Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Road ahead for the NHS Health Research Authority

Janet Wisely is the office newbie at the NHS Health Research Authority. She’s only been the Chief Executive there for two weeks, but already she’s got to grips with the challenges and potential of the fledgling body. Speaking at the Kent and Medway Health Partnerships Research Event she outlined the fledgling body’s brief history.

The HRA took over responsibility for the ethical approval process for NHS research projects in December last year, and you can’t help feeling it’s been handed a bit of a poisoned chalice. Anyone who has tried applying for ethical approval will have their own horror stories around delays and unreasonable demands. As Janet spoke, an academic next to me was whispering and rolling his eyes.

However, Janet hopes to change all that. As well as a simplified, unified application system, she hopes to make the HRA more responsive, to provide constructive advice, and to turn around ‘95% of applications within 40 days.’

A bold ambition, and already the HRA is being more transparent in monitoring its performance towards this goal; have a look at the graphs and data that they have published on their website.  As well as speed, Janet wants to adapt the system so that it is more proportionate. For example, relatively straightforward projects should go through a light touch assessment that should see them returned within two weeks. At the same time she wants to improve the quality and consistency of assessments, which she recognises as somewhat lacking in the past.

I wish her well in these ambitions, and hope that, by the time she crests the hill between newbie and old-timer, my eye-rolling neighbour will be beaming instead.  

Friday, 22 June 2012

Science: It (Must Be a Borat) Thing

It's been a joy to follow today's Twitterstorm over the EC's 'Science: It's a Girl Thing' video. The video itself is pitched so perfectly that you can't help thinking that the EC drafted in Chris Morris or Sacha Baron Cohen to write and direct it. From the fixation on make up, to the music video styling, it's jaw droppingly awful. You watch it thinking, 'is this for real?'

Whilst I don't think it will attract any more women into the lab, I don't think it will put anyone off either. Women - and men - are more media savvy these days; they won't be swayed by this nonsense, and will recognise that it has nothing to do with real science.

Let's look on the bright side: it has, for better or worse, highlighted the issue of the gender imbalance in the lab. For a bit of Friday light relief, take a couple of minutes to watch it yourself:

H2020: Is Europe's Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

I attended the Research Europe Conference 2012 yesterday, which focused on the forthcoming Framework Programme, Horizon 2020. They'd rustled up an impressive roster of speakers, kicking off with the European research funding queen bee, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science.

She gave a confident and robust overview of the forthcoming framework programme. The Commission had become more open, and H2020 was the result of an extensive consultation. 'This is your programme', she asserted, whether you are a scientist, an entrepreneur, or a businessman, working for an SME or a multinational. It was intended to be enabling and inclusive, slashing red tape, and allowing 'more time in the lab, less on administration.'

At its heart was simplification. The complex structures of past frameworks had been boiled down to three pillars: support for excellent research, support for industrial leadership, and support for societal challenges. By keeping it simple, it was hoped that the best people would be encouraged to engage with Europe, including those who hadn't been involved before, or who were 'small players'. They would be willing to take risks, and decision making would be speedier. However, writ through the programme was excellence, and this would inform all that they did. In difficult economic times it was the countries that had invested in research and development that succeeded. Europe needed to grasp this nettle and accept this challenge.

Brave words, and she left the hall with a David Steel-esque rallying cry to return to your constituencies and prepare for – um – involvement. No sooner had she left the stage than Banquo entered in the shape of Chris Hull, Secretary General of EARTO, cooling the delegates ardour somewhat by highlighting the shortcomings of the plans.

He reminded the hall that, despite all the fanfare around the inclusion of 'innovation' in H2020, this had been the case before, and it hadn't been a great success. The Commission needed to look to the past and learn the lessons if it was to avoid repeating them. Whilst he recognised the worth of simplification, he dismissed the three pillars as nothing more than 'clever marketing': there was something there to please everyone, but would anyone be satisfied?

The wording of the Commission's proposals was ambitious, and the requested budget similarly so. But in reality, when compared to Europe's competitors, €80bn was the minimum that was needed to keep up. The Commission intended to use this budget wisely, to leverage money from private organisations and national public governments. However, with the Eurozone heading for melt down, national governments were unlikely to stump up any matched funding, and commercial organisations were likely to be more bear than bull.

He finished by signalling that a different style of programme management was needed if Horizon 2020 was to succeed. Governance should be the substantial focus, with stakeholder buy in. More than anything there was a need for more detail as to (a) what innovation was actually defined, and (b) how it would fit within programme governance. This, for Hull, was 'perhaps the critical, insufficiently addressed issue absent from the Commission's proposal.' 

Hull regularly comments on the H2020 LinkedIn Group, and I'd encourage you to join this group to get a sense of the way the wind is blowing as the Programme develops.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

'Monastic & Medieval': the Need for Change in UK Research

Day two of ARMA2012 began with another double-headed plenary. Say what you like about ARMA, but they do like their BOGOFs. This time there was a little more synergy between the two speakers. Prof Teresa Rees, PVC at Cardiff and head of the Leadership Foundation in Wales, started by casting her eyes to the stormy horizon. 'I advise the European Commission on research strategy,' she said, 'and they are worried about the UK's position globally.' Why? Because the UK's universities – in common with many on mainland Europe – are hidebound in tradition. They're so busy fussing about which gowns to wear and what the protocol is when addressing the sub-pro-deputy-vice-chancellor for the wine cellar that they're not noticing the young upstarts snapping at their heels. 'It's too medieval and monastic'. There's a need for fresh thinking, she suggested, from how to collaborate, to how to prioritise funding bids, to how to design projects to better reflect contemporary society. Academics and administrators need to work together in this.

