Monday, 28 November 2011

Back to the Future with Conference Alerts

Last week an academic called to ask me whether I knew of an email alert system for upcoming conferences. There's plenty of alerts out there for funding opportunities, but none that I knew of for conferences. Luckily, Twitter came to the rescue. I put out a call, and Damien Hall quickly came back, pointing me in the direction of the cunningly titled 'Conference Alerts'.

Sure, it all looks a bit 1995, but it does seem to provide info on a vast array of disciplines, including interdisciplinary areas. So, if you're wondering what's coming up in your area, pay it a visit. Alternatively, if you know of other databases or email alerts with a more 21st century interface, drop me a line.

SSC: Accentuating the Positive

The Jekyll and Hyde character of the Research Councils' Shared Services Centre (SSC) was once again on show last week.You might remember that it had a somewhat - ahem - 'difficult' birth, with couriers refusing to deliver to Death Star House until the SSC bills were paid off, and SSC itself being branded a 'fantastically expensive failure' by Prof John Seddon.

But that's very much the 'Mr Hyde' end of things. Let's instead focus on the respectable, Rotary Club-belonging, upstanding-member-of-the-community, 'Dr Jekyll' side of the SSC. In August last year it was shortlisted for the National Business Awards in the 'Transformational Change' category (oh so appropriate for Dr Jekyll!). But as if that wasn't enough, last week saw it scoop another trophy for the cabinet, this time for its Payroll Team.

This is, of course, fantastic news. However, whilst I'm very pleased for both the Payroll Team and the - erm - Transformational Change Team, I am still waiting for the silverware to come tumbling in for the Customer Services Team. It's a travesty that it's missed out so far, and it can only be down to some high level conspiracy. How else can you explain that fact that it's not yet been given the 2011 Quick and Effective Response to Enquiries Award?

Thursday, 24 November 2011

More Entrails Needed

A quick post to publicise the excellent Research Counselling, a cartoon website the focuses on the trials and tribulations of dealing with the Research Councils. I particularly liked this recent one, about forecasting your project's 'national importance' for the EPSRC.

Oh the cynicism!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Erasmus for All

As the tectonic plates of post-2014 European funding slowly shift and grind and crunch, exciting news is coming through of what the Lifelong Learning Programme is to be called. The Commission has shied away from badge engineering it as 'LifelongLearningHorizon2020', which would be the obvious choice, but have gone instead for the bracing 'Erasmus for All'.

This brings to mind images of the Dutch Renaissance humanist being divided equally between all the citizens of Europe. But who'll end up with the toe nails? Watch out Greece: default on your debt and who knows what will come through the post. Or perhaps every newborn European baby will be issued with a copy of De libero arbitrio to mull over in the cot. It would certainly make for plenty of sleep.

Yes, we at Fundermentals HQ are very excited about this rebranding. After all, what better symbol of the grand, glorious - imploding - European Project is there than the man who penned In Praise of Folly?

Weekly Social Science Funding Updates

The weekly funding updates for the Social Sciences, which include news, events and funding opportunities, are now available on the Research Services Sharepoint site. So if you missed the weekly Friday email, not to worry: just go to the Update Folder, where they are being stored in monthly folders. If you have any problems accessing it, do contact me.

And, whilst you're there, have a look at the other treasures on offer, including the Successful Proposals Bank, and the Information Sheets. Both are really helpful when preparing applications: the successful proposals will give you an idea of what it takes to frame and phrase a killer application, and the information sheets will give you some general guidance on issues such as costing an application, dealing with JeS, writing your Justification of Resources and drafting your Case for Support.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Tales from Topographic Oceans

I don't know, you wait ages for a senior appointment at the Research Councils, and then two come along at the same time.

After all the excitement over the AHRC's New Director of Research, news has just come in of the appointment of the new head of the NERC. It took them nearly five months to find someone: that's almost as long as Mark Llewellyn's total academic career.

So who has NERC gone for? Prof Duncan Wingham is Professor of Climate Physics at UCL. The golden-locked prof is a specialist in measuring ice sheet movements. So whereas the AHRC has gone for youth and speed, the NERC seem to have taken a 'steady as she goes' approach. Prof Wingham has been at UCL since 1986, and was already Chair of NERC's Science and Innovation Strategy Board. So very much a known quantity. Oh, and he studies glaciers.

We wish him all the best. But now down to the serious business of trying to match him up to a look-a-like musician. We've got Derek Smalls in David Delpy, Donny Osmond in Mark Llewellyn, and even Andrew Lloyd-Webber in his predecessor, Alan Thorpe. Is there a touch of the keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman in Duncan Wingham?

Monday, 21 November 2011

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Past Was Yours but the Future's Mine

News came through this week of the appointment of the new AHRC Director of Research. Professor Mark Llewellyn (for it is he), Professor in English Studies at the University of Strathclyde, will take over from Shearer West (Birmingham) who has moved on to be Head of Humanities at Oxford. She, in turn, had taken over from Prof Tony McEnery, who was Professor of English Language & Linguistics at Lancaster. Before them you had Chairs of the Research Committee (John Caughie, Film Studies, Glasgow and John Morrill, History, Cambridge).

