Thursday, 28 February 2013

Exchanging Knowledge with the AHRC

Knowledge exchange, underground style.
Just don't pick the Northern Line.

What’s the difference between knowledge transfer (KT) and knowledge exchange (KE)? To the AHRC’s Robert Keegan, it’s the difference between Newcastle’s Metro and London’s Underground. Whilst the Metro is good, and does the necessary, it is somewhat linear. One station follows on from the next with little option for change, for interaction, for sideways movement. The Underground, on the other hand, is a sprawling, vibrant, interchanging, twisting, turning, living network. It gives, it takes.

This is the kind of ecosystem that the AHRC wants to nurture. It wants to embed it within all of its schemes, encouraging applicants to go beyond the usual suspects – the website, the exhibition, the database – and instead facilitate collaborations which are of value to both partners, the academic and the non academic, at any time within the project’s lifecycle.

After a two year pilot, it launched a Follow on Funding for Impact and Engagement scheme on 31 January. This is intended to provide funding for innovative, creative and relevant research, and to stimulate pathways to impact. It is not for research, but for impact activities. More details here

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

First Impressions of the New Leverhulme Director

My colleagues at LSE kindly invited me along to listen to the new Director of the Leverhulme Trust speaking to them at lunchtime today. I wasn’t sure what to expect: I’d always been impressed with his predecessor, Prof Sir Richard Brook. He was reassuringly old school, with a glimmer of mischief in his eye. He was the perfect advocate for Leverhulme: enthusiastic, sharp, engaged, and fiercely supportive of the work of the Trust. It was a tough act to follow.

Moreover, the fact that Prof Gordon Marshall had been a Vice Chancellor worried me. You see, VCs have a characteristic desire to imprint their leadership on the organisations they steer. They reorganise, realign. Priorities are shifted, sections amalgamated, faculties split - whether it's necessary or not. Was Marshall intending to do something similar to Leverhulme?

The answer – on the evidence of this talk – was no. In fact I got the sense that Marshall was relishing the refuge that the Trust offered from the wild tornadoes and bleak arctic winds of the current funding environment. There was no need for Leverhulme to go chasing the latest political fad, or hound award holders to demonstrate social or economic relevance. Its only concern, said Marshall, ‘is to increase the sum of human knowledge. It may sound corny, but it’s true.’

And, if your experiments don’t work, or your research goes off piste, then Leverhulme will still be on your side. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Marshall. You will have still learnt something. The Trust was the only funder ‘to score risk positively’.

Marshall tried to encapsulate the Trust’s aims in a simple sentence. ‘Tell us (in plain language) what research you want to do, and why it is compelling, and if that sounds persuasive then we will try to fund the work.’

‘I can’t decide whether we’re just very old fashioned, or the last honourable man standing’, concluded Marshall. We clapped, and I came away from the talk reassured that this idiosyncratic funder was in safe hands. Please don't disappoint me, Gordon.

AHRC: A Final Check before Submitting

Check that you've got something written
next to your tickboxes...d'oh!

The AHRC's Morag Sullivan gave us a startling statistic at yesterday's AHRC event: between a quarter and a fifth of all applications submitted to the AHRC are rejected by the office for commonsensical and easily avoided oversights.

So, if you’re planning to apply to the AHRC shortly, make sure you’ve got the following ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’s crossed:

·         Does the proposal fit within AHRC’s remit?
·         Is the primary classification in the AHRC subject area?
·         Have appropriate key words been selected?
·         Does the proposal meet the scheme aims?
·         Are all required attachments present?
·         Are the page limits for each attachment right?
·         Are there surplus attachments?
·         Are costs listed under the correct cost heading?
·         Are they explained in the Justification of Resources?
·          Do costs match across different documents?
·         Is the Technical Summary complete?
·         Is the Early Career Researcher eligibility statement completed?
·         Do you have the necessary employment contract to apply?
·          Is the start date within correct timeframe?
·         Do the hours worked match the hours charged?
·          Is the RA of postdoctoral standing?

