Tuesday, 28 September 2010

'There Is No Definition of the Ideal University'

Interesting counterblast in the Guardian last week to the puffing and posing that goes with the announcement of the World University Rankings.
'Imagine a newspaper decided to create a table ranking the world's cities,' suggests Malcolm Grant of UCL. 'It would be a nonsensical exercise.' There's no such thing as an ideal university, he says, and trying to compare a university in one country with that in another is ridiculous. Even within countries, universities vary massively. For example, the research income for a science or medical university are going to be much greater than for one focused on the humanities or social sciences, but that doesn't mean that the research of one is 'better' than that of the other. Even using citations is dangerous: Grant points out the example of one of the recent sets of rankings that concluded that Egypt's Alexandria University trumped both Stanford and Harvard for their influential research measured by impact.
'Global rankings have afforded annual light entertainment, but they are now seriously overreaching themselves,' he concludes. 'They do a disservice if they influence student choice, or come to be treated as a performance measure by the leaders of hugely diverse institutions.'

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Will Teaching Take the Brunt of the Cuts?

There's speculation in the Financial Times that teaching will have to shoulder the lion's share of the cuts in higher education, with research being shielded from the worst.
'Government officials are considering a proposal to cut the £4.7bn teaching budget for universities to only £1.2bn as part of its austerity drive. This would allow the department for business to shelter the £6bn research budget, which would be cut by £962m,' states the article.
Not sure if Steve Smith, VC at Exeter and quoted in the article, is the source of the 'proposal', but we'll wait to see if this division of the pain is the one that materialises later in the year.

ESRC: Strategic Priorities in Uncertain Times

Adrian Alsop, the Director of Research for the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), will be visiting the University on 13 October. His visit comes a week before the crucial Comprehensive Spending Review, and it will be a chance to find out what the ESRC’s Strategic Priorities are in these uncertain times.

He will give a talk at 12:30 in the Senate Chamber. There will be time for questions and answers afterwards. All are welcome, but please let me know if you intend to come so that I can get a sense of numbers.

Monday, 20 September 2010

March on London 9 Oct: Science is Vital

A Facebook group already numbering 1,707 members is planning to organise a rally in central London on 9th October to challenge the Government's plans to cut spending on science and innovation. 'At a time when other countries are investing in science to rejuvenate the economy, funding for science and innovation here will have to be slashed,' they state. 'Only the best will be funded, and the rest can leave the country or flip burgers.'

The group was set up by Jennifer Rohn, a post-doc cell biologist at UCL. Details are still to be confirmed, but as well as the rally they plan to lobby Parliament on Tuesday 12th October, 10-12, Committee Room 10.

'Membership of this group is open to everybody who wants to support science in the UK,' they say. 'Whether you're a scientist or not, please join up, spread the word, and get involved.'

Friday, 17 September 2010

'Excessive Bureaucracy'? Not FP7, Surely...

The Committee of the Regions has published a working paper on FP7. In it, the Committee bemoans 'excessive bureaucracy, low risk tolerance, poor efficiency and undue delays that act as disincentives to participation.' Which probably is no surprise to anyone who's been involved in the Programme. Or even tried to read some of it's guidance.
The Committee recommended more coordination of funding schemes and spreading the calls throughout the year, amongst other things. Thanks to Tania Rabesandratana at Research Fortnight for highlighting this.

Alan and Ruth

Much excitement here about Kent's cameo in Alan Davies' formative years. The comedian revisits his alma mater, including the Registry, home to Research Services and the site of protests and sit ins in the 1980s - as well as the 1960s, and 1970s. There was just so much to protests about. View it again at 4OD, and watch out for a walk on part in min 22:50 by my colleague Dame Ruth Woodger, thespian and national treasure.

Feedback from the Collaboration Workshop

I went along to the Collaboration Workshop on Wednesday, which was the first of the Grants Factory events for this year. It was a great opportunity for a wide range of academics from across the University to hear about the prizes and pitfalls that come from linking up with others, particularly across disciplinary boundaries. Dr Peter Bennett suggested that his most fruitful collaborations had started informally, in tea rooms or pubs, and he stressed the importance of getting on well with your project partners. Prof Jon Williamson gave some reasons for collaborating, which included:
  • it enables you to solve a larger problem, if you only had the knowledge and tools to solve an element of it;
  • it enables you to 'do more with your time';
  • it is an opportunity to learn from other disciplines;
  • it is an opportunity to propagate new ideas.
The difficulties that were inherent in collaboration were recognised, particularly in large projects that had multiple partners across Europe. One participant compared it to 'herding cats', and it was clear that the leader of a multidisciplinary project needed to have strong resolve and a willingness to take tough decisions, even going so far as cutting out a partner who wasn't delivering.

Other questions that were explored in the breakout groups after lunch included:
  • do partners need to understand more than one discipline?
  • how do you know what is not known in the other disciplines?
  • how do you find, choose, manage and reject partners?
  • how do you ensure that everyone contributes and delivers effectively?
  • what resources are needed by a collaborative project?
  • what makes a collaborative funding proposition convincing?
Whilst it was often interesting to sketch out and explore a cross-disciplinary theme, when it comes to preparing an application you need to have a clear, well defined research question and sub-goals. It was suggested that less partners was better logistically, ideally less than four. This would make it possible for all the partners to attend meetings and give updates. Whilst there are technological alternatives to meetings these days, there is really no substitute for them.

