Monday, 20 February 2012

Notes from Rick Rylance Visit

Prof Rick Rylance, CEO of the AHRC, provided some insights into his current thinking when he visited the University on Friday. He started by outlining the environment in which the Council was operating. After the flat settlement in the Comprehensive Spending Review, it was clear that:
  1. there should be no duplicate funding. There should be no duplication between, say, the AHRC, the ESRC or the BA, but also that there shouldn't be duplication between the funding that came through QR and that that came through RCUK;
  2. there was a need to focus on excellence. Essentially, this meant concentration. The AHRC funds 85 institutions, but 75% of its funding goes to just 30 of these, and 39% to just 10. In this climate how do you ensure that you provide broad support? By encouraging collaboration. He gave the example of Russian. There were 18 Depts of Russian in the UK, but all but 3 of them have less than 4 staff. It would make sense for these to collaborate more.
  3. there was a need to demonstrate results. Rylance made clear that they were 'methodologically impoverished' in terms of identifying and collating information on the impact that AHRC-funded research was having. The sector needed to 'thicken out' and develop a robust methodology for collecting and demonstrating impact.
  4. there was a need for 'efficiency gains'. In other words, RCUK were being asked to do more with less, both through the Wakeham Report, but also through demand management. Rylance himself was not keen on quotas and penalties, as he thought that this led to conservatism, but that institutions should be encouraged to proactively review and develop excellent applications, and that best practice needed to be shared.
Following on from this, Rylance outlined a series of issues that were occupying his thoughts. These included:
  1. Interdisciplinarity. The distinctions between pure and applied, between responsive and strategic, would disappear over time, suggested Rylance. Both HEIs and funders would be collaborating more and more.
  2. 'Second Generation Problem.' He voiced some concern over the succession and sustainability of the sector. There were currently a lot of early career researchers, but he was worried about bringing on the next generation when there's less capacity in the sector as senior colleagues no longer needed to retire.
  3. 'Partnership World'. He recognised that a 'partnership world' was emerging, and that we were all feeling our way in this. There needed to be new ways of working, new structures and new provision for the way that research and education would be undertaken in the future. We all needed to think of the opportunities that this provided, rather than getting anxious about the change.
There was a full and frank question and answer session that followed, and a number of issues were raised, including open access, how collaborations should be facilitated, and the future of separate Research Councils.

Thanks both to Prof Rylance for coming over to talk to the University, and for Lynne Bennett for organising the event.

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