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

AHRC - View from the Committee Room

I took part in the AHRC’s inaugural ‘Developing Better Applications’ event yesterday. It was a great event, and a good opportunity to chat to others doing a similar job to me in a wide range of different institutions.
Prof Roberta Mock gave a really useful talk based on her experience as a peer review panellist for the AHRC. Amongst the points she raised were:
·         The AHRC is not a cabal. It is not us and them. They rely on academics reviewing other academics. We are all part of it, and necessary for its successful running.
·         Applicants should not run before they walk. Having a commensurate track record was crucial for getting an appropriate grant.
·         You should write with potential reviewers in mind, and imagine the ‘nightmare critic’. Preempt their criticism, but don’t be defensive. Reviewers smell fear.
·         Choose keywords wisely. These are used for choosing your reviewers, so do think about what specialism you want your reviewer to have.
·         Talk to colleagues, and share your application. Get some tough love. Better still, take it through internal peer review. It was always clear at panel which applications hadn’t.
·         Take time over preparing it. A good application takes at least two months (and at least 40 hours of intense writing) to draft. 
·         The standard has changed over recent years. What worked five years ago will not work now. Have to keep getting better to stay still.
·         Grammar, spelling and clear formatting do all make a difference.
·         Use the sections, and write what they ask for in the appropriate sections. Doing otherwise makes you appear arrogant.
·         Don’t over inflate claims for impact. The panel is not necessarily looking for the most impactful project , but just for reassurance that you’ve got an effective strategy in place.
·         Don’t hide or disregard ethical elements of your research. If you blank this, or claim not to have any, the panellists will look all the harder for them.
·         It’s all in the detail. Be specific about such issues as which journals you intend to publish in or which conferences you plan to attend. Give them a sense of how you arrived at your costs.
·         Have a realistic work plan that takes account of having a life beyond your research – i.e. factor in holidays, recruitment, potential illness, etc. You are not a robot, and neither is your RA.
·         Value for money is important. That’s not just a case of offering the lowest price. Rather, it’s asking for the money necessary to achieve the objectives and answer the research question. Moreover, it offers research that has both reach and significance.
·         Include information about monitoring of the project. This is often left out, but is really important. It needs to be built into the workplan. It demonstrates institutional buy in and shows that the stewardship of the award is taken seriously.  
·         A ‘super critical ’review is not the end of world, but a convincing right to reply is crucial. You need to be very gracious, but be aware that the panel sees everything. You don’t need to repeat praise from the reviewers, and don’t use one reviewer’s comments against another. The panel sees all the paperwork, and can see if any of the reviewers are out of line.
·         Yes, there is an element of luck. However, there is usually agreement about the first and second ranked applications. The grey area – and the luck – comes further down the list. So give yourself as much of a helping hand as possible. If there’s an early career researcher card, play it. If there’s a highlight notice you can latch on to, do it.

The questions that followed flushed out a final, interesting point: not all reviewers read applications in the same order. Roberta, for instance, flicks to the CV first. All the more reason to do as the Grants Factory suggests, and make sure that key messages are written through the application like words through Brighton rock. Wherever you bite into it, you can see what the research question is, why it’s important, why it offers value for money, and why you’re competent to handle the project.

The training event runs again in London on the 8 March. I'm not sure if it's booked up, but get in touch with the AHRC if you want to go along.

Friday, 15 February 2013

It's Good to Talk

Bob: it's good to talk
To some, getting feedback is a no-brainer. To others, it's as alien as the moons of Jupiter. Wednesday's Early Career Researcher Network meeting looked at the reason why feedback was essential, and how applicants should seek and use it.

Prof Paul Allain kicked off by outlining why feedback was important:

  • It's a chance to test ideas, even if it's just a 'corridor chat' with a colleague;
  • It 'depersonalises' your research. Whilst your work is personal to you, it also plays a part in the wellbeing of the department and the University. Sharing your ideas with others helps to move it from the personal to a more objective 'commodity.'
  • It's an opportunity to consider other, unimagined options for your research;
  • It gives you a chance to benefit from more experienced colleagues;
  • It allows you to hone and clarify your ideas before it's too late.
However, feedback should be sought in good time. Paul suggested that the whole process could take up to two months, and longer if there was a need for more discussion and redrafting. 