So what do we know about Mark Llewellyn? And can his appointment tell us anything about current AHRC thinking? Well, a number of things strike me about his appointment:
  • firstly, he's incredibly young to be taking on a senior policy position in the major funder in the sector. Take a look at the fresh faced young prof in the photo above (looking a little like Peter Kay's young brother), and compare it to Morrill, Caughie, and even McEnery and Shearer. The AHRC is obviously backing youth.

  • secondly, his rise has been meteoric over the last five years: in 2006-07 he was still plying his trade as a postdoc researcher at Liverpool. From RA to Director of Research at the AHRC in five years: some might say his haste is unseemly. The AHRC is obviously backing ambition.

  • thirdly, he's keen on work which stretches out across disciplines. He works in 'neo-Victorianism', which is a fairly broad church (as I understand it), and is currently 'think[ing] about ways in which we still interact with and (re-)imagine the Victorian(s) across a range of discourses.' The AHRC is obviously backing interdisciplinarity.

  • finally, he has engaged with the AHRC through the Peer Review College (2007-11), and through being PI on a recent 'Connected Communities' grant. The AHRC is obviously backing engagement.
None of this, of course, is a surprise. But it does indicate that the AHRC recognises the need for energy, dynamism and fresh thinking in these difficult times. Will Llewellyn push the Council to increased interdisciplinary initiatives, and bring in more radical reform that that already suggested in their Delivery Plan? I'll watch with interest.

Hail the Kingmakers!

There has been an interesting development at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in America. Following on from their radical rethink on gathering metrics, the NSF has applied its imagination to the process of assessing grant applications.

According to Science Insider, the NSF will be doing away with external peer review for a new scheme that will fund unorthodox ideas. Applications to the Creative Research Awards for Transformative Interdisciplinary Ventures (CREATIV: an acronym that is almost European in its creakiness), which will provide grants of up to $1m for up to 5 years, will be judged by NSF program managers. Cutting out the academic review will dramatically slash the turn around time: applicants can expect a decision in 2 or 3 months, which is half the time it takes at the moment.

Is this a worrying step towards cutting out peer review completely? No, says the NSF. Richard Behnke, co-chair of the internal committee that designed CREATIV, said that 'for the great majority of proposals, we will continue the traditional merit-review process. The gold standard remains in place.'

Whilst it doesn't affect UK researchers directly (only US institutions can apply), I wonder whether UK funders will be looking at the experiment with interest. After all, the Research Councils are under pressure to find ways to save money, bureaucracy and time. This could be the answer to their prayers. But, to be honest, I don't think they'd dare. When I worked at the AHRC it was often very clear to us which applications were likely to rise to the top of the prioritisation lists. However, applicants need to be reassured that it is primarily on research quality that their proposals are being judged, and that reassurance can only come from peer review.

I'll be intrigued to know how the NSF scheme works. I wish them all the best, but I think that they'll be creating more problems than they'll be solving, and will be snowed under with appeals and complaints. The NSF officer-kingmakers will, I think, have only a short while in the sun.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Upcoming Grants Factory Events

Two upcoming events that any right-thinking applicant would be foolish to miss.

  • Big Questions, Big Projects (1 Dec, 12pm-2pm). With small grant funding fast disappearing, academics need to look to larger funding and start think ambitiously. Prof Jon Williamson, a philosopher in SECL, and Prof Liz Mansfield, a mathematician in SMSAS, have both had experience of developing larger projects in areas where these aren’t the norm. They will be running this workshop on developing interesting research ideas into more substantial research projects.
  • Inside the Grants Committee (7 Dec, 12pm-2pm). Prof Peter Taylor-Gooby (SSPSSR) and Prof Mick Tuite (Biosciences) will give an honest insight into how peer review panels work, the characters, the processes – and the politics. Peter has sat on ESRC panels, Mick on BBSRC and Wellcome panels: between them they have a wealth of knowledge on how different funders work. This will be a chance to learn from their experience and frame your application in a way that ‘works’ for the panel.
To take part, just complete the simple on-line form with your name, School and the workshops you'd like to attend.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Globalisation: Notes from Research Fortnight Conference

The Research Fortnight conference this year was held at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and focused on 'Globalisation: the future of research institutions.' The title could have been framed as a question: as the world convulses with economic shocks, is now the right time to be reaching out in partnership?

They'd brought together an impressive roster of speakers to discuss this. Some faces were familiar – such as Julia Lane of the NSF who spoke at the ESRC Seminar Series on Impact a few weeks back – whilst others were new to me. But all gave thought provoking insights into issues around collaboration.

