Monday, 30 April 2012

For Those About to Fail, We Salute You!

In January this year I reported that the ERC had been inundated by applications to its Synergy scheme. The following month it published its Guide for Peer Reviewers, and I've been meaning to write about this for some time - two months in fact. It makes for some interesting reading, and brings home how hard it will be for the ERC to cut 710 applications down to 10-15 awards.

Although the ERC states that there will be a 'two-step peer review evaluation', the process will be more complicated than that. Here it is, step by step.
  1. Pre-selection. The chairs of the five peer review panels will cull the number of proposals to a more manageable number. The Guide suggests '7 times the indicative budget'. Assuming that the majority of applicants have put in the maximum allowable (€15m - and, if you're going to go for it, you may as well go for it), that means that this will cut out 90% of the applications. That's quite a cut.
  2. Panel. With what's left (c70-105 applications) the panel members will review them and gather to discuss them. They will whittle the applications down to '2.5 times the indicative call budget'. So that's another two thirds gone.
  3. New Panel. The original panel will now be exhausted, and will be discarded like empty husks. A new set of panellists will be selected. They will convene and cut the applications to '2 times the indicative budget' - i.e. 20-30 applications. 
  4. Interview. Anyone left standing will be invited to interview, and there might be site visits as well.

Blimey. The Apprentice and The X Factor have nothing on this. Perhaps the ERC can generate a little extra income by selling the television rights? And introduce a fifth round that's something like The Hunger Games? I can see it now, with each candidate being paraded around Brussels in chariots prior to the final round.

Better still, perhaps Joachim Phoenix can play the panel chair, and Russell 'Group' Crowe a jobbing prof going for the Synergy grant that will release him from the treadmill of the application process.

If there are any Hollywood producers reading this, give me a call. I tell you, there are plenty more ideas where that came from.

Two New Funding Officers

With recent changes in Research Services, we've recruited two new Funding Officers.

Dr Helen Leech has started as the temporary Research Funding & Contracts Officer for Medway. She will be initially based at the Canterbury campus while she is trained in Research Services, but do feel free to contact her if you are in Medway to set up a meeting or to talk about research funding issues.  

Meanwhile, Brian Lingley will be taking over full responsibility for the Social Sciences. He is joining us from Kent Innovation and Enterprise (KIE), where he was responsible for helping academics with enterprise-related schemes, such as the ESRC Follow on Fund. He will be a huge asset to the office, and I would encourage you to get in touch with him with any questions or queries you have about getting research funding.

And me? With Helen and Brian starting it will allow me to concentrating more on cross-disciplinary initiatives, on providing events and training that are relevant to all faculties (such as the Grants Factory), and on championing and strategically developing research funding at Kent. So you’ve not heard the last of me yet...

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Beware the Poets

I'm worried about those clever people at Polaris House. Our great and glorious research leaders, those academic taste makers who hold UK funded research in the palms of their hands, seem to be entering the world of self parody.

A couple of weeks ago I devised the Research Council Priority Generator. This randomly mashed together abstract nouns to create strategic priorities that sounded edgy and thoughtful, but were ultimately empty and meaningless.

Whilst it highlighted how randomness could produce apparent profundity, I thought it was too exaggerated and  stupid to really bear any resemblance to reality. How wrong I was. Within hours of launching the Generator, the AHRC had produced its latest 'emerging theme': 'Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past'.

Beautiful. I couldn't have invented a better nonsense programme myself. But, oh, it got better. The AHRC weaved together a fine piece of poetic prose to explain the rationale of the theme: it was, they gushed, 'an opportunity for generate new novel understandings of the relationship between the past and the future, and the challenges and opportunities of the present through a temporally inflected lens'.

'New novel'? Really? 'A temporally inflected lens'? If I had a temporally inflected lens I'd be sure to take it down to Jessops to have it looked at.

But the muse is upon them, and they continue in a stream of consciousness that would make Molly Bloom blush:
'...these include questions around what is meaningful about continuity and change, and the role that narratives, experiences, visualisations, performances and stories have to play in these processes. Issues around understanding modes of cultural learning and intergenerational equity, as well as questions relating to authority, ownership and justice within and across time, may help inform understanding of current and future global challenges faced by society today. Technological development, alternative lifestyle movements, and the nature of ideological and philosophical, ethical and creative, historicised and imagined perspectives jostle for attention and require a diversity of approaches and disciplinary engagements for the theme to reach its full potential.'
It's like a postmodern disciplinary shopping list, complete with an unreliable narrator. It's all there, but it's up the reader to try and make sense of it.

However, the AHRC is not alone in bowing to the creative urge. Following swiftly on this is EPSRC's announcement that it will be running a 'creativity greenhouse'. They've already had us playing in 'sandpits', and the TSB is encouraging us to develop 'catapaults'. What analogy, metaphor or simile will they reach for next? The ESRC Trouser Press? The NERC Hostess Trolley? The BBSRC Kenwood Mixer? Now there's an idea for a new generator...

But should we welcome all this creativity? After all, other great leaders have succumbed to the inner poet. Barack Obama has written poetry, as has Jimmy Carter. But then, apparently, so has Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ivan the Terrible and Goebbels.

