Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Guardian Live Chat: Research Funding

I took part in the Guardian’s Live Chat discussion on Friday. It was focussed on ‘Securing Research Funding’, and brought together an impressively diverse panel, including Anne Dixon (MRC), Tennie Videler (Vitae), Nathaniel Golden (ARMA), Jo o’Leary (BBSRC), and Tseen Khoo (RMIT University, Australia), as well as my blogging colleagues David Young (Lincoln) and Adam Golberg (Nottingham).

It was an interesting, but slightly unnerving, experience. Partly this was down to the technology. It took the form of a comments thread, which you needed to update regularly: by the time you’d written and posted a response to one comment, the board had updated with a number of subsequent comments, and the thread was lost.

However, it was also down to the nature of research funding: there are so many issues bubbling up at the moment that the discussion could have been twice as long and still only scratched the surface. Thus, it was slightly superficial and erratic, but interesting none the less.

It kicked off with a discussion of what makes a bad application. Plenty of ideas here, including: lack of novelty; an ill-defined hypothesis; unsuitable methodology; confused design; vague management; insufficient resources and inadequate expertise. The panel emphasised the need to stick to the funder’s guidance, and write a proposal that made clear what the research question was, why it was important, how it was going to be answered, and how the findings were going to be disseminated. Above all, applicants should take time to properly plan and draft their proposal, and try to communicate their enthusiasm for the project.

The moderator, Eliza Anyangwe, then asked what the main issues in research funding were at the moment. The panel licked its lips and piled in. In a wide ranging discussion several issues came to the fore, including: coping with cuts and the ‘Grand Challenges’ at the Research Councils; impact; the removal of many small grant schemes; the push for interdisciplinary projects and 'concentration' of funding; and demand management.

It was interesting to hear that many of the issues in the UK were shared by colleagues in Canada and Australia, and vice versa. Jo van Every from Canada spoke ‘of more strings [being] attached to the money', and ‘of increased pressures on universities to bring in more external funding’, which resulted in ‘competition for the funds available [being] much stiffer and success rates...dropping.’ Similarly, in Australia, Tseen Khoo was dealing with the ERA, which is their equivalent of the REF.

There was also some discussion of provision for early career researchers and postdocs, and the struggle to get into academia, let alone getting on the funding ladder. The panellists generally agreed that ECRs needed to remain mobile – as much as possible – and keep their options open, although they sympathised with those for whom this wasn’t an option.

So what do researchers need in order to succeed in this increasingly difficult environment? Well, a thick skin and a willingness to persevere are important, but academics also need to network and collaborate, and be open to different opportunities.

However, Jo van Every noted that ‘your goal is NOT to secure research funding. Your goal is to do go great work. Funding will help you do ever more great work. Or even greater work.’ Adam Golberg concurred: ‘applying for funding isn't always the right decision for any given individual at any given point in time, and contrary to what some university managers seem to believe (no-one here, I'm sure) it's just [not?] possible for all academics to produce outstanding fundable research ideas to order on a regular basis.’

David Young finished by raising two interesting points: firstly, the discussion had demonstrated that such a forum was useful, and suggested that ARMA consider providing a space for such issues to be shared. Secondly, and more provocatively, he questioned the ‘business-as-usual model’ which has resulted in the difficulties identified during the discussion. It is ‘making life increasingly precarious for early career researchers as well as arguably driving research towards serving the needs of industry first and foremost. Should we just accept this? Is there are mechanism or a space for us to resist?’

That’s fighting talk, but people questioned the will – or the ability to act collectively – that would enable this to happen.

The Guardian will summarise the key points of the Chat in due course, but do browse the comments which are still available here.

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