Thursday, 25 April 2013

Notes from ESRC Regional Meeting, April 2013

Prof Paul Boyle
The ESRC held a Regional Meeting at the LSE on Tuesday.


 Prof Paul Boyle (CEO, ESRC) started by giving a ‘state of the union’ summary of the position of the ESRC. It currently gave out £200m in funding, of which £180m came from BIS, and £20m from cofunding. It was distributed as follows:

  • Training & Skills £53m (26%) 
  • Strategic/Collaborative £51m (22%) 
  • Responsive Mode £45m (22%) 
  • Methods & Infrastructure £33m (16%) 
  • Other £23m (11%) 
Following publication of its Delivery Plan (2009-15), it had cut Small Grants, but still provided small scale funding (such as for the Secondary Data Analysis initiative). It firmly believed in international collaboration (providing up to 30% funding for overseas Co-Is), and was embedded in all six of RCUK’s cross-council programmes (global food security; energy; global uncertainties; lifelong health and wellbeing; digital economy; living with environmental change). It saw engagement with the private sector as a key priority for the future, particularly in financial services, green business and retail (see Strategic Priorities, below). It had also acted quickly on ad hoc priorities recently, such as initiatives on the Future of UK and Scotland, and Transformative Research.

Strategic Priorities 

ESRC had recently reviewed its three strategic priorities (economic performance and sustainable growth; influencing behaviour and informing interventions; vibrant and fair society), but had decided not to change them. However, they had recognised that there were gaps within these, and that further ‘urgent but predictable scientific opportunities’ had arisen since the priorities were first formed. Moreover, looking at the funding trend towards 2016/17, there was ‘investment headroom’ as current grants tailed off. Thus, the ESRC would be looking to provide more funding, or facilitate further networks, frameworks and events, in the following areas:


  • ‘Big data’ 
  • ‘What Works’ (in which the ESRC aims to embed the use of evidence in policy and practice. Whilst on a different scale, Boyle likened this to NICE – i.e. to synthesise evidence robustly, recommend interventions and monitor their success) 
  • Macroeconomics 

Economic Performance:

  • Business innovation 
  • Financial markets 
  • Cities (ESRC had looked at what sister social science funders globally were focusing on, and recognised cities as a major area of interest. Will possibly hold a town hall meeting about this) 
  • Green economy 

Influencing Behaviour:

  • Epigenetics and educational neuroscience (Boyle described this as ‘frontier science’. It’s a small but growing area looking at how genes can be influenced by environment) 
  • Innovation in health and social care (ESRC would look to cofund with other health sponsors) 
  • Higher education (there’s a sense that, despite the recent big upheavals, there hasn’t been enough work done on HE recently. Might also cofund with DFID on primary/secondary education in developing countries) 

Fair & Vibrant Society:

  • Civil society and social innovation 
  • Social media 
  • Work (such as the impact of recession. There might be a new call around this, but would examine what work had already been done in this area first). 

Demand Management 

The ESRC had consulted the sector a couple of years ago following a 33% increase in applications with no rise in funding between 2006-11. Following this, it had cut the Small Grants scheme, and had encouraged universities to implement internal peer review. As a result there had been a 37% decrease in application volume, and success rates had risen from 17% to 24% across its schemes. The decrease in volume had also led to a 20% decrease in peer review activity. Boyle encouraged individual institutions to mirror the kind of activity that the ESRC undertook: for example, using anonymous reviews, as it had done for the Transformative Research scheme.

Was he still considering introducing tougher measures for demand management? It was still under review, he said, and he had the options ‘in his back pocket’ if needed. However, he thought that any measures would be more nuanced. If a university was not considered to be ‘playing the game’ there may be specific sanctions that would not affect the rest of the sector. He suggested that universities should test the effectiveness of an internal peer review system by questioning how many projects had actually been rejected as a result of it. This was not black and white, however: he clarified that by ‘rejected’ he meant ‘rejected in its current state’, i.e. that they had been encouraged to reframe and redraft their application following feedback.

