Thursday, 26 May 2011

Virginia Tech Partnering Program

Following the launch of the Partnering Award Program last year, the University of Kent will again be offering awards to facilitate collaborations with colleagues in the social sciences, humanities and arts at Viriginia Tech in the USA.

Travel grants of up to $2,500 (about £1,550) are available to help academic staff to forge relationships that will result in the submission of grant proposals for collaborative research projects. The team will be expected to submit a joint funding application within 12 months of receiving a Partnering Award.

The money should be used to travel to VT, meet your proposed collaborator and develop your joint funding application.

For more information about staff at VT who might share your research interests please go to:

More detail of the scheme is available from me. To apply you need to fill in a simple pro forma, together with a brief (up to 2 sides) summary of your proposed collaboration by 30 June 2011.

Peer Review & Changing a Lightbulb: a Historian's View

This made me laugh and - like all the best jokes - has an underlying (bitter) truth to it. Thanks to the Times Higher, John Fea and David Swartz for uncovering this gem.

Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?

A (by Dr. L): There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one’: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative historians have concluded that the light never needed changing in the first place, and have praised political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for bringing back the old bulb. Clearly, much additional research remains to be done.

Response by peer reviewers

Dear Dr. L,

We regret that we cannot accept your historian joke in its present form…. However, a panel of anonymous reviewers (well, anonymous to YOU, anyway) have reviewed it and made dozens of mutually contradictory suggestions for its… improvement. Please consider them carefully, except for the ones made by a man we all consider to be a dangerous crackpot but who is the only one who actually returns comments in a timely fashion.

1. This joke is unnecessarily narrow. Why not consider other sources of light? The sun lights department offices; so too do lights that aren’t bulbs (e.g. fluorescents). These are rarely “changed” and never by historians. Consider moving beyond your internalist approach.

2. The joke is funny, but fails to demonstrate familiarity with the most important works on the topic. I would go so far as to say that Leeson’s omission is either an unprofessional snub, or reveals troubling lacunae in his basic knowledge of the field. The works in question are Brown (1988), Brown (1992), Brown (1994a), Brown (1994b), Brown and Smith (1999), Brown (2001), Brown et al (2003), and Brown (2006).

3. Inestimably excellent and scarcely in need of revision. I have only two minor suggestions: instead of a joke, make it a haiku, and instead of light bulbs, make the subject daffodils.

4. This is a promising start, but the joke fails to address important aspects of the topic, like (a) the standard Whig answer of “one,” current through the 1950s; (b) the rejection of this “Great Man” approach by the subsequent generation of social historians; (c) the approach favored by women’s historians; (d) postmodernism’s critique of the light bulb as discursive object which obscured the contributions of subaltern actors, and (e) the neoconservative reaction to the above. When these are included, the joke should work, but it’s unacceptable in its present form.

5. I cannot find any serious fault with this joke. Leeson is fully qualified to make it, and has done so carefully and thoroughly. The joke is funny and of comparable quality to jokes found in peer journals. I score it 3/10 and recommend rejection.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Grants Factory: Making a Successful Fellowship Application

Prof. Paul Allain (School of Arts) and Prof. Darren Griffin (School of Biosciences) will lead a new Grants Factory workshop on Monday 13 June on how to make a successful Fellowship application.

Both Paul & Darren have exceptional track records in attracting research funding from a wide variety of sources - their diverse backgrounds will ensure that the workshop appeals to staff in all 3 Faculties.

The workshop will cover presenting yourself and your proposed project in the best possible light and will include a practical session.

It runs from 11.00-2.00pm and includes lunch. Places are limited so contact Lynne Bennett as soon as possible if you would like to participate.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

AHRC Follows ESRC to Manage Demand

Disturbing - but, let's be frank, unsurprising - news from the Faculty of Arts & Humanities on Death Star Avenue. They're planning to follow their sisters in the Faculty of Social & Economic Sciences and will introduce some form of demand management.

As I say, unsurprising. The clues have all been there. It was clear in their Delivery Plan that they wanted to 'mange demand' (Key Point 10, first bullet point). However, I had assumed that this would be the more touchy-feely end of demand management, and sometime in the future. Why? Because they talked (4.7.1) about the relatively low-level steps they'd taken already, such as rolling deadlines. Elsewhere (4.7.2), they said that they would 'systematically collect, analyse and disseminate to HEIs' success rates and trends, and, following this, will have stern, headmasterly 'strategic discussions with key HEIs...falling below the average, to develop self-management of demand and quality control of proposals.'

As far as I'm aware this hasn't happened yet. However, the word on the street is that they're rushing to follow the ESRC into a more Darth Vaderish understanding of management. As I'm sure you know, the ESRC is currently consulting on possible forms this will take, including quotas, sanctions, and paying to apply.

