Tuesday, 31 January 2012

ERC Inundated by Applications for Synergy Grants

Interesting statistics have emerged from the European Research Council regarding the number of applications to the pilot round of the Synergy grants scheme. You will, of course, remember that this was launched in July to encourage academics to group together to be more than the sum of their parts. Like the Beatles. I mean, aside from the Frog Chorus, has Paul McCartney ever done anything that touches his work with John Lennon?

Anyway, as it was a pilot, they were only planning to fund 10 or so grants. However, they obviously touched a raw nerve of need amongst the European research community, because by close of play on 25 January they had received 710 applications. Now I'm no mathematician, but I make that to be a success rate of 1.41%. Eeek!

This brings back the heady days of the first round of the Starting Grants in 2007, when 9167 applicants applied for one of the 299 awards on offer. But even that offered a comparatively respectable 3.26% success rate - more than double the possible outcome for the Synergy Grants.

I'd love to know what's going through the mind of the ERC President Prof Helga Nowotny (whose surname, incidentally, looks a little like a mashup between the acronyms for the News of the World and Have I Got News for You). Panic? Fear? Or pleasure that, once again, the ERC has identified they type of funding that European researchers actually want: responsive mode, and generous.

I hope so. I hope that this experience does not deter the ERC from ever running the scheme again. Rather, I hope they bite the bullet and provide more funding for the scheme. There's obviously a pan-European appetite for such funding. Let's hope they're brave, recognise the demand, and provide the funding to at least push the success rate into double figures.

Final REF Criteria Published

The final versions of the REF Panel Criteria and Working Methods were published yesterday, and are available here.

Highlights include:
  • outputs pre-published in 2007 may be submitted as long as they were not submitted to RAE2008
  • the number of outputs required of ECRs remains as in the draft criteria
  • a new tariff has been introduced for the number of outputs required of staff who work part-time, go on secondment or have career breaks
  • working methods are now common across the whole exercise; not distinguished by panel
  • a reduction of one output per period of statutory maternity or adoption leave is allowed, with no minimum qualifying period
  • a reduction of one output per period of ‘additional paternity or adoption leave’ lasting 4 months or more.
Thanks to my colleague Clair Thrower for looking at the criteria and picking out these points. If you have specific questions about this do drop her a line.

Horizon 2020: Slides from UKRO Talk Available

Thanks to all those who were able to make it to the UKRO European Funding event on 20 January. The slides and the handout from the talk on Horizon 2020, together with the slides from the ERC workshop, are now available on the Research Services website, here (Kent login needed). If you have any questions about them, don’t hesitate to ask.

We are starting to take bookings for the next European funding event, due to take place on 9 May. This will focus on the pros and cons of European funding, led by two academics (Prof Simon Thompson (Computing) and Jenny Billings (CHSS)) who have considerable experience of both the highs and lows of engaging with the EC. Notes from last year’s event are available on the blog, here; if you’d like to take part in May do drop me a line.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

NERC Introduces Demand Management

NERC has become the third Research Council - after EPSRC and ESRC - to explicitly state that they want universities to 'self regulate' their applications. This announcement was triggered by worries about success rates in some of their schemes falling to 16%.

Whilst NERC already has in place some measures to 'manage demand' - eg limiting the number of applications an investigator can submit per call and restricting resubmissions - this hasn't stopped the success rates from sliding in recent years. They're hoping to reverse this by encouraging institutions to strip out applications which NERC would define as 'uncompetitive' (defined by them as scoring 6/10 or below at panel).

So what are they going to do?
  • firstly, ask institutions to nominate a point of contact for demand management;
  • secondly, in the summer, provide data on past performance to them. This will be repeated annually from autumn 2013. The data will apply to Urgency, Large and Standard Grants, but not Fellowships or outlines. It will include: success rates for all schemes; distribution of grades for funded and unfunded proposals by scheme; final moderated grades for all proposals from institution/department; relative performance of institution/department.
  • thirdly, from autumn 2012 NERC will (ahem) 'engage in a strategic dialogue' with institutions to provide information and advice in support of demand management, including setting targets for changes in submission behaviours. They can't meet with everyone in the first year, so those with the most applications, or with black marks in the NERC copy book, will be the first to get a visit from 'the management.'
So, at the moment, it looks to be relatively light touch: more ESRC than EPSRC. However, there will be the expectation that all research organisation will have their own internal quality control systems in place.

Who will be the next Research Council to fall in to line? Given the recent rumblings from Death Star House, my money's on the AHRC...

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Big Projects: the View from Research Services

Last term I took part in a Grants Factory event around developing 'big' projects. As part of this, I spoke briefly about issues that potential applicants should be aware of, gathered from the experience of Research Services in supporting bids.

Strong leader
Firstly, for a bid to be successful, it needs to have a strong leader. Not only do they need to have a single unifying vision, but they have to be persuasive and ruthless. They need to be able to attract the 'right' collaborators, but also need to be able to say no to those who aren't right for the project.

Talk to funder/Programme Manager
Secondly, you need to gather intelligence. Whilst most funders provide plenty of generic guidance, you need to try and get to the heart of what they really want. What are the politics behind the bid? Do they have in mind a particular structure, a particular project, a particular size? Talk to people at the funders and, if possible, the academics who helped to draft the call.