Doctoral Training Centres 

ESRC was currently assessing the lessons to be learnt from the DTC programme. They had used data from RAE to help in the assessment of it; as similar data from the REF would not be available when the current programme came to an end the ESRC would probably delay a new round by a year. They wanted to encourage:

  • A good balance between 3+ and 3+1 , and didn’t like universities trying to get more for less by only advertising for 3+. 
  • Cofunding with external partners. 

There was a move to harmonise DTCs across the Research Councils, and ESRC was considering whether it should expand or contract its DTC provision. However, it would always want to fund excellence, and would therefore wish to avoid quotas.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Tips on Applying to the NIHR

Dr Gail Gilchrist
One of the highlights - for me - of last week's NIHR Information Day was the talk given by the University of Greenwich's Dr Gail Gilchrist. She was refreshingly frank about her experience of applying to the Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB) scheme, and gave us a really useful overview of the benefits, the essential elements of a good application, the issues faced, and the differences between RfPB and other research programmes.

Benefits of RfPB

For Gilchrist, the benefits of RfPB were that it was 'responsive mode', i.e. it wasn't restricted to specific topics, unlike some other areas of NIHR funding. Moreover, it encouraged proposals for a wide range of areas, including social care and new interventions. She also thought - anecdotally - that it was a necessary first step to getting larger funding from the NIHR.

Essential Elements of a Good Application

Gilchrist prefaced this by stating that she was still waiting to hear back on the outcome of her application, so that whilst she believed that her application had the essential elements, there was no guarantee of success. She deferred to Prof Chris Salisbury (Bristol) who clearly set out the three key factors of good NIHR applications:

As with many other funders, applicants need to make sure:

  • That the research question is important;
  • That getting an answer is feasible;
  • That the methodology for answering the question is sound and appropriate;
  • That it can be understood by both clinicians, methodologists, patients and the public;
  • That the team is appropriate, multidisciplinary, and sufficiently experienced.

Gilchrist made it clear that applying to the RfPB was no walk in the park. She had faced a number of issues, including:
  • The challenge of building an appropriate, multidisciplinary team;
  • Ensuring access to NHS sites;
  • Meaningfully engaging with service users;
  • Developing local partnerships/steering committees/advisory groups;
  • Estimating the numbers of participants necessary;
  • Deciding on the most appropriate form of dissemination.
Lessons Learnt

She came out of the process older and wiser. For those about to start, she suggested the following:
  • Get all relevant people on board before writing. It takes time to get all the people registered, with the necessary CVs uploaded and approved. Remember, public and patient involvement (PPI) is crucial, but it can be time consuming. In addition, working with large NHS organisations isn't always straightforward, which leads on to the second point:
  • Don't leave it until the last minute. 
  • Be aware of word count, and make sure to save your draft application regularly.
  • Review and revise. Peer and lay review is incredibly helpful. 
Differences between NIHR and other Funders

Finally, she rounded off her session by highlighting some key differences between NIHR and other forms of funding:
  • PPI is crucial;
  • Research should have strong impact or translation potential;
  • Awards are made to the NHS, not the university;
  • NIHR Networks need to be involved. 

Monday, 15 April 2013

Is There Something Missing from ROS?

'We've got a record of  the number of bodies.
Who cares about the original bodies?'
As many of you will be aware, the Research Councils (RUCK) introduced the 'Research Outcomes System' (or ROS)  to monitor the outputs of their funded projects. The new system was launched on 24 Nov 2011, and took the place of Annual Reports and End of Award Reports, simplifying the wordy demands of its predecessors so that investigators need only note what publications (and other outputs) have resulted from a grant.

On many levels this makes sense, and RCUK aren't shy of crowing about the benefits:

  • It saves time. RCUK suggest this could be as much as 80% compared with the previous system.
  • It can be used at any time during or after the grant.
  • Multiple users can view the reports. 

And so on. All very good. But what struck me the other day is that the new system seems to miss out a crucial element of the End of Award Reports: monitoring and assessment. Whilst RCUK annual monitors compliance with ROS, there doesn't appear to be anyone checking the quality of the outputs or the success of the project measured against it's original aims and objectives.

Or am I missing something?

This seems to be a considerable oversight. When I worked at the AHRC, getting academic reviewers to assess the success of the project was a laborious but crucial element of the grant cycle. If a project was deemed to have failed to produce the intended goods, or had veered too widely from the original path, it could be labelled as 'unsatisfactory', and would have a limited time to come good. If it still didn't, the investigators would be barred from applying again to the Council.