He finished by highlighting some of the reasons why people avoid seeking feedback. These included a fear of criticism and of IP theft, and a desire for perfectionism. Ultimately you need to develop a thick skin; your research will be improved as a result of external comment, and the chances of someone stealing your ideas is actually very slim.

Prof Darren Griffin took over. Your research, he suggested, was like your children: to you its fabulous clever and handsome, devastatingly interesting and packed full of potential. However, to others it's a snotty-nosed, ill-mannered, incoherent mess. 

Unfortunately perception is reality. It doesn't make a difference how good you think you are, or even how good - objectively - your research is. It's about the presentation of that research, of selling it to the reviewers and panellists. If they can't understand it or can't see its worth, they won't be interested. Darren was quite frank: the process of selecting applications to be funded was 'shallower and more formulaic than you think.' 

He finished by drawing a Darwinian analogy. Feedback allows people to see how they should change, and those who adapt to take on board the comments are the ones who get funding. They are the ones who 'survive'.

The slides and notes from the talks are available on the Kent SharePoint site

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Applying to the NIHR - Info Day - 11 April

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) funds NHS-related research, including social care and public health. Last year it gave out over £200m of research grants through a range of programmes. 

This event will provide an overview of the NIHR and will offer help and advice on key elements of an NIHR proposal. A range of experienced academics, managers and administrators will be on hand to discuss your proposal, including members of the NIHR, the Research Design Service SE and Kent’s Research Services.

The event is free but places are limited, so please book early via the Eventbrite page:

10.00-10.15 Registration and coffee

10.15-10.30 Welcome 
                    Bridget Carpenter (Co-director NIHR Research Design Service South East)

10.30-10.45 Overview of NIHR Funding 
                    Annette King (Academic Lead RDS SE)
                    What is the NIHR and what are its funding programmes?

10.45-11.20 Designing an Effective Project 
                     Dr Gail Gilchrist (University of Greenwich)
                    What issues do you face when designing a study for funding?

11.20-12.00 Costing a Proposal 
                    What research funders will and won’t pay out.

12.00-12.30 Incorporating Statistics 
                    Dr Eryl Bassett (Statistician RDS SE)
                   What to include in a proposal and examples of how to do it.

12.30-13.30 Lunch

13.30-14.00 Involving Patients and the Public 
                    Amanda Bates & Ferhana Hashem (RDS SE)
                    What it means and why it’s more than ticking a box.

14.00-14.30 A Researcher’s Experience 
                    Dr Kate Hamilton-West (University of Kent)
                    Securing funding for, and running, NIHR studies.

14.30-15.10 The Other Side of the Fence: the view from  the Advisory Board 
                    Prof Ray Fitzpatrick (HS&DR Programme Director) & Prof Stephen Peckham (Director CHSS)
                    Common mistakes in grant applications and tips for success.

from 15.30 RDS Clinic
                   RDS Advisors, Statisticians and Patient and Public Involvement Officers will be available to discuss your proposal. For more information about the clinic, please contact Ferhana Hashem (

Friday, 8 February 2013

ESRC Peer Review Process

As I said in my the previous post, I took part in a PGCHE mock panel today. I preparation I did some background reading on the ESRC process, and thought it would be interesting to set down the way that they assess applications.

  •   First Stage – ESRC receive the application

o   Roughly 10% of applications get rejected at this stage on technicalities, such as not having the right attachments, sections not being filled, format not being adhered to, etc

  •  Second Stage – External Reviewers

o   Each application gets sent to at least 3 academic reviewers, and a user reviewer (if relevant). These are identified using key words.
o   Reviewers use a scale of 1 (low) -6 (high) to rate the application.
o   Applications are assessed on:
§  Originality and potential contribution to knowledge;
§  Research design and methods;
§  Value for money;
§  Outputs, dissemination and impact;
§  Scheme specific criteria (not relevant to responsive mode).
o   Any application with an average score of less than 4/6 it will be rejected at this stage. This applies to about 30% of applications