Preparing the bid
Thirdly, when it comes to the drafting of the bid, there are key elements to get right:
  • With lots of collaborators, there's a danger that different drafts of the application get confused. Use software - such as Sharepoint or Dropbox - to help wiht version control.
  • Face to face meetings are crucial for thrashing out the fundamentals.
  • Give yourself time. I've already talked about this in relation to European Funding applications, but it's true of all big bids. You need much, much more time than you think you might: time to make connections, to get the intelligence, to draft and redraft, to get feedback, to get accurate costings, and to get it signed off.
  • Make sure you've got the right partners. Sure, profile and research quality are important, but they have to be able to deliver the practicals. They must be trustworthy and dependable. They shouldn't be there as passengers. Your collaboration is only as strong as the weakest link. Once you've got the right people in place, make sure the management structures are appropriate and strong: it takes a lot of coordination.
  • Finally, make sure you have the contact details of your partners' research offices, and pass them on to us to liaise with them.
Post Award Issues
Even before you put pen to paper to draft the application, you should be aware of what you're letting yourself in for. Three issues that come up regularly with my colleagues dealing with the post-award side of things are:
  • Coordination: make sure you include the cost of an administrator/coordinator. This is crucial: it always takes much more effort, time and energy than you think;
  • Timesheets: a killer for European grants. Make sure you keep track of the amount of time you spend on the grant, and don't leave completing these until the last minute.
  • Equipment: some funders are unhappy if you don't purchase this as soon as the project starts.
The picture, in case you're wondering, is a picture of a Greek Orthodox priest herding cats. Now I'm not saying anything about the experience of coordinating colleagues when writing a bid, but...

Bookings Open for New Grants Factory Events

Bookings are now open for two spring term Grants Factory workshops.

Playing the Game: Dr Jenny Billings and Prof Sarah Spurgeon
Weds 15 February: 12.15-1.45pm

This lunchtime workshop is led by two successful Kent researchers with extensive experience of both winning and awarding research grants. It looks at winning research grants as a ‘game’ that applicants will play better if they understand the rules, the skills and the tactics needed for success. Prof Sarah Spurgeon (EDA) is an elected member of the EPSRC Engineering College and has received grants worth over £4 million from EPSRC, the Leverhulme Trust, the European Commission and both government and industry sources. Dr Jenny Billings (CHSS) is particularly experienced in large collaborative projects and has acted as an evaluator for the European Commission as well as wining and coordinating funded research projects from sources as diverse as the European Commission, the Big Lottery, health charities, primary care trusts and government sources. The event is largely discussion-based and Sarah and Jenny are pleased to welcome Dr Heather Ferguson (Psychology)and Dr Nicola Shaughnessy (Arts) who will join them to help lead the workshop. No advance preparation is required and sandwiches will be provided.

Writing Better Bids: Prof David Shemmings
Thurs 1 March: 10am- 12pm

Prof. David Shemmings has been running popular grant-writing workshops at the University of Kent and at a range of other institutions (including an ESRC-funded researcher development programme) since 2009. This informal talk (with plenty of opportunity for discussion and questions) provides a set of techniques that you can use to structure and write grant applications that appeal to busy, non-specialist decision makers and are more likely to succeed in research funding competitions. It explains: the decision-making process; the way that grant applications are used by referees and grants’ committees, and how to make your application stand out against the competition. No advance preparation is required and refreshments will be provided.

Both events are suitable for academic staff at any career stage and from any discipline. Places are limited and we have already received some advance bookings for both, so please let my colleague Jacqueline Aldridge know asap if you would like to attend (if you haven’t done so already) or want further information.

Leverhulme Bankrolls the BA Small Grants Scheme

Great news from the Mayfair Gentlemen's Club that is the BA HQ. As you will remember, the BA scrapped, and then reinstated, their Small Grants scheme. However, there was still some uncertainty hanging over the scheme: when I spoke to them at the time they said that they would make 'strong representations and arguments' to BIS to continue it.

Now Leverhulme has come riding over the horizon with a fistful of dollars. They are going to pump £1.5m into the scheme over the next three years. Adam Golberg at Nottingham has done more analysis of what this will mean in practice, and he reckons that it will be an extra 67 or so funded projects.

It remains to be seen whether the scheme will continue indefinitely, and what the success rate will be when the scheme reopens in the open. But in the meantime let's just thank Leverhulme for recognising the worth of small scale funding as an investment in the future.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

ESRC Opens Secondary Data Initiative

Last June I wrote about how the ESRC was going to implement its Delivery Plan. Yesterday news came through about one arm of this implementation: the Secondary Data Initiative. As you will doubtless remember, the ESRC scrapped its Small Grants scheme, with the exception of this Initiative. Backed by £10.8 million funding, it will offer grants of up to £200k to exploit major data resources that the ESRC and other agencies had already created.

