Tuesday, 27 November 2012

'Excellentiam per cognitio, innovatione et interdiu TV'

The Dreaming Spires of Rochester
We were delighted to learn that Fundermental Towers has been selected as one of a tranche of 'new' universities announced by the government today. Institutions no longer have to have 4,000 students to be classified as a university. Instead, institutions need only have three part-time students in order to join the likes of Oxford and Cambridge in the upper echelons of knowledge providers. I am very pleased to announce, then, that the ancient seat of learning formerly known as 2 Acacia Avenue, Rochester, will become Fundermental Towers University.

Break open the Asti!

Whilst we do not, strictly, meet the minimum criteria for student numbers at the moment, we believe we can make a start with what we have. Our children are broadly defined as 'students', albeit school age, and both the dog and the cat have demonstrated some interest in learning, even if it is just in finding out when feeding time is.

Yes, these are exciting times for Fundermentals University. Once I've completed the latest Cosmo questionnaire, I will make a start on filling in our REF submission. I will then move on to establishing an overseas campus at our Eurocamp tent on the Costa Brava. Finally, I intend to finance my retirement extend the opportunity for learning by offering mail order degrees a distance learning programme.

I would like to extend an invitation to all Fundermental subscribers to join us at our leafy North Kentish campus where all our undergraduates, including Rover and Tibbles, live by our motto: Excellentiam per cognitio, innovatione et interdiu TV, or 'Excellence through Research, Innovation and Daytime TV.'

Open Access: a Field Guide

Many of you may have been confused by the murmuration that surrounded the release of the Finch Report in July. Fear not: as part of its public service remit Fundermentals brings you a field guide for bewildered academic twitchers.

Top of the Finch family is the Goldfinch. The Goldfinch swoops and soars on (peer-reviewed) thermals, it's golden plumage shimmering in the autumn sunshine, free for all to treasure and enjoy. But those golden feathers are expensive to maintain, and whilst bird watchers and publishers love it, academic landowners are concerned about how they can afford to allow this bird to fly free.

More dowdy than its golden cousin, the Greenfinch is more of a ground dweller. It hops around fields and hedgerows, opportunistically seeking out a place to store its cargo of nuts and berries. Unfortunately this winter harvest often goes unnoticed, as most twitchers have their binoculars focussed on the brasher, flashier Goldfinch.

As well as these two beautiful birds, the Finch family also includes the Chaffinch and Bullfinch. The debate surrounding Open Access has allowed Chaff and Bull to prosper, to such a degree that there's a danger that they might overwhelm the other species. We at Fundermental Towers keep our binoculars trained nervously on the sky.

Thanks to Simon Kerridge for highlighting this ornithological display.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Oxford's Server Gets Reboot

It was heartening to hear that the computer that powers the ancient academic powerhouse of Oxford was kicked back into life at The National Museum of Computing in Bletchley today.

'We've never had a problem before,' confided the Director of IT and Magical Things at St Heathen's College Oxford, Prof Sir Norman Dumblewick, 'although there was a scare in 1974 when there was a shortage of string and valves due to the three day week.'

'People are forever 'upgrading' and buying fancy new iPads and whatnot, but we've had the same server here since 1951 and it is still supporting the fellows' world class research.'

'It's a little known fact that we at St Heathen's were the first to develop the 'world wide web'' continued Dumblewick. 'However, we understand the 'world' to mean the 38 Oxford colleges. Which I think is fair.'

'Yes, the future of research in the UK is safe in our hands', concluded Dumblewick, as the machine behind him started to make an alarming crunching noise. Dumblewick turns and delivers a swift kick. 'That's what we call 'rebooting',' he wheezed, chortling and coughing in turn for some minutes.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

STFC: 'Too Narrow a Focus'

An advisory panel has today criticised the STFC for having 'too narrow a focus', Research Fortnight reports.

'For far too long STFC has thrown money at projects within its remit,' complained the 900 page report from the panel. 'Does it not realise that it should be launching expensive, half-baked interdisciplinary programmes?

'It's time it took advantage of RCUK's Priority Generator. Big Science needs this kind of cutting edge, outside-the-envelope thinking. Why fund astronomy and particle physics when you could be creating exciting, dynamic new research in 'Syntax beyond Food', or 'Enlightenment towards Remembrance'?'

No one from STFC was available for comment.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Stats, Black Eyes and Feathers in Caps

'No sir, a reduction in applications is a definite Feather in
your Cap'
As any research administrator worth their salt will know, The Times Higher published the annual stats for RCUK awards last week. In universities across the land there's fevered analysis, trying to work out (like Colonel Cathcart) whether they represent a Black Eye or a Feather in the Cap - or both, simultaneously.

