Friday, 31 May 2013

Recycling your Proposal

Paper, glass, metal...but where's the slot for proposals?
Given the shrinking success rates, it makes sense to consider whether - and where - you should recycle your funding proposal. At the penultimate Grants Factory event yesterday Prof Ray Laurence and Prof Peter Taylor-Gooby encouraged people to consider doing this, but sounded a note of caution.

  • Most applicants would consider recycling an application because they are passionate about the project and want to get it funded. However, their passion might blind them to its shortcomings. Make sure you take on board the feedback offered with the rejection. A dose of tough love will make your new application stronger. 
  • Similarly, a rejection might be a good opportunity to step back from your project and really think about why you're doing it. Are you passionate about the project, or have you just got on the 'funding treadmill', believing you should be submitting funding bids without really thinking whether it's what you want. If you're just doing it through a sense of obligation it's actually 'hugely depressing' when you get the funding.
  • If you are serious about getting funding, and are willing to take on board feedback, be alert to the different guidelines between the funders. It's easy to assume they're all much of a muchness, but there are key differences, and funders get angry with 'lazy' resubmissions from elsewhere.
  • Think imaginatively. In many disciplines there are a limited number of funders to whom you can submit essentially the same project. You might have to think about carving up the project into smaller sub-projects, or seek funding for a pilot to demonstrate potential which will, in the long term, strengthen your hand. Sit down and consider your project, dividing it up into activities for which funding is essential, and those for which it is desirable. Alternatively, if your application was for a visiting fellow, say, you could think about expanding the scope of the project to a network, which would increase the possible sources of funding, and potential value of exchanges.
  • Finally, consider collaboration. Not only will this change the nature of your project, and potentially strengthen it, but it may also open up alternative avenues - for example if your collaborators are in different countries. 
The final session this year is an ECR Network meeting, looking at 'balancing the conflicting demands of academia'. Get in touch if you want to come along.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

ECR Network: Balancing the Conflicting Demands of Academia

The final Early Career Researcher Network event of the year will take place next Wednesday, 5 June between 12-2pm, and will focus on how to balance the conflicting demands of academia.

Starting off in academia can be difficult. Not only are you trying to establish your research career, but you are having to cope with the new demands of teaching and supervision, as well as understanding what is required of you as a ‘good citizen’ within your department. Outside of work you may have conflicting demands from family and home.

This session will be led by Prof Sarah Spurgeon (EDA) and Prof Gordon Lynch (SECL), both of whom have had to juggle conflicting demands within their own lives. It will be an opportunity to hear from them, but also to hear from other ECRs across the University, to share your experience, and to offer help and advice to each other.

Lunch will be provided. The event is free and open to all, but please let me know if you intend to come along so that I can arrange catering. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Thinking Imaginatively about Impact: Transistors, Mini-Skirts & Global Warming

Parker: yes, m'lady
Whilst 'impact' has been part of the funding landscape for some time now, it is still something that we get a lot of confused (or bemused) enquiries about. Many see it as a ridiculous demand: their work is so theoretical as to have no real word impact and, even if it did, how can they possibly predict what it will be?

Last week Kevin Parker of KKI Associates gave a talk to try to demystify impact. Usefully, he encouraged the audience to distinguish the 'features' of their research from its 'benefits'. He gave the example of Exxon's development, in the mid 1990s, of credit card payment systems at petrol pumps. In order to make this happen, Exxon needed to do a huge amount of research and development, including electronic systems to read credit cards that would not create a current or a spark that could ignite the petrol fumes. Did they dwell on all this cutting edge technology when talking to the public about it? No. They talked about the fact that the new system would allow stressed out parents to get home in time for their children to watch Barney the Dinosaur. That was the real world impact of their research.

For Parker, there were essentially four possible benefits that academics could identify:

  • It allows us to do new things: for instance, when the first transistor radio was developed it stuck rigidly to the valve radio template: large, lumpy, mains powered. It was only when Sony miniaturised it and made it battery powered and affordable that it really took off, giving teenagers the chance to listen to their own music wherever they wanted. 
  • It saves us money: in the past Parker had worked with someone who had developed a new lathe. The lathe had many 'features', including hydraulics, but what sold it to car manufacturers was that it would save them money by cutting out one part of the production process.
  • It makes life easier: Are people doing something difficult, dirty or unpleasant, can you help them out? For instance a scanner that allows doctors to better diagnose cancer, and avoids unnecessary interventions, or architecture that is designed to make a working environment more efficient. 
  • It makes us think differently about ourselves: whether it be Darwin changing how we understand our position in the natural world, Einstein our place in the universe, or historians our place in time, the public is genuinely interested in understanding how we fit with our environment, and how we view ourselves. Another example was the miniskirt and original Mini: both were adopted more because they made people feel good - or differently - about themselves rather than because they were practical, or even because they were innovative products.
The ultimate test of a successful impact claim is whether it can be delivered as an 'elevator pitch'. Could you say, in a couple of minutes, what makes your research special and why people should care? 