Whatever comes out of that process will probably end up as AHRC policy sooner rather than later. As the ESRC said in the Consultation Document: 'the Research Councils, where possible, will harmonise their demand management strategies.' I just didn't expect them to be so quick, as their pace is other areas can seem glacially slow. I mean, have you had an application reviewed recently?

Anyway, it's all the more reasons for us to crack on with the Internal Peer Review System which is close to its final draft form, and will hopefully be in place by the time Darth comes knocking.

Monday, 23 May 2011

UK's 'Dr Doolittle' Stance on FP8

BIS has published the UK's official response to the EC's consultation on the future of the Framework Programme. The 'Common Strategic Framework', which will take over from FP7, is intended to bring together a number of European funding streams, including the Framework Programme, the Cohesion Policy and the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme.

Generally, BIS was happy with the proposals, and it thought that the time was right to consider the way forward. However, it did suggest that the EC should consider a 'pushmi-pullyu' set up for future funding:

'The UK proposes that the bulk of future funding is based on two broad pillars addressing: a key technology/knowledge "push" and a challenge "pull".'

A push and a pull. Hmm. It took me a while to get my head around this. When does a push become a pull? Surely when it comes to research funding any kind of impetus is really just, well, a moving force, whether it be pushing or pulling? Why make the distinction? Isn't this all just semantics?

Well. From what I understand, the 'challenge pull' is to tug recalcitrant mules on to the green fields of the 'grand challenges'. Here they should ruminate on the lush topics of climate change, energy, water, and food security, protection of natural resources and the ageing population. The 'technology push' is when you open the field gate, crack the whip and let the young colts gambol in the wide open rolling plains.

So we're all clear then? That's all very well, but what happens when, instead of mules and colts you have a pushmi-pullyu? What if the colts are recalcitrant and the mules gambol? Oh the future of Euro-funding. It's a positive farmyard of poetential misunderstanding. If we could only talk to the animals...

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Concentration: the Agenda that Won't Go Away

I responded here to rumblings from Phil Willis on the need to concentrate research funding on the favoured few. Prof Dominic Abrams did likewise here. He highlighted the inherent contradiction in the messages coming from government. When it comes to investing in commercial organisations, the government emphsises 'the value and role of small businesses and enterprises as the basis for growth.It is argued that there should be fewer barriers and thresholds for these businesses to compete for contracts, for work and to develop - quite the reverse of concentration'. Likewise, in the finance sector, 'most stockbrokers like to spread their investments in terms of size and risk, because, over the long term, this is the most profitable strategy.'

So why is it so different for research funding? 'Critical mass' is the usual justification used by advocates of concentration. We need to be big in order to compete globally. We need to be pool our resources, and not salami slice the limited budget. But this, I would argue, is bad for risk taking, creativity, and innovation. The system is already skewed towards safe, empire-sustaining research (incidentally, it's worth having a look at Tim Harford's piece on Mario Capecchi in relation to this); what we need is more funding (including small-scale funding) for risk-taking pilot projects, wherever they originate.

Which is why it was so refreshing to read Professor Les Ebdon's counterblast to concentration in the Guardian yesterday. His article marked the publication of Research that Matters (pdf) by the thinktank Million+. This highlights the fact that modern (or post-92) universities get relatively little central research funding, but manage to leverage a great deal of activity and investment from this. Why should more be taken from them? Wouldn't it be better to invest more, rather than less, in pockets of excellence, wherever they're found, rather than continuing to subsidise the large, inefficient, risk-averse behemoths?

Prof Ebdon finishes his piece by pointing to notable - and perhaps surprising - successes, including research to tackle disease in sub-Saharan Africa that was undertaken at the University of Greenwich, and has been voted one of the 10 most important discoveries to be made in a UK university in the last 60 years.

I'm sure the 'concentration' juggernaut will continue to rumble on, but we shouldn't accept it as a done deal. The more that people question it, and highlight its failings, the better for the long term health of UK research.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Impact: the Trouble with Quantifiable Objectives

Stiffle that yawn at the back! And do stop staring out of the window, Simpkins...

Yes, it's time to turn our attention to Impact once again. This time it's prompted by the always excellent Athene Donald who wrote on her blog about the need to be more specific in your 'Pathways to Impact' attachment. It's not good enough to claim that during your project 'the applicants will also be involved in visits to local schools to give lectures on a wide variety of topics relating to…..[this grant],' but how many visits? To which schools? Better to say something more quantifiable, such as
  • 'I will talk about my work at 3 secondary schools each year during the course of the grant; or
  • I will present my work annually at the local Science Festival.'
Well, up to a point, Lord Cooper. Almost as interesting as the article itself are the comments that come afterwards. Some of these are written by scientists who make the valid point that it's difficult to pin down public engagement in such a 'SMART' way. 'Its hard to quantify the take up by schools in advance,' says Paul Crowther, and, even if you do get into the schools, the quality of interaction is not a given. 'It is quite possible for some people to go into a school, give a talk and completely baffle the children. So just counting the number of contacts is not necessarily very helpful – it’s the quality of that contact that matters,' suggests Stephen.