After all the recent mission group shenanigans, I thought it would be interesting to see how the internecine factions within the Russell Group and 94 Group are performing. For this exercise, I've averaged out the figures for the following four groups:

  • RG Old: i.e. the original Russell Group, namely Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Imperial, KCL, Leeds, Liverpool, LSE, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, QUB, Sheffield, Southampton, UCL, Warwick
  • RG New: i.e. those that jumped ship from 94 Group and joined the RG in the summer, namely York, Durham, Exeter, QMUL 
  • 94 Former: i.e. those that jumped ship from 94 Group but are currently unaligned, Bath, St Andrews, Surrey 
  • 94 Current: i.e. Birkbeck, UEA, Essex, Goldsmiths, IoE, RHUL, Lancaster, Loughborough, Reading, SOAS, Sussex.

So, first, let's look at overall award value:

No surprise there: the old, 'big science' universities are getting the lion's share of the funding. What is interesting though, is that those universities that recently left the 94 Group to wander in the wilderness are actually generating more RCUK income than those that were invited into the hallowed portals of the RG earlier in the year.

Next application number:

Once again, no surprise: application numbers are down across the board. This is probably largely due to the Research Councils demanding demand management. They want less applications so their success rates don't look quite so pitiful. Interesting, again, the recent departees are putting in more than the newly anointed RGers. Some would say that the newly anointed are showing their quality: less is more. Others might say they are lazy laggards. I couldn't possibly comment.

Next, award number:

Once again, the Russell Group reign supreme, getting almost double the number of awards as their new intake. There had better be some sock pulling amongst those whipper-snappers. Moreover, RG are getting, on average, four times as many as the remaining 94 Group.

Finally, success rate:

A tight cluster here, around the late twenties/early thirties, but interestingly the wandering homeless outdo the folk on the hill (both old and new money).

So what to make of all this? I'll leave that to my fellow research administrators to decide on black eyes/feathers in their caps, and ultimately stats can be twisted to mean whatever you want them to mean (a nice blog post on this from Cash4Questions, here), but I hope it provides a pause for thought and a rethink about how we see ourselves.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Universities UK and the Hanging Chads

In the week that saw the world breathe out again as Barack Obama was re-elected, there was a far more intriguing election drama unfolding over at Tavistock Square. According to Research Fortnight, the election of Surrey chief Prof Sir Christopher Snowden to the top job at Universities UK was declared null and void, as they'd forgotten to tell people that there was actually going to be an election.  Thus, Snowden was returned unopposed.

Just a minor thing, then.

Will the debacle match the US 2000 election, when George W Bush got into the White House on the back of hanging chads and a little help from his brother, Jeb? Is there a Prof Sir Jeb Snowden, VC of  the University of East Croydon (Miami Campus), on hand to ease his brother into the lofty post?

Excitement's mounting at Fundermental Towers. We just hope and pray that this situation is sorted out sooner rather than later. I mean, where will we be without the guiding hand of Universities UK to leadeth us and make us down to lie??

It doesn't bear thinking about. I'm already coming out in hives and hyperventilating.

The 94 Seven Join and Leave another Mission Group

'Please sir, we're looking for a mission group to join.
And leave'
The Council for the Defence of British Universities was launched today to act as a champion of traditional academia in the face of current economic and policy challenges. Welcomed by many in the Sector, including the British Academy, the launch was marred somewhat by the fact that it was followed shortly after by news that seven of its original members had decided to leave.

'Membership of the Council for the Defence of British Universities does not reflect the type of university we are, nor sit well with the future direction of the University’s strategy,' said Bath's VC, Prof Glynis Breakwell.

A spokesman from the University of Surrey concurred. 'The decision to leave the Council has not been taken lightly and reflects the University’s response to the changing higher education environment. It will continue to seek and develop new, mutually beneficial relationships with other leading UK and global academic institutions, and intends to leave further umbrella groups as and when the opportunity presents itself.'

It is believe that all 7 founding members, who have also left the 94 Group recently, are intending to apply for membership of rival mission group, The Council for the Destruction of British Universities, otherwise known as The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Grants Factory: Designing a Realistic Research Project

28 November  2012, 2-4pm
Cornwallis NW Seminar Room 6 (Directions and map here)

The next Grants Factory event is aimed at early career researchers (ECRs), but is open to all. Led by Prof Peter Taylor-Gooby (SSPSSR) and Prof Elizabeth Mansfield (SMSAS), it will look at how to construct a realistic research project.

Designing a research project can be a daunting prospect, and issues you need to address may include choosing the right methodology, selecting participants or including appropriate material, addressing ethical issues, managing staff, identifying milestones, working with collaborators, and disseminating your findings. Profs Taylor-Gooby and Mansfield have had considerable experience in designing projects in very different areas: Taylor-Gooby works in social policy, Mansfield in applied mathematics. However, their experience will be relevant to academics in all disciplines.