The rest of the programme for the Grants Factory 2011 will be announced shortly.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Strong Reaction from the Sector to the Cable Gaffe

There's been a strong reaction to Vince Cable's gaffe on the Today programme on Wednesday, when he suggested that 'something like 45% of the research grants that were going through were to research that was not of excellent standard so we are going to have to set the bar higher.' Twitter's been abuzz, and there's been the inevitable facebook groups set up - eg 'Vince Cable's Wrong on Science'.

Dr Evan Harris, writing in the Guardian, summaries the controversy quite clearly, quoting James Wilsdon of the Royal Society who explains why Cable got it so wrong:
'In the last Research Assessment Exercise, 54% of the work that was submitted for assessment was classed as 3* or 4*, which means it is, by definition, world class. This research receives £980m from Hefce. Research that is 2* (which Hefce still regards as 'internationally recognised') gets £115 million and 1* research gets nothing. So Hefce allocates the vast majority – nearly 90% – of its funding to world class research.'
Elsewhere others are exasperated at Cable's call for UK science to be more efficient and 'do more with less.' '1% of the world’s pop. but contributes 8% of its sci papers, and 12% of journal citations,' quotes one tweet, which speaks for itself, whilst Chris Tyler says 'just read Cable's speech. So spending more on science would be good for UK AND we will see science budget cuts.'

Finally, to finish up the round of rumours, there's talk of how large the cuts will be. The current rumour is that 'BIS may settle with Treasury next week -10% plus inflation is best case but -15/-20% more likely.'

We'll wait and see.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Who Will Assess My ESRC Application?

I've just been advising an academic on applying to the ESRC. There used to be a substantial difference between the success rates for their standard and small grants. This has now pretty much disappeared, so I suggested that he shouldn't worry too much about trying to scrape it in under £100k upper limit for small grants.

Of course, value for money is a consideration, but more important is that the costs are justified, necessary and realistic.

Other than that, I suggested that he bear in mind the process that the application will go through, and who will be assessing it. Small grants only get seen by two members of a 'Virtual College', with the final decision being made by a member of the review panel; standard grants get seen by the whole panel. Details of Virtual College members are here; Panel members are here; and what the different panels cover is here.

From these it's possible to get a good idea of who will be asked to review the application. Is it someone who would be sympathetic to your work? Or is there a danger, if you put in for a small grant, that it will be shot down by someone who's unsympathetic? Would it be better to get a full hearing from the whole panel, including members who might know little about your area?

So construct your application according to the needs of your project, but always bear in mind your audience.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

RCUK Moon Rocks Kidnapped

A delicious story reported by Research Fortnight: apparently the rocky road to development of the Research Councils' 'Shared Service Centre' (SSC) has just got rockier. Bills have - allegedly - gone unpaid, to such a degree that the courier TNT refused to deliver to Polaris House, including a consignment of 'irreplaceable' moon rocks, destined for the STFC. Oh, you couldn't make it up.

Elsewhere various NERC facilities have been blighted by unpaid electricity and telephone bills, with bailiffs beating down their doors (sort of. Come one, with a story like this there's room for a little extra colour) and impounding computer equipment.

Whilst officially putting a brave face on it, dismissing these moon rock shenanigans as 'a few minor hiccups', off the record some on Death Star Avenue are saying that 'the SSC will never pay for itself - not in a million years.'

Don't you love it? I await the next installment with glee.

Cable Softens the Sector for Cuts

In an unsurprising move, Vince Cable has been softening up the sector today for cuts to the Science budget in the forthcoming spending review. In a speech at Queen Mary's, he will repeat his 'do more with less' mantra, saying that 'we need a wide spectrum of research activity,' but that we need 'a process of selection and choice' rather than 'shav[ing] a bit off everything'

But how should this be done? 'My preference is to ration research funding by excellence and back research teams of international quality - and screen out mediocrity – regardless of where they are and what they do.'

Despite the underlying current of cuts, this is in some ways good news. Cable seems to be going with Hefce's policy at the last RAE - that the Government funds excellent research wherever it's found - rather than concentrating on a clutch of a few, predominantly Russell Group universities, which was the suggestion earlier in the year.

Beyond that, it's all a bit ill-defined. Worryingly, although he says that he supports blue skies research, it's only if it's 'commercially useful [or] theoretically outstanding.' He goes on to wax lyrical about 'transforming research into innovation', 'spin out companies' and 'overseas investors.'

So the message is inevitably a curate's egg in these choppy economic times. We'll back quality research, he's saying, but we're going to expect you to do more with it.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Impact Brainstorm

With many staff now returning after the summer break, I thought it would be good to re-start the ‘Impact Brainstorm’ sessions that we began last year. So every two weeks representatives from Research Services, Kent Innovation and Enterprise (KIE), and the Media Office will get together to ‘brainstorm’ impact for individual academics.

If you are struggling to think how your research meets the Government’s impact agenda, particularly if you’re preparing an application to the Research Councils, we can help. Let me know what research you are doing or are planning to do and we’ll come up with some ideas for potential beneficiaries, audiences, markets or applications.

We’re meeting on Thursday 9 September. You don’t have to attend: just drop me a line (by the today, preferably) with some details of your research, and I’ll get back to you after the meeting with some notes on avenues to explore.