research', 'catapults', 'launchpads' and 'clusters', 'hot spots', and 'acceleration'.

You can just imagine them, in short trousers, playing with their Meccano sets, building their gateways and catapults, humming the theme tune to the Thunderbirds as they identify 'hot spots' around their 'launchpads'.

However, whilst I love this language, I'm not entirely convinced that they've chosen the right metaphors to use for developing sustainable, productive relationships. After all, weren't catapults intended ultimately for projecting inert objects great distances to maim, murder and maul? And don't hot spots exist primarily in vulcanology to describe an area of deadly, life-destroying volcanic activity? And aren't launchpads primarily associated with the costly cul de sac that was the Apollo space programme?

That's the danger of using words creatively in policy documents: you never know what it might trigger in the audience's mind. Moreover, after Iraq, you would have thought that Whitehall would be somewhat wary about sexing up dossiers to appeal to a disinterested public.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

What Are the ESRC Strategic Priorities for?

In the thick of the back-slapping love-in that was the ESRC Open Meeting last night, I felt a little like Banquo's ghost. I'm not saying that Paul Boyle's murdered anyone recently to be Thane of Swindon, or anything, it's just that I felt a little out of place. Don't get me wrong: I love the ESRC and admire all who sail in her, and I was made to feel very welcome, but I was taken aback by how uncritical the audience seemed to be. The questions were, generally, along the lines of, 'Paul, could I just agree with the previous questioner by saying how brilliant you are?' The toughest questions were saved for government departments (Boo! Hiss!) which, it was generally agreed, weren't pulling their weight in (a) using ESRC-sponsored research, and (b) telling the world how brilliant the ESRC was.

So, like the oik that I am, I waded in with an everso, everso slightly critical question. Feeling a little like a naughty schoolboy before the headmaster, I asked, - em – what did the panel think of Sir Paul Nurse's comments last week, when he took a side swipe at the EPSRC by attacking the concept of funders as 'sponsors'? After all, the ESRC's three 'strategic priorities' seemed to be a move in this direction.

Paul Boyle chortled like an indulgent Dumbledore, 'I certainly wouldn't want to comment on a sister research council,' he began, before explaining how the ESRC was cleverly treading the tightrope between shepherding the sector and giving them the space to do whatever they wanted via their responsive mode schemes.

Well, yes and no. You see, my problem with the ESRC priority areas is that I just don't get the point. For all its faults, the EPSRC is at least putting its money where its mouth is. You may disagree with the policy of 'shaping' its remit, but it's obviously decided what is important, and is now steaming ahead with putting into practice the changes necessary. Their priority areas do, at least, have some value – for better or worse.

The ESRC, on the other hand, has consulted widely, and has produced a 'bottom up' list that is so broad as to be almost meaningless:
  • economic performance and sustainable growth;
  • influencing behaviour and informing interventions;
  • a vibrant and fair society.
Well, that's pretty much the ESRC's remit covered, then.

But what are social scientists meant to make of – or do with – this list? It was made clear that the priorities wouldn’t play a part in responsive mode funding; indeed, at the ESRC Study Day in September Michelle Dodson said that the ESRC would ‘only exceptionally’ provide ‘new investments’ in these areas.

So they don’t want to railroad the sector with the priorities, nor do they want to provide much funding for them. What's left? What are they for, and what will they do? Dodson did say that the priorities would be fulfilled by ‘enhancing impact from existing investments’ and ‘encouraging investments to work together.’

Make of that what you will. Of course, if you don’t like them, you needn’t worry, because there might well be a new set along in due course. Whilst they don’t want to revise them each year they might be (ahem) ‘refreshed annually.’

Okay, so I may joke about these priorities, but I do think there is an important point to make here. There’s been a lot of light and heat generated by these: as Boyle suggested, there was a long consultation process, involving 'taskforces', 'frameworks', 'discussions', and 'comment', to arrive at these fairly anodyne aspirations. The ESRC should now either back the priorities by committing wholeheartedly to them [*shudder*], or, more preferably, drop the pretence at being directive and allow the sector to decide for itself – through the peer review and funding of excellent research – what its priorities are.