Michael Jubb of the Research Information Network (RIN), and a member of the Finch Review, took over to talk about the challenges of expanding access to peer-reviewed research. The current avenues for dissemination are dominated by traditional subscription based journals. The internet had freed this up somewhat, but there was much more to do. He suggested that four elements need to be addressed:
  •  licence arrangements need to be extended to cover more libraries, more sectors;
  • policies need to be rewritten to proactively encourage or require publication in open access or hybrid journals;
  • public funding needs to be made available so that business can access research outputs;
  •  and institutional repositories need to be made more comprehensive, better linked, and easier to use.

So both speakers recognised the shortcomings of the status quo. I'll be interested to see whether their suggestions, their knowledge and their energy are enough to shift the monastic, medieval mass of research tradition in the UK.


The ARMA Conference 2012 kicked off with a two-headed plenary from Andrew Plume (Elsevier) and Sharmila Nebhrajani (AMRC). It was an odd combination: Plume gave us an overview of 'brain circulation' – that's the brain drain in old money – and Nebhrajani banged the drum for the value of the medical research charities' professional association. What did they have in common? Hmm. Availability seemed to be the uniting factor. That and an evangelical love of statistics.

Plume started by dispelling some myths. Rather than being a negative, the movement of talent brings enormous benefit. Not only do those who leave the UK usually return with additional skills, knowledge and experience, but the country also benefits from the 'inflow' of talent. Those coming are, according to Elsevier, more productive. Plume floated his proposition on a raft of numbers. The UK has the lowest number of 'stay at home' researchers: only 37% of British academics don't, at some stage in their career, move abroad, compared with 55% of Americans and 75% of Chinese academics. Elsewhere he produced graphs which showed the number of publications involving overseas partners. The UK has the largest proportion, but interestingly the EU27 graph looks very similar to the USA's, which might suggest that continent-wide collaboration makes it unnecessary to look further afield.

He then handed over to Nebhrajani, who executed a nifty hand brake turn to take the delegates in a completely different direction. The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) is an umbrella organisation that represents a huge variety of funders, including the behemoth that is Wellcome on one end of the spectrum to the likes of the CGD Society on the other. All have to have rigorous peer review of funding applications if they want to be a member, and some 94% of charitable giving to medical research in the UK is to an AMRC member. The benefits of membership are that AMRC can act as a 'kitemark' to reassure the public that they're the real McCoy, and not some fly by night outfit, but it also allows the members to access some Dept of Health support.

Nebhrajani did raise a couple of more general points. Firstly, she made the point the the research community has to start thinking now about how to justify the 'ringfence' that the government provided in the last Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in readiness for the next one  in a couple of years' time.  Secondly, she noted that charitable funding is beginning to fall: it fell by 1% in 2011-12 after rises of between 5-20% in the preceding four years. She finished by admitting that she was 'very worried' about cuts to NHS research funding, and the new landscape in which GPs would hold the purse strings. Not only did none of these locally-based commissioning groups currently talk about research, but in England and Wales the NHS was hamstrung by bureaucratic approval processes, meaning that projects took four times as long to get the nod than they did in Scotland or Germany.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

RCUK Publishes Impact Case Studies

Last week RCUK published impact case studies. The intention of this was, I think, twofold: to highlight to external bodies (such as the Treasury) that public money is being well spent, and to highlight to potential applicants examples of best practice. Having read them all now I feel that they might have succeed at the latter, but not necessarily the former. Which is a shame, as I do think that it's crucial to make the case for the importance of research to government and the wider world.

The case studies are split into four categories: ‘policy’,‘business’, ‘public engagement’ and ‘voluntary and charitable’. Some appear in more than one category. RCUK had a huge pool of projects to choose from for their fourteen examples. The Research Councils give out grants for some 2,500 projects each year.As such, you would expect them to be spectacular examples of their kind, but I wasn't convinced.

Unsurprisingly, the business-related ones have the clearest impact and it is easy to make the case with these: licensing agreements, patents, and new technology with applications that will benefit society. All good. Things become a bit less clear in the other three categories which, to my mind, are somewhat weaker. Or rather, I think it’s very difficult to make the case. Many talk about ‘stakeholder engagement’, which of course is good, and of feeding into the development of policies and working practices. Which is also good. Others talk about their tweets and blogs, their public lectures and even their jazz compositions. Okay, so I know it's very hard to try and quantify the effect that these activities have had, but I would have thought that RCUK might have been able to provide more hard evidence as to the effect their funded research is having on society.

Nevertheless, I think the positive that potential applicants should take from this is that expectations are low and broad. If you can demonstrate that you are able and willing to engage with end users, to talk to school children and put on public events, then you will easily have met the expectations of your future paymasters. And, you never know, with your conceptual art spin-offs and children’s books sub-projects, you could well be up there on the RCUK website in years to come.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

ARMA Getting out of Here

Well excitement's mounting for the ARMA Conference next week. I hope to see some of you there: I'll be taking part in sessions on Key Performance Indicators with Jon Deer (lots of heckling for this, please), and on Using Social Media in Research Support with Adam Golberg, David Young and Julie Northam (heckling voluntary).

In addition I've teamed up with Jacqueline Aldridge to do a poster around the 'Grants Factory' concept. I've used my moribund cartooning skills to try and reinvigorate the lost art of the conference poster. Come along and see the real thing in all its g(l)ory.

If you tweet, the hashtag for the Conference is #arma2012, so you can join in virtually if you can't make it in person.