Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Notes from Leverhulme Visit, October 2013

A Soap Opera: the source of the Leverhulme millions
The new Director of the Leverhulme Trust, Prof Gordon Marshall, visited the University last week. Whilst we've had visits from his predecessor, Prof Sir Richard Brook, and I've heard Marshall speaking at the LSE, this was the first time he's come to Kent. Anticipation was high, and was shown in the strong turnout: there was standing room only at the back.

Gordon Marshall is a sociologist by training, and has had a long and illustrious career in senior management within higher education. He taught at Bath, Essex and the LSE, was Chief Executive of the ESRC and VC at Reading. After climbing to these dizzy heights, Marshall is enjoying life at the helm of what he described as a 'small peer review shop off Fleet Street'.

The Trust gives out less than half the value of awards of the ESRC (£80m, compared to some £200m), but processes four times as many applications (4,000 pa, compared to the ESRC's 800). Moreover, it does so with just 14 people, compared to the ESRC's 125. With such a small team, 'we can't generate much bureaucracy', said Marshall.

96% of their awards are responsive mode. The exception are the Programme Grants, which offer substantial funding (up to £1.75m) in areas identified by the Trustees. The disciplinary distribution of awards generally follows applications: they get more science applications, so tend to give out more science awards. The divide is roughly as follows:

  • Sciences: 50%
  • Humanities: 30%
  • Social Sciences: 20%
 However, these figures should be treated with caution: Leverhulme encourages interdisciplinary work, so its sometimes hard to pin down exactly which discipline any project belongs to.

The Trust does not 'manage demand', as many of the Research Councils have had to do. 'If your quality is acceptable we fund you,' said Marshall. Whilst the Trustees have the ultimate say on who gets funded, they rely for advice on reviews and on a small group of academic advisors. The Trustees, claimed Marshall, 'were the last group of people in the country who have respect for the academy'. They recognised the worth of good research, and wanted to fund it. In terms of what shape this should take, Leverhulme was very open. It covers all disciplines except:

  • clinical medical research (which is already well covered by Wellcome); 
  • policy-driven research, which should be funded by the Government;
  • 'advocacy' projects;
  • those with immediate commercial applications, which should be funded by industry.
The Trust wanted to fund the best, but didn't want to be in competition with the Research Councils or, worse still, be the 'funder of last resort' for those who have already tried the Research Councils. However, if your work is exciting, ground-breaking and robust, but can't get funding with the Research Councils (perhaps because you're emeritus, or you're seeking studentships, or the project's too risky, or too interdisciplinary), then the Trust would be interested.

Marshall finished by highlighting some common failings of unsuccessful applications. These included:

  • An overly detailed review of the literature. Whilst the Trustees need some context, you should concentrate on the specifics of what you are actually going to do. This leads on to the second failing:
  • Under specified research design;
  • Claims of scholarship. Leverhulme isn't interested in H-Index, REF scores, or any other indication of prestige. They look solely at the potential of the project and your ability to undertake the research;
  • Supposition of a hidden agenda. There is no agenda. Leverhulme just wants to fund the best research, wherever it is found;
  • Incremental work. They don't provide funding for 'empire building', or work that doesn't lead to a step change in understanding. Excite them.
  • Claims of impact. They have no interest in this agenda.
I will make a recording of his talk and Marshall's slides available on the Research Services website shortly. If you would like me to email these to you, drop me a line.


  1. I applied for an early career fellowship with the Leverhulme Trust; my research project was in law. I did not get it; then I checked the record. In the last 5 years, with an average of 70 fellowships awarded per year (total of 350 fellowships) there was a grand total of '1' fellowship awarded in law, and '1' in socio-legal studies. So my advice to potential applicants, is, if your research project is in law, do not waste your time.

    1. That's interesting, Alessandra, and I certainly need to do more analysis on their award figures. I remember doing so in the past and being surprised by how many ancient history/classics awards they are. Marshall did say, however, that award numbers tend to follow application numbers, so that they give more awards in the Sciences because they get more applications from the Sciences. Maybe the same is true on a disciplinary level? Another point he made was about the low level of success for Early Career Fellowships, despite the need for match funding. It's something they're looking at, but he suggested that no matter how much money was committed to it, the success rates stayed stubbornly low.

    2. I noted that too, in fact I thought I might have had more luck submitting an application in ancient history of the near east, in which I also have a post-graduate degree, rather than law. I am sorry to say, but I saw many unconscious biases at play. For example, it is advisable not to apply for a Leverthulme ECF in the same institution in which you obtained your PhD; however, for the purpose of 'sameness', each individual college at Oxford and Cambridge is considered as a separate institution, so Oxbridge students can quite literally apply to the college across the street and respect the rule; however, the same is not the case for students for example at Edinburgh, or Manchester, or whatever. Now, I see the rationale in allowing students to apply outwith their institution, but why make it more difficult to apply in your own? In the end, fellowships are also supposed to foster collaboration between junior and senior academics, and if you are minded to work with a particular academic, why be restricted because he/she happens to be in your alma mater?
      Anyway it is a touchy subject, worthy of a thesis in itself.