Thursday, 25 April 2013

Notes from ESRC Regional Meeting, April 2013

Prof Paul Boyle
The ESRC held a Regional Meeting at the LSE on Tuesday.

Introduction 

 Prof Paul Boyle (CEO, ESRC) started by giving a ‘state of the union’ summary of the position of the ESRC. It currently gave out £200m in funding, of which £180m came from BIS, and £20m from cofunding. It was distributed as follows:

  • Training & Skills £53m (26%) 
  • Strategic/Collaborative £51m (22%) 
  • Responsive Mode £45m (22%) 
  • Methods & Infrastructure £33m (16%) 
  • Other £23m (11%) 
Following publication of its Delivery Plan (2009-15), it had cut Small Grants, but still provided small scale funding (such as for the Secondary Data Analysis initiative). It firmly believed in international collaboration (providing up to 30% funding for overseas Co-Is), and was embedded in all six of RCUK’s cross-council programmes (global food security; energy; global uncertainties; lifelong health and wellbeing; digital economy; living with environmental change). It saw engagement with the private sector as a key priority for the future, particularly in financial services, green business and retail (see Strategic Priorities, below). It had also acted quickly on ad hoc priorities recently, such as initiatives on the Future of UK and Scotland, and Transformative Research.

Strategic Priorities 

ESRC had recently reviewed its three strategic priorities (economic performance and sustainable growth; influencing behaviour and informing interventions; vibrant and fair society), but had decided not to change them. However, they had recognised that there were gaps within these, and that further ‘urgent but predictable scientific opportunities’ had arisen since the priorities were first formed. Moreover, looking at the funding trend towards 2016/17, there was ‘investment headroom’ as current grants tailed off. Thus, the ESRC would be looking to provide more funding, or facilitate further networks, frameworks and events, in the following areas:

Evidence:

  • ‘Big data’ 
  • ‘What Works’ (in which the ESRC aims to embed the use of evidence in policy and practice. Whilst on a different scale, Boyle likened this to NICE – i.e. to synthesise evidence robustly, recommend interventions and monitor their success) 
  • Macroeconomics 

Economic Performance:

  • Business innovation 
  • Financial markets 
  • Cities (ESRC had looked at what sister social science funders globally were focusing on, and recognised cities as a major area of interest. Will possibly hold a town hall meeting about this) 
  • Green economy 

Influencing Behaviour:

  • Epigenetics and educational neuroscience (Boyle described this as ‘frontier science’. It’s a small but growing area looking at how genes can be influenced by environment) 
  • Innovation in health and social care (ESRC would look to cofund with other health sponsors) 
  • Higher education (there’s a sense that, despite the recent big upheavals, there hasn’t been enough work done on HE recently. Might also cofund with DFID on primary/secondary education in developing countries) 

Fair & Vibrant Society:

  • Civil society and social innovation 
  • Social media 
  • Work (such as the impact of recession. There might be a new call around this, but would examine what work had already been done in this area first). 

Demand Management 


The ESRC had consulted the sector a couple of years ago following a 33% increase in applications with no rise in funding between 2006-11. Following this, it had cut the Small Grants scheme, and had encouraged universities to implement internal peer review. As a result there had been a 37% decrease in application volume, and success rates had risen from 17% to 24% across its schemes. The decrease in volume had also led to a 20% decrease in peer review activity. Boyle encouraged individual institutions to mirror the kind of activity that the ESRC undertook: for example, using anonymous reviews, as it had done for the Transformative Research scheme.

Was he still considering introducing tougher measures for demand management? It was still under review, he said, and he had the options ‘in his back pocket’ if needed. However, he thought that any measures would be more nuanced. If a university was not considered to be ‘playing the game’ there may be specific sanctions that would not affect the rest of the sector. He suggested that universities should test the effectiveness of an internal peer review system by questioning how many projects had actually been rejected as a result of it. This was not black and white, however: he clarified that by ‘rejected’ he meant ‘rejected in its current state’, i.e. that they had been encouraged to reframe and redraft their application following feedback.

Doctoral Training Centres 

ESRC was currently assessing the lessons to be learnt from the DTC programme. They had used data from RAE to help in the assessment of it; as similar data from the REF would not be available when the current programme came to an end the ESRC would probably delay a new round by a year. They wanted to encourage:

  • A good balance between 3+ and 3+1 , and didn’t like universities trying to get more for less by only advertising for 3+. 
  • Cofunding with external partners. 

There was a move to harmonise DTCs across the Research Councils, and ESRC was considering whether it should expand or contract its DTC provision. However, it would always want to fund excellence, and would therefore wish to avoid quotas.

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