Fair point, counters Athene, but really the point of the quantifiable impact objectives is to demonstrate that the applicant has actually thought seriously about impact. 'When I read these statements I want to gain some conviction that the writer has actually expended a few minutes thought on them,' she says, 'and too often that isn’t the case.
'Of course we all know why. We hone the case for support, and then often are rushed to do all the other attachments and boxes on the form. We’ve all been there. Nevertheless, it is this sense of recycled waffle that is so dispiriting when reading a pile of applications in quick succession.'

Stephen Moss mentions a RAND report entitled 'Project Retrosight' that looked back on the effect that selected pieces of research have had on the wider world. 'What I kept asking myself as I read the document was, ‘how much of this could have been forecast by the applicants at the time they submitted their proposals’?' muses Stephen. 'Whatever the answer, the content did provide me with several useful ideas for the impact sections of my own recent RC grant application.'

'Maybe Pathways to Impact is just going through some teething problems,' suggests Girl, Interrupting, 'and all of this will get sorted out in the future.'

Maybe. But I won't hold my breath. In the meantime do have a read of Athene's Blog, which is always honest, open, engaging and interesting.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Peer Review - and Understanding Feedback

We're currently working on a proposal for introducing University-wide internal peer review. I'll talk more about it in future posts, but I'd be interested to hear from people - both at Kent and elsewhere - about their experiences of peer review. What works? What doesn't?

One difficulty with peer review is, of course, interpreting the feedback. It's particularly an issue when reading feedback that you've received from a British colleague. Here's a handy cut out and keep guide to interpreting Brit-speak. Note in particular the following:
  • 'I only have a few minor comments'
  • 'This is a very brave proposal'
  • 'I would suggest...'

'Churn Becomes the More Effective Strategy'?

There's been some problem with Blogger last week, and it seems to have lost the post I did on whether to deluge funders with applications when success rates plummet. Luckily, I kept a draft, and have pasted it below. Apologies if you've seen this already.

An interesting piece by former Times Higher journalist Zoe Corbyn writing in Nature. She reports on a mathematical analysis that suggests that, when success rates for grant applications fall below 15%, applicants should just deluge the funders rather than try to hone their proposals. It's quantity that counts.

You can imagine the funders reacting with horror to this suggestion. All their recent policy diktats have been aimed at discouraging just this kind of behaviour. 'Demand management', to give it its newspeak label, is the policy du jour with the Research Councils, who are seeking to stem the flow of applications and thereby bolster plummeting success rates.

However, the research seems to suggest that more is better. The analysis was undertaken by Paul Roebber, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, together with meteorologist David Schultz from the University of Manchester. It used 'game theory' to model the funding success of two hypothetical groups of 500 scientists whose proposals had the same range in quality but who had different strategies for submitting applications.

And this, I think, is the weakness of the analysis. It's all a bit too...theoretical. Whilst they tried to factor in the idosyncracies of the reviewers (identified as 'correct', 'selfish' or 'harried'), they don't seem to factor in the patchwork of issues, politics, funder priorities and personalities that affect the peer review panels. One factor that doesn't seem to have been included is the irritation of the panelists at seeing repeat submissions - even if the funder allows for resubmissions. Whilst interesting, I think we need to see beyond the theoretical mathematics and develop a more nuanced understanding of what works - and what doesn't - when success rates crash.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Academia, Here I Come!

Following on from the last post, this made me chuckle...

Learn from the Journalists

The Wellcome Trust are currently running a competition for science writing. I hope some of you scientists out there can put pen to paper and write about your work in an accessible, passionate way. No easy task, I know.

As part of the run up to their competition they've been getting journalists to talk about how to explain science. A lot of it is obvious, but no less worthwhile because of that. Moreover, many of the points they raise are worth bearing in mind when putting together a grant application.

Of course you need to talk about and justify the detail of your proposal, but you should (as Tim Radford eloquently puts it in his 25 point manifesto for science journalists), never 'overestimate what the reader knows and underestimate the reader's intelligence.'

This is particularly so in the 'lay summary', which is often dismissed as an afterthought when preparing an application. However, in some ways it's the most important part of it: it gives your reader a 'way in' to your application. It grabs them by the lapels and pulls them in to the heart of your proposal. These reviewers and panelists are like you, and don't have much time to spare, so make them care enough to read on.