'Research belongs to no country'

Lord Bhattacharyya, Chairman of the Warwick Manufacturing Group, kicked off the day by quoting Louis Pasteur: 'Knowledge belongs to no country.' UK research had considerable strengths, said Bhattacharyya, that placed it well in the global market place: it was both high quality and covered a broad range of disciplines, as well as being relatively open and academically free. However, these were offset by areas of concern: the UK's disciplinary strengths didn't match the research interests of the emerging economic superpowers; collaboration - both with overseas partners and industry - wasn't happening fast enough, and its spending on research and development was too low.

The UK needed to think strategically about dealing with the challenges of the new global research environment. It needed to be more open to attracting new business research funding, and look to the market priorities of the BRIC countries, namely engineering, biology, and the physical and health sciences. Incentives needed to be created to overcome the potential reluctance to engage with Chinese or Brazilian colleagues, resulting from such considerations as lower citation rates from such partnerships.

'Collaborate to compete'

Throughout the day this analysis was knocked about, questioned, confirmed or refuted. Prof Anton Muscatelli, Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow, emphasised the need to 'collaborate to compete.' He agreed with Bhattacharyya that the UK faced challenges in doing so, at a time when it was facing its own, internal uncertainties. However, he was upbeat about Britain's ability to cope in this brave new world. British universities were both efficient and effective, he said, and the key to their success was the autonomy they had, coupled with the shark pool they swam in for research resources.

But why should UK institutions collaborate? Muscatelli suggested that there were three reasons: to diversify their income streams, as funding became tougher in the UK; to 'bring the best together'; and to address common, global challenges. These were all positives, but equally you could see that they had no choice: the UK was too small to go it alone. The Darwinian race for partners would see the open survive and prosper, and the insular wither and perish. The research map of the UK would be radically redrawn.

'Science is like a parachute: it only works when it's open'

Jeremy Watson, Global Research Director at Arup, outlined the view from industry. Arup had been behind such iconic buildings as the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre and the Gherkin. It had always relied on what Watson described as a 'knowledge supply chain', building on both internal and external research. For him, the case for collaboration between industry and academia was clear, and he suggested frameworks by which this might happen in the future, such as transnational 'centres of excellence' (as Rolls Royce had already developed); open innovation clubs with multinational industrial partners; and 'co-innovator' partnerships between academia and industry with 'permeable boundaries.'

Haggit Messer-Yaron, President of the Open University of Israel, concurred. Universities and industry had very different agendas, but it could be these differences that made partnerships work. There needed to be openness, however: 'science is like a parachute,' she quoted: 'it only works when it's open.' There should be a synergy, a complementarity. Governments could act as brokers for these relationships, providing early stage funding and support for 'bridging the development gap' as well as a conducive legal framework in terms of IPR laws and taxation. However, governments tended to act in the national interest, and as such may act against the principles of globalisation.

'It's the intersection of technology and liberal arts that makes our hearts sing'

After lunch we broke up into parallel sessions. I went along to the one that focused on the engineering and physical sciences, which quickly veered productively off track. Prof Graham Galbraith, DVC at the University of Hertfordshire, complained of the blinkered 'siloism' of current research policy. The difficulty with engaging with business, he said, was that most universities think within disciplinary boundaries, whereas most businesses don't. Of course, these disciplines may be useful – or indeed necessary – for running large organisations, but they were unhelpful in thinking creatively. 'Real innovation is not really rewarded or recognised,' he bemoaned. The ghost of Steve Jobs was conjured up: 'technology alone is not enough,' he had said. 'It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the the results that make our heart sing'.

So were the funders to blame for holding apart the disciplines? A representative of EPSRC was on hand to defend them, and the sense was that it was more to do with an engrained culture within academia. The discussion swiftly moved on to developing the necessary mindset for exploiting the opportunities offered by internationalisation. Phil Clare, Associate Director of Research Services at the University of Oxford, was bracingly breezy in his acceptance of the new deal offered by BRIC nations. 'We need to stop worrying about selling our birthright,' he said. Universities exist to generate knowledge, but can also act as catalysts for collaboration, and foci for local economies.

The conference finished with a final plenary on the experience of different institutions in developing and managing cross-continental relationships. The day had crackled with ideas and questions and, whilst no conclusions were reached, it had been a valuable opportunity to develop and debate our thoughts on this critical new horizon.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

BA Joins Twitter Shock!

Exciting news from the Twittersphere! The 'funder least likely to' has actually got a Twitter account. Yes, the British Academy, wholesale provider of wingback leather arm chairs, steamed sponge puddings and ironed copies of The Times of London, has joined the Twitterati.

This is both exciting and - to be frank - slightly disappointing news. Exciting in that Twitter has become an important tool in the world of research funding for finding out what's going on, and getting early alerts, insights and gossip on forthcoming schemes. Disappointing in that it shatters my treasured vision of the BA as a Mayfair gentlemen's club, which I mentioned in an earlier post.

However, thankfully the BA has managed not to disappoint with its first tweet: 'Archbishop of Canterbury asking 'what should the Word of God sound like?' at the British Academy today.' You couldn't make it up. I'm hoping the next will be 'Is there honey still for tea? The need for a good dinner in a time of change.'

Oh yes. The BA: reassuringly old school. Make sure to follow them here.