Hmm. On second thoughts perhaps the Research Councils should stick to their day jobs before they take UK research any further into this weird parallel universe.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

New EPSRC Chairman

EPSRC has announced that its new chairman is the former chief executive of energy company E.ON, Paul Golby. Vince is pleased, David is delighted, and Paul himself is looking forward to it.

As to lookalikes, do I hear any advances on erstwhile World of Sport presenter, the badger-quiffed Dickie Davies? Just add a 'tache...

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

In Praise of Gold Stars

I was very pleased to read in last week's Times Higher about plans by the Association of University Administrators (AUA) to introduce an accreditation system for its members. Members can gain accreditation if they can demonstrate that they have worked at least 25 hours on improving at least three of the AUA's 'professional behaviours', including 'working with people', 'embracing change' and 'providing direction'.

This is to be welcomed, and brings us laggards and ne'erdowells that make up the core of university administration into the bright, sunny uplands of modern corporate life. We can now aspire to real progress through a structure which is similar to - but, let's be frank, a pale imitation of - the McDonalds star system. This provides McDonalds restaurant employees with gold stars when they have achieved certain goals. Unfortunately I was not able to discover what these goals were on the internet, but  'working with people', 'embracing change' and 'providing direction' may well play a part.

So here's to the brave new world of AUA accreditation! I look forward to receiving my accreditation badge, with relevant stars, which I will wear around  the campus with pride. And who knows? If I earn a full complement of stars, I may be in line for secondment to Hamburger University.

Ah, I can but dream.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Events of May

It's like 1968 all over again. Sort of. Well, a lot of the events we've got planned may well mark 'the beginning of a prolonged struggle'. But be brave! Come along to one of the many events we've got planned, and we'll help you in the (funding) struggle. All are free, there are refreshments, and all staff are welcome, but do let me know if you would like to attend any or all of them so that I can get an idea of numbers.

  •  European Research Council Starting Grants (Keynes LT3, 12:30 -2pm) The next round of European Research Council Starting Grants is due to open in July, with deadlines early in the new year. These grants are very generous, offering those with 2-12 years postdoc experience up to €1.5m for 5 years. Competition is fierce, but success rates are on a par with those for Research Councils. Jo Frost, our Brussels’ UK Research Office (UKRO) rep, will provide an insight into these grants, and Funding Officers will be on hand to offer practical advice about
  • Marie Curie Fellowships (Keynes LT3, 2pm – 3:30pm) Jo Frost will follow up her ERC talk by providing more information on the Marie Curie Fellowships. These are intended to encourage mobility for researchers within Europe. They can be on an individual basis, or as a network. The MC schemes are popular, and they have recently been revised by the EC. Jo will tell us more about these changes, and what the Commission has planned for the next Framework Programme.
  • PVC LUNCHTIME SEMINAR: ‘Europeanisation’ (Peter Brown Room, Darwin, 12:30-2pm) To mark Europe Day a special PVC’s Lunchtime Seminar will look at ‘Europeanisation.’ The Seminars offer a chance to find out about what research is happening across the University, and to meet others outside your School. The speakers are:  
Simone Glanert (Law):How ‘Common' Is a Common Law Without a Common Language and a Common Discourse: (Uncommon) Thoughts on the European Union’.
Ben Hutchinson (SECL): ‘International Challenges for National Archives’.
Roger Vickerman (Economics): ‘Economic integration through regional and transport policies in Europe’.
Paolo Dardanelli (Politics & IR): ‘European integration, party strategies, and state restructuring’.
  • GRANTS FACTORY: ‘Eurovision: the Pros and Cons of European Funding’ (Peter Brown Room, Darwin, 2pm-3:30pm) This is a rerun of last year’s sell-out seminar  that offers a warts and all view of the European funding. The EC is notorious for the complexity of its applications, but unlike the UK funding for research is ringfenced and growing. Jenny Billings (CHSS) and Simon Thompson (Computing), both veterans of EU funding, offer their insights into the highs and lows of applying for, managing and reviewing  European applications. Places are limited, so book early. 

10 May: UNDERSTANDING & APPLYING TO THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF HEALTH (NIHR) (Senate Building, 10am-4:30pm) Government funding for health-related research is distributed by the MRC and the NIHR. The MRC deals with basic research, the NIHR with research that will affect the NHS, including social care and public health research. Last year it gave out £210.5m of research grants through a range of programmes. This event will be a chance to understand how these differ and fit together. The programme will include talks by members of NIHR, as well as those who have had NIHR funding, and have helped with applications in the past. The full programme can be seen on the blog, here.

30 May: GRANTS FACTORY: Writing Better Bids (Venue TBC, 10am-12pm) This perennial favourite runs three times a year, and provides those attending with an overview of what makes a good application, and how to draft your application so that it is clear, readable and convincing. David Shemmings provides insights based on the ’Grants Factory’ method developed by Prof Andrew Derrington (formerly Dean of Social Sciences, now PVC at Liverpool) and Jacqueline Aldridge.  These are always well attended; book now if you’re planning to draft a proposal.