Monday, 5 December 2011

To Arrive Where We Started

I mentioned the launch of Horizon 2020 last week. Looking through the detail I was interested to see that the proposed reimbursement rates are, to quote the League of European Research Universities (LERU), 'a true simplification for the participants, not only for the administrators handling the budget, but also, and very importantly, for the principal investigators.' Like LERU, I was pleased about this, though the European Universities Association (EUA, AKA the People's Front of Judea) is not so happy, though, seeing it as 'a clear step backwards'.

But what's not to like? The EC is proposing that it will fund 100% or direct costs, and 20% of indirect costs for all research projects. This would replace the current system which funds according to the activity, with research activities being funded at 75%, management activities at 100%, and demonstration activities at 50%. Moreover, indirect costs are calculated at 60%. As you can imagine, this all causes a large amount of stress and brain ache for both applicants and research offices, especially as the result often ends up as a figure roughly equivalent to 100% direct +20% indirect.

So top marks to the EC for taking the simple route. Interestingly, I was told that a similar algorithm had been used by them in previous iterations of the Framework Programme (though before my time). All of which brought to mind TS Eliot in Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Life, the Universe and Everything: STFC Publishes Its Roadmap

For anyone who uses Twitter on a regular basis, you know the situation. A gnomic tweet appears on your timeline, and you find yourself having to find out more. In my case it was from the STFC feed, @STFC_matters: 'have you seen the STFC Science Roadmap?' Of course, my natural reaction was to reply with a facetious 'why, have you lost it? I'm sure I saw it in the glove compartment, under that tin of travel sweets.'

But I was intrigued, and wanted to find out more. I like the idea of roadmaps, which provide certainty and direction. I was wondering what directions I could get from the STFC, given that it deals with astronomy, particle and nuclear physics. 'Excuse me mate: could you tell me the way to Alpha Centuri?' 'Sure, no worries: head for Betlelgeuse, take a left at Andromeda and you can't miss it'.

As to certainty, that seems to be something of a moot point in particle physics at the moment, given that the embarrassing lack of the Higgs Boson threatens to undermine all physics. Maybe the Higgs Boson is in the same place as the STFC Science Roadmap? Have they not tried retracing their steps?

Anyway, I thought it would be worth having a look at the Roadmap itself. I'd encourage you all to have a look too. I love it because it conveys that childlike sense of wonder that you have about science, before it's drained out of you at secondary school through boring afternoons watching chemistry practicals going wrong. 'What you should have seen, boys, is an exothermic reaction that created a spectrum of iridescent colour, accompanied by a nuclear boom that ushered in visions of an unseen universe just beyond our reach. If you got a dull, muddy mixture and a muted pop then you have failed to follow your worksheet properly. Have a detention.'

No, the STFC has reignited the majesty of science for me. However, I am slightly surprised at the simplicity of the questions around which the Roadmap is built:
  • How did the universe begin and how is it evolving?
  • How do stars and planetary systems develop and is life unique to our planet?
  • What are the fundamental constituents and fabric of the universe and how do they interact?
  • How do we explore and understand the extremes of the universe?
Wow! Surely to get answers to questions of this magnitude it requires a mix of undergraduates, late nights and large amounts of mind altering substances? It would save STFC an awful lot of money and who knows? We may have the answers by dawn. Either that or we'll be overrun with dazed, barefoot students wandering around with guitars, not entirely sure how they got here. Which brings us right back to those key STFC questions...

Thinking in CinemaScope

With the recent doom laden news about small grant funding, academics are having to Think Big when it comes to projects. Yesterday's Grants Factory workshop focused on how they could develop their ideas in 'CinemaScope'.

Liz Mansfield kicked off by sounding out the participants about their hopes and fears for the session. Common threads emerged: how should I start? What should the scale be? How do I integrate different work packages, and how should I deal with uncertainty? What costs should I include, and how can I justify them? What should my submission strategy be?

Jon Williamson took over to talk about how to develop a research funding profile, how to 'upscale' a project, and the pros and cons of large collaborations. He suggested that a 'funding profile' was a crucial element of a grant proposal, providing reassurance to the reviewers and panellists that you can lead a larger project and can deliver the goods.