  •  Third Stage – Introducers

o   The remaining applications are allocated to Grant Assessment Panel (GAP) members who will act as 'introducers' at the panel meeting. There are usually two introducers per application.
o   The ESRC tries to match the applications to the GAP member with the most relevant experience. However, there are only three GAPs, which cover a wide range of disciplines, so applications may well be introduced by someone with limited knowledge or understanding of the discipline.
§  The disciplines covered by the three GAPs are:


Social Work 
Social Policy 
Social Legal 
Area Studies 
Statistics and Methods 
Politics and International Studies 
Science and Technology Studies
Environmental Planning 

§  If it is felt that there is no one with relevant experience on the GAP, they can either cross refer to another GAP, or even to another Research Council.
o   Each introducer gets around 7-10 proposals to assess each meeting, and 4-5 weeks to write their assessments. Their assessments will highlight key strengths and identify any weaknesses that need to be addressed.
o   Based on this assessment, they rate the application using a scale of 1 (low) – 10 (high).
o   The ESRC will analyse these scores and work out approximately what score the applications need to have got in order to go forward to the GAP meeting. Roughly 30% of applications get rejected at this stage, and realistically only those scoring 6 or above are likely to be funded.

  •  Fourth Stage – The Panel Meeting

o   Each application is introduced by the two GAP members. It is not always clear beforehand who will be the leading introducer and who will be the seconder.
o   The panel works through the applications in order of introducers’ scores: the ones with the highest score get discussed first, those with a lowest score get discussed last.
o   The Panel works with PDFs which save on paper but do make it difficult to refer back, check, and follow the discussion of applications easily.
o   ESRC officers are present, and do have input:
§  By saying roughly how many applications they can fund in that round;
§  By highlighting any problems with applications that have not been picked up before (eg they have been submitted to the Council before)
o   Whilst the panel will take a steer from the introducers, the panel discussions allow for proposals to be pulled up or down the rankings. Most of the discussion is around marginal or controversial proposals.
o   The Chair is key. S/he summarises the discussion and, if there is no consensus, has the final say.

Notes from a Mock Panel

'Save me from my friends'. Never truer than in the bearpit
of academic peer review
I took part in the University's PGCHE research funding module today, which took participants through a 'mock panel'. This is always a useful exercise as it gives potential applicants a feel for the issues that peer review panellists are having to grapple with in real life.

There were about thirty participants, and we divided them into five panels: one of humanities academics (looking at AHRC applications), two of social scientists (looking at ESRC applications)  and two of scientists (looking at EPSRC applications).

In preparation I did some reading around the ESRC process, and I'll write these up in a post shortly, but in the meantime it's worth noting some of the key points that came out of the session:

  • Firstly, no matter what your discipline, you can spot the weaknesses in the applications. This is interesting: I chaired one of the social science panels, and all those who took part were in disciplines that were very different from those of the applicants. Nevertheless they picked up on a lot of the weaknesses, and were pretty accurate in the ranking of the applications.
  • Secondly, seniority matters. We pretend it doesn't, but if a PI has an impressive CV, we're more likely to let some vagueness in the application slide. This was a bit disheartening for the ECRs present. However, I pointed out that two of the best applications under consideration were from ECRs who had overcome this difficulty by either have a strong, robust and well thought through project design, or had more senior co-investigators on board to give it gravitas and reassurance. 
  • Thirdly, time is short. You imagine the panellists have all the time in the world to consider your application, but time's snapping at their heals. Decisions need to be made, compromises struck, and the agenda moved on. You - as the applicant - have to help the introducers by giving the the information they need to support your application in a format and place that they can grab it quickly. Cut to the chase: what's your research question, why's it important, why's it timely, why are you the person to answer it, how are you going to do it, and how are you going to disseminate it.
  • Fourthly, confidence shines through. If you believe in yourself and your research, it really helps. Don't be tentative, uncertain or - let's be frank - academic. You need to sell your proposal, and to do so you've got to believe in both its worth, but also in its achievability.