These include cohort studies, the British Household Panel Survey, Understanding Society, census datasets, and the European Social Survey. In this first phase they will only be funding 20 or so projects, but if your research uses these or other sources of existing data, it's worth considering putting together an application. The deadline is 19 April; get in touch if you want any help with putting together an application.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

NERC Increases Size of Peer Review College

Hot on the heels of the ESRC's announcement that it is seeking new panel members, NERC is taking on additional members for its Peer Review College, raising the number from 450 to 600. This is 'to make involvement in NERC peer review activities more manageable and to allow NERC to widen the expertise-base of the College'. It is looking for members with all types of environmental sciences expertise, including those from the public and private sector user communities. The deadline for nominations is 27 January. More info here.

This, I think, is a Good Thing. One of the reasons for academics to fight shy of getting involved with the funders is the workload. If the research councils are able to increase the available pool of reviewers then, hopefully, it will lessen the load for all, as well as allowing more to see that the process of peer review is not the mysterious, loaded, unfair system that it can sometimes seem.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

But Who's Right? There's Only One Way to Find Out...

Well, knives are quietly being sharpened around EPSRC. The rumblings of discontent have been going on for some time, and touch on everything from the Council's 'remit shaping' exercise, to its 'national importance' criterion, to its removal of PhD students from its grants.

Now, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, 70 eminent scientists have vented their frustration. 'Taken together, [these actions] pose a serious threat to British science. EPSRC has exceeded its remit so spectacularly that it has lost the confidence of a significant proportion of the scientific community.'

Stuff and nonsense, say EPSRC. The fabulously named Attila Emecz, the EPSRC's Director of Strategy, dismissed the accusations as 'a major and gross misrepresentation.' Not only that, but the changes are, actually, brilliant: 'we believe the new policies will protect and improve UK research.'

But who's right? Well, in the words of Harry Hill, there's only one way to find out: 'FIGHT!' Crack open the popcorn, don the 3D glasses, put your feet up and watch battle commence.

Monday, 9 January 2012

ESRC Seeks New Panel Members

The ESRC’s peer review panels, which assess grant applications, are seeking new members in the following areas:

• Sociology, particularly sociology of health
• Socio-legal studies
• Science and technology studies
• Management and business studies, including accounting and finance
• Economics, particularly micro-economics

I would strongly encourage you to consider putting yourself forward, or suggest this to members of your School. The insights you will get as to the decision making process, as well as finding out about work going on at other universities, is invaluable. Deadline is 1 February 2012. More information is available here.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Looking to the Horizon: UKRO Talk - 20 Jan

‘Looking to the Horizon: the end of FP7 and the future of European funding’

Jo Frost, European Advisor, UKRO

12:30-14:00, 20 January 2012

Venue TBC

Jo Frost is the University’s representative at UKRO. Based in Brussels, she is tapped into official and unofficial sources of information at the Commission, and has a comprehensive understanding of how EC funding works. She will be looking, in this talk, at the final two years of FP7, and what the EC is planning for the new framework programme, ‘Horizon 2020’. The EC published its proposals for this before Christmas, and this will be an opportunity to get an idea of what is planned. In addition, with Research Council funding becoming more and more difficult to access, and European funding increasing (and ringfenced) until the end of 2014, there are still plenty of opportunities to consider applying to FP7. Jo will talk a little about recent changes to the programme that you might not have seen.

The talk is open to all. Tea and coffee will be available. If you would like to come along, contact me.

Jo will also be taking part in a workshop for those currently working on ERC proposals. If you would like to take part in this, and I haven’t contacted you already, do let me know.

Finally, Jo will return in May to take part in a Grants Factory session with Simon Thompson and Jenny Billings on the pros and cons of European funding (see the notes from last year’s session, here). This will be aimed at those who are new to European funding. I’ll send out more detail of this in due course.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Contemplating Turkeys

Dear David

Happy New Year to you. Whilst the rest of us were pulling crackers and flicking through the bumper copy of the Radio Times, it looks like you were hard at work planning the next phase of the Coalition's higher education strategy. Really David; you should have rested completely. Good policy does not come from contemplating turkeys.

I must admit that I was a little bewildered (as were many on Twitter) by the plans you announced today for privately-funded graduate institutions. Now I know I've had a long break (with the Guardian noting how befuddled the workforce is after the long Christmas 'Lull'), but am I missing something?

Run it by me again, David: you want universities to set up international collaborations, using private money, to found new research intensive 'hubs'? But the Government isn't going to contribute? Even the land for it is expected to be given, gratis, by a UK city. Would those be the same cities currently being squeezed by the Government's austerity measures?

I'm afraid it has the feeling of a magician's sleight of hand: if you twirl the handkerchief wildly enough, and blind us with magical words, will it make you seem dynamic, thrusting, forward thinking, and decisive - without really having to produce anything?

I don't think so. I'm pleased to read about your support for UK research and innovation, but if you really feel that 'high-tech, high-quality science and research...will drive economic growth as we go into the next decade', then why not invest in it? Sure, use the public funding to leverage private investment, but don't expect commercial organisations to come running to the aid of the UK's research base. If even the Government doesn't want to invest, why should anyone else?

As you suggest, 'our research community is the most productive in the world.' Let's do all we can to keep it so. Enough grand words. Time for some real commitment.