Whilst not everyone will have a gilt edged funding profile already, you should demonstrate how you have already engaged with external funding, and successfully managed an award - of whatever scale. There is a natural progression, from PhD award to postdoc fellowships, conference grants and small grants. Other grants, such as networks, demonstrate how you have coordinated different partners. All these grants provide the platform, the background, the foundation for the larger projects.

If you haven't secured funding yet, don't give up hope: you could think about acting as a Co-I on a project led by a more experienced PI, or have in place a strong project management framework, including a committee whose members have been project leaders.

But how should one start planning a project? Liz Mansfield suggested that, rather starting with a research question, or even with the final outcome, you should leapfrog to the point when the project is done and dusted. For her the starting point should be the memory of it: how is it remembered? How has it been assessed? How has it been judged?

This may seem simplistic, but pause for a minute and try putting this into practice. What is your area of research? What is your ultimate goal? From that point, work backwards and work out what steps you will need to achieve that goal. By thinking of the final memory, it will force you to be realistic about both the methodology, but also about the dissemination. And, for both, it will force you to think seriously about the resources you will need to effectively fulfil them. The beauty of this is that it will give you a macro oversight of your project that will naturally trigger questions about how best to construct its framework and micro management.

We're hoping to run the session again next year and, in the meantime, are planning to run a series of 'mock panels' in the Spring Term at which applicants can sound out others about their projects. Do get in touch if you're planning a large project, and want to move it from TV to the cinema screen.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Horizon 2020 Proposal Published

Get ready with the party poppers. Cue the scratchy copy of 'Ode to Joy' on the turntable. Don the cardboard hats depicted the flags of all (EU) nations. For yesterday the EC officially published the proposal for Horizon 2020. Hurray!

This marks the formal beginning of the new Framework Programme, by which the European Commission will distribute its research funding. There's been plenty of rumour and discussion as it has developed so far, but the publication yesterday gives us the starting point for the EC's negotiations with the European Parliament and Council, before the proposals are adopted at the end of 2013, and H2020 begins in January 2014.

The EC has set up a new website to mark the occasion. Here you can read about the background to the development of the proposal for Horizon 2020, and a timeline to outline key milestones in the forthcoming discussions as well as more details on each of the proposed areas and links to key documentation.

Better still, there's a page on which a new video will be added each day in the run up to the launch of Horizon 2020. That's 731 videos! I bet after the first 100 they'll be running short of ideas and taking the best viral hits from YouTube as their own. Watch out for an appearance by Benton/Fenton.

In summary, the Commission has proposed a budget of €80bn for the seven year Framework. It will be based on three specific objectives:

1. Excellent Science (EUR 24.6 billion) which will include:
  • European Research Council (EUR 13.2 billion; 77% increase compared to FP7 funding for ERC);
  • Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) (EUR 3.1 billion);
  • Marie Curie Actions (EUR 5.75 billion) ; and
  • Research Infrastructures (EUR 2.4 billion).
2. Industrial Leadership (EUR 17.9 billion)
  • Key industrial technologies: nanotechnologies, information communication technologies, biotechnologies and space (EUR 13.7 billion);
  • Access to risk finance (EUR 3.5 billion); and
  • Support to SMEs with high growth potential.
3.Societal Challenges (EUR 31.7 billion)
  • Health, demographic change and well-being;
  • Food security, sustainable agricultures, marine and maritime research and the bio-based economy;
  • Secure, clean and efficient energy;
  • Smart, green and integrated transport;
  • Climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials; and
  • Inclusive, innovative and secure societies.
In addition, the European Institute of Technology (EIT) will have a budget of EUR 2.8 billion to fund six new Knowledge Innovation Communities. The first KIC call will be in 2014 and will include:
  • innovation for healthy living and active ageing;
  • food4future; and
  • raw materials.
A second wave will be published in 2018 with proposed topics of added value manufacturing, smart secure societies and urban mobility.

So watch this space as the proposal develops, and make sure to visit the EC's own Video Vault. Thanks, as ever, to UKRO for the headsup on this.