Equally important, if the project had been seen to succeed beyond anyone's wildest dreams, it could be labelled as 'outstanding', and the investigators could bask in the glow of approbation.

Okay, so the old system may have smacked of the schoolroom, but I think it is important that investigators are held to account - for better or worse. The new system just seems to be a bit, well, quantitative.  As long as you give them a title or two, it doesn't really matter beyond that. The spaces are filled, the box is ticked, the numbers are counted.

As I say, I could be wide of the mark on this, and I'd welcome any thoughts from those in Death Star House as to the level of assessment that goes on post-project.

European Grants Factory - 9 May

On 9 May we will be joining in the University’s celebrations for ‘Europe Day’ by holding two European Grants Factory events.

12:00 – 13:00 An Overview of Horizon 2020
Sobia Aslam (UKRO) 
Rutherford Lecture Theatre 2 

Sobia Aslam from the UK Research Office in Brussels (UKRO) will provide an overview of the EU’s new funding programme for research, Horizon 2020. It will succeed Framework Programme 7 (FP7) in January next year. It has a proposed €80 billion budget (a 46% increase over FP7), will bring together both research and innovation, and is intended to simplify the process of applying to the EC. Draft work programmes will start to emerge over the summer, so now is an excellent time to find out more about the new framework.

 In addition, Sobia will be holding a surgery session after lunch to discuss individual applications, or focus on specific issues. So if you have questions about H2020, or perhaps have a Marie Curie application on the go, get in touch to book a slot.

13:00-13:30 – Lunch 

13:30-15:00 – European Funding: is it for me? 
Prof Simon Thompson (Computing) & Jenny Billings (CHSS) 
Rutherford Lecture Theatre 2 

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.

The events are free, but do let me know if you are planning to come so that I can make sure there’s enough space and catering for all.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

New Service from Research Professional: Funding Insight

The University has a subscription to Research Professional, which is the leading database of research funding opportunities. We have recently extended our subscription to include a new service they are planning to launch, ‘Funding Insight’. This will provide some ‘value added’ information for applicants, such as:

  • Details from the Research Councils, Wellcome and Leverhulme on previous award winners for specific schemes. This will help you to see whether a particular scheme is right for you;
  • News about scheme changes, analysis of funding trends and interviews with programme managers, so that you can be ahead of the curve for what’s on the horizon.
  •  ‘Know how’ from a range of experienced investigators, officers and managers about putting together a successful bid.
  • Four separate disciplinary ‘channels’, which will gather relevant information, statistics and analysis into one place for your area.

The new service will start on 10 April. Shortly after, they are offering ‘webinars’ to talk you through the new site. I would encourage you to take part in order to make the most of this potentially very valuable service. The dates are below; click on any to sign up.

If you aren’t able to make any of these dates, do get in touch with your Faculty Funding Officer who can come over and show you how it works. The Officers are:

Bear Sh*ts in Woods Shock!

Pope: Catholic, apparently.
Well, you may have noticed that things have been somewhat quiet over at Fundermentals Towers. Yes, I've been away, furiously eating Easter eggs and huddling by an electric fire to keep warm.

I returned this week and found a great story to kick start a new season of blogging. On 5 April Research Fortnight reported that BIS had published a report that concluded that 'the richest universities take the lion's share under dual support'.

This must rank, for news worthiness, along side the recent discovery of the Pope's Catholicism. Yes, the biggest, most research intensive universities really do get most of the government's research funding. What are they going to discover next? That knowing more about stuff makes you cleverer? That drinking coffee makes you jittery? That dogs bark and cats miaow? That the 1994 Group lacks direction?

I guess what does make it interesting is the scale of concentration, and what that bodes for the future. The top 10% of universities (in terms of income) get 64% of the Research Councils' funding. The second 10% get 20%, the next 10%, the next 4%, until you get to the final 40% of universities which get nothing. Interestingly, this distribution has altered little over the last decade, which calls into question the belief that RCUK are moving to concentrate their funding on the big hitters.

So I shouldn't be so scathing. There's gold in there, but you just have to dig for it.