The event is free, and refreshments will be provided, but do let me know if you intend to come along.

The full Grants Factory programme is available on the SharePoint website, together with slides and notes from all recent events.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Notes from Grants Factory: 'Identifying an Idea'

Prof Sally Sheldon and Prof Gordon Lynch led the third Grants Factory session on Wednesday, which focused on how to identify an idea for your funding proposal.

People often think that identifying an idea is a ‘lightbulb moment,’ suggested Prof Sheldon, but it was more like a slow process of development, which slowly brought an idea to fruition. Getting feedback was the key, and applicants needed to share their proposals with as many people as possible, crafting and developing them, and thereby making their idea fundable.

She went on to outline some of the elements that made a project fundable:
·         It raised a question which is important, topical or ’sexy’.  Applicants should think about why they are passionate about their subject, and try to distil this enthusiasm in their proposals. Many hardened reviewers and panellists will need persuading that your project is exciting and necessary.
·         It responded to the strategic priorities, focus and interests of the individual funder, as well as the aims of a particular scheme.  The Research Councils need to justify their spending to government, so applicants should make it easy for them by trying to fit their projects with the funder’s story.
·         It was likely to excite both a non-specialist audience and expert referees. People tend to be better at addressing the expert referees, so take some time to practice on non-experts.
·         It was feasible/concrete/credible/deliverable:
o   Plans to deliver the project will need to be realistic: think about timeframe/access to key data and individuals/resources.
o   You must look capable of delivering it (build on your strengths and address any gaps in your experience or expertise with credible plans for training/mentoring/appropriate management structures – or even collaboration).
·         It represented good value for money – which isn’t the same as being cheap.
·         It had the potential to have significant impact, and the plans for achieving this were well integrated within the project.

Prof Lynch then took over, and reiterated the need to balance an exciting idea with a practical plan. He had learnt, he said, from failure: his first grant came after a string of unsuccessful applications. A fundamental misconception had been that the reviewers would give him the benefit of the doubt, once they were fired up with excitement over his idea. No: the timetable, the milestones, the methodology, and the management all had to be watertight.

He continued by listing some issues that weren’t explicitly mentioned in the funders’ guidelines, but were nonetheless essential for success:
·         The model of the ‘lone scholar’ project was rarely funded now, particularly by the Research Councils. It was crucial to build relationships with people internally and externally.
·         It was helpful to have a research profile of which funder is already aware.  Imagine yourself as the reviewer: if there’s an element of the application that is uncertain, reviewers are more likely to be persuaded if you are already a known quantity. This is not to suggest that funders are giving ‘jobs for the boys’, but that background knowledge plays a part in the decision making process.
·         In addition, make sure your online profile is up to date and presents you positively. The panellists and reviewers may well Google you.
·         Steer your application towards/away from certain reviewers. Don’t offend people, for example by not mentioning the foremost scholar in the field.
·         Cite the right people, as they might be sent the application to review.
·         Make sure that your application is classified correctly. It is easy to dismiss the tick box list of subject areas at the end of the application. However, this is crucial, as it is used to decide whom to send your application to.
·         Make grant applications that are appropriate to your career trajectory and funding history. The best research grant isn’t always the largest. A network grant could be crucially helpful to help establish your subfield, to develop international contacts, or to collaborate in the writing of paper.
·         You must have thick skin. If you are rejected, it’s okay to feel sorry for yourself for a day or so, but then pick yourself up and think about how to reuse or recycle your proposal.
·         Applying is a long term process. Be realistic.

With these thoughts in mind, those attending then broke into smaller groups and discussed their ideas for proposals. Prof Lynch had prepared a checklist of issues that applicants should consider, and this was used as the basis for the discussions.

Slides, notes and the checklist from the session are now available on the Grants Factory SharePoint site.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Bath to Join Million+ Shock

Coffee time in the Million+
Senior Common Room
Following its departure from the 94 Group, Bath has shocked the sector by applying to join Million+ rather than the Russell Group.
'Membership of the Russell Group does not reflect the type of university we are, nor sit well with the future direction of the University’s strategy,' said Bath's VC, Prof Glynis Breakwell. 'The Russell Group is perceived as too 'Old Skool', and we feel the future lies with Million+'.
However, it is still uncertain whether Million+ will accept Bath's membership application. 'To be honest, I'm not sure we want them,' said Million+ Chair, VC of the University of East London, and former Avengers star Prof Patrick McGhee. 'Current members will have to vote on whether we want to admit a pre-92 institution to be in our gang.'
Other universities have tried and failed to join Million+. It is understood that, when upstarts Exeter, York, Durham and QMUL joined the Russell Group in March this year Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial tried to jump ship and join the elitist Million+, but were refused.