In fact, a lot of the lessons given by Radford are worth keeping at the back of your mind - or, as he suggests - taped next to your keyboard. Here are my favourites:
  • Always, always always keep the reader/reviewer in mind. They're time poor and eminent, and often don't have first hand knowledge of your area.
  • 'Never be full of your own self-importance. Don't be pompous'.
  • 'No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.'
  • Beware of long and preposterous words. Beware of jargon. Simple words, clear ideas and short sentences. English is better than Latin. You don't exterminate, you kill. You don't salivate, you drool. You don't conflagrate, you burn.
  • 'Beware of all definitives. The last horse trough in Surrey will turn out not even to be the last horse trough in Godalming. There will almost always be someone who [or some research that] turns out to be bigger, faster, older, earlier, richer or more nauseating than the candidate to whom you have just awarded a superlative.'
  • 'People will always respond to something close to them.' This is true for journalists, but also true for research. You've got to make it relevant and important. Avoid definitives, sure, but make sure the reader knows how relevant and important your research is. You've got to dodge the 'meh, so what?' response.
In addition, Chrissie Giles hammers home the need to get feedback. Show it to anyone and everyone. Read it out yourself and see if it flows and makes sense, that it forms a logical argument. Reword any clumsy or unclear bits, and cut out any flab.

So learn from the professional wordsmiths. In a grant proposal you need to craft text and sell a message to a very specific audience; who better than a journalist to arm you with the skills for this?

Friday, 6 May 2011

Inefficient Efficiency

The Research Councils have recently sent all universities details of their plans for 'more efficient' (i.e. less) funding for projects. Entitled ‘Efficiency 2011-15: Ensuring Excellence with Impact’, the proposals include heartwarming coalition-style cuts, including snipping the allowance for inflation to zero, and the indirect rate by 3.5%. To be applied retrospectively, natch.

Most alarming are their half-baked proposals for equipment charges. Under the new system (rushed out and already in place, from 1 May) RCUK will decide what percentage of the equipment costs they’re prepared to meet on a ‘case-by-case’ basis. Not only that, but for expensive bits of kit (over £121.5k) you'll have to put together a 'business case' (that's another 2 page attachment to the application, thank you very much) and check out what other equipment is already available in your area.

Now this begs a number of questions, and brings to mind some hilarious scenarios:
  • If we don't know what percentage of the equipment cost RCUK will fund, how do we know whether we can afford to 'match fund' them? When the University approves the application for submission, does it have to provide a blank cheque for the remainder?
  • What if RCUK decides to fund the project but not the equipment?
  • What is the 'area' that needs to be checked for existing equipment? Is it geographically restricted? For Kent, 50 miles from London, is it every London university? Or the whole south east? As far as Brighton? Or - as the crow flies - Essex? Is it any university covered by a Network Rail card?
  • How do we check? Do we get on the blower to all 121 universities on the off chance that they might have an electron microscope they're not using?
  • What if the other university that has the kit doesn't necessarily want to share it?
  • What if - weirdly - they're already using it?
  • What if something happens when a piece of equipment is being used by an outside organisation? Who's liable?
I can see lots of potential for a slew of websites to service this new industry: ‘' could offer special last minute deals on equipment which is going spare, and '' could compare the offers of equipment from competing universities. Better still, how about 'speed dating' events for the potential user and provider of equipment?

The possibilities are endless. I’m looking forward to clarification from RCUK on these with relish.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

100 Greatest Novels on Research Funding

Right! I've been away on the Atomic Ride for the last two weeks, and the sparkling world of research funding has moved on. Plenty to chose from when I was catching up, including an interesting item in Research Fortnight on research funding concentration. Whilst today's elite benefited from a wide dispersal of funding in the past, claims the article, they now want to kick away the ladders and concentrate the funding on the few. The article uses George Orwell, or rather Napoleon and others of his elite in Animal Farm, to help illustrate this: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Interesting point, but a missed opportunity by Research Fortnight. What a chance to mine the wider canon for literary allusions that could be used to explain the state we're in.
  • Catch 22, Joseph Heller: you have to be in a Russell Group university to get the lion's share of research funding. But in order to join the Russell Group, you need to have the lion's share of research funding.
  • The Trial, Franz Kafka: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bureaucracy of Applying for Grants.
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Random Surreal Beauty of Grant Decisions.
  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley: the dangers of stitching together collaborations, and how they can turn against you.
  • Moby Dick, Herman Melville: the madness and majesty of seeking the 'Great White Grant'.
I could go on. Some titles speak for themselves: Things Fall Apart, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and Songs of Innocence and Experience, for instance. But that's enough of that. I need to get on with helping some rejected applicants. Now where did I put my copy of Les Misérables..?