Thursday, 12 September 2013

'The Aggregation of Marginal Gains'

Bradley Wiggins: what's easier, the Tour de France
or winning a Research Council award?
When you think about the world of research funding, Bradley Wiggins might not be the first person that comes to mind. However, I couldn't help conjuring up Wiggo as I reviewed the first year of the Kent Peer Review (KPR) system.

As long term readers of this blog will know, KPR was introduced in October 2011, and was initially intended to apply to Research Council applications, large grants and first grants. For my review, I limited my focus to applications that had been submitted between October 2011 - Sept 2012, to allow for the protracted time it takes to hear back on bids. First grants were too difficult to identify, so I focused instead on Research Council and large grant applications.

And the results were...interesting. The success rate for applications - both RCUK and non-RCUK - that had gone through KPR was 23% compared to a pre-KPR average (2008-11) of 19%, and a non-KPR average of 20%. More markedly, the average value of awards from KPR applications was 25% higher than those that didn't go through KPR, and 30% up on the pre-KPR period.

So in the year following its introduction using KPR seemed to improve your chances - marginally.  But marginal is important. And this is where Wiggo comes in. Dave Brailsford, Wiggins' coach, coined the phrase the 'aggregation of marginal gains'. Essentially, Brailsford looked at all those small, apparently insubstantial differences that most other cycling teams would disregard. A 1% difference here, a fifth of a watt there, two less grams here; together these 'marginal gains' added up. Making the kit out of certain material, or making helmets more aerodynamic, or warming muscles properly before a race. Eventually, with enough of these, and the underlying commitment and dedication of the cyclists themselves, it led to the first British winner of the Tour de France. And then the second, the year after.

So, as with Team Sky, this marginal improvement should be seen in context and as part of a suite of other changes and additional support. From recruiting more research-focussed staff, to funding studentships, to expanding the Grants Factory, to launching a new Research and Impact Strategy which ensure that the institution is behind the development of research. Hopefully the effects of this will lead to a yellow jersey or two.

The other interesting finding of the review is the average value of awards. The fact that KPR awards are that much larger does not suggest, I think, that there is some kind of KPR inflator, but that people are more willing to use the system for their more expensive bids. What we need to do now is encourage further engagement with the system by those with smaller bids. Even a marginal gain could push those marginal riders over the funding line on the Champs Elysees.

(That's enough torturous analogies. Ed) 

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