We're hoping to get Kevin back to talk again in the new year, but in the meantime a version of Kevin's talk is available on his website, here.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Grants Factory - 'Recycling your Proposal'

The penultimate workshop in this year’s Grants Factory programme will look at how to recycle your proposal.

Preparing a research funding proposal takes a huge amount of time and work. Having prepared and submitted an application, it makes sense to make the most of it by reusing your work for alternative funders. But is this possible? If so, what is involved in doing so? 

This workshop will be led by Professors Ray Laurence (SECL) and Peter Taylor-Gooby (SSPSSR). Both have had considerable experience in drafting applications, and reusing them in part or whole with a range of funders. They will be talking about their experiences, identifying what they had to do in each case, and in what finally worked. Attendees are encouraged to bring along their proposals – at whatever stage – so that the group can look at what potential they have to be developed for alternative funders.

Please note the change of date from that advertised: it will take place on 29 May, not 22nd.

Places are free and all are welcome, but do let me know if you intend to come. Tea and coffee will be provided.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Changes to NERC Peer Review

NERC is introducing changes to its peer review process to improve 'consistency, quality and transparency'. In an email to peer review college (PRC) members, the Council set out what will stay the same and what will change.

What will stay the same? 

The central role and importance of the PRC will remain. However, it wants to allow for more 'inclusivity and flexibility', whilst recognising the need for 'consistency, particularly in panel membership.'

What will change? 

  • Timing of peer review periods, to try and avoid overlap with each other and major university holidays. They will also confirm membership and dates earlier in the process. 
  • More consistent panel membership and more stable panel portfolios. There will be a new role of ‘core’ member, and they will have a primary responsibility for attending moderating panel meetings in a particular panel area, forming half of the panel membership. Other PRC members will be invited on an ad hoc basis. All current PRC members will be considered for 'core' membership, which will be fixed term.  
  • More consistent review levels and the removal of the ‘sift’ process.  Reviewers will no longer be asked to complete reviews where they judge that they have low expertise. In addition, moderating panels will consider all proposals submitted to a call, so meetings will be longer (held over two days) and the role of panel member even more central to the funding and assessment process. 
  • A pre-score process will be introduced to allow panels to prioritise proposals for discussion. Pre-scores for excellence will be required from panel members at least 1 week before meetings. 
  • Better Performance monitoring and management. Performance standards will be introduced and more closely monitored on a PRC and individual level. There will also be on-line training for all members to ensure that members continue to be aware of what is expected of them and any changes to policy;
When will these changes happen? 

From January 2014. The PRC year will start from January rather than July from that point onwards. In the meantime there will be a call for new membership in June 2013.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

'Frog One' to Head Science at NERC

It's been a while, hasn't it? And hey, it is (nearly) the end of the week. So here's another in our sporadic series of lookalikes. This time NERC has taken the brave move to appoint the baddie from 1971 thriller The French Connection as its Director of Science.
Iain Gilliespie, AKA Alan Charnier, AKA 'Frog One', was previously Head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)'s Science and Technology Policy Division. As far as Fundermentals is aware, he has never tried to smuggle anything, from Marseilles or elsewhere, in the boot of an unsuspecting French TV personality. However, if anyone has information to the contrary...

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Witty Review

When I first heard about the Witty Review I had images of a Wildean salon, with epigrams tinkling like a chandelier swaying in a light summer breeze.

At the very least I hoped for Laurel and Hardy slipping on a banana skin.

Imagine my disappointment when I found out it was a government-sponsored response to the Heseltine Review, looking at how universities could work with Local Enterprise Partners (LEPs) to support growth.

Where's the fun in that?

So, to make amends, I thought I'd go with my original vision, courtesy of (or apologies to) Oscar Wilde. And Monty Python.

THE PRINCE OF WALES: Ah, my congratulations, Heseltine. Your review is a great success. The whole of London's talking about you.
MICHAEL HESELTINE: Your highness, there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
(restrained and sycophantic laughter) 
THE PRINCE OF WALES: Oh, very witty, Heseltine ..... very, very witty.
HESELTINE:: There is only one thing in the world worse than being witty, and that is not being witty.
(Fifteeen more seconds of the same) 
SIR ANDREW WITTY: (keen to join in) No, no: there is only one thing in the world worse than being Witty, and that is being Heseltine.
WALES: (perplexed) No, not with you, Witty.
WITTY: I was being witty.
WALES: Yes? And?
WITTY: No, see, my name is Witty. And I was being witty. Witty Witty. See?
WITTY: (red faced): Look, you dullards! My name is Witty! It was a pun! A play on words!
HESELTINE: I can resist nothing but temptation. And Witty.
WITTY: Ach! Never mind. Now, listen Heseltine, I hear I am to review your review.
HESELTINE: I never read a book I need to review. It prejudices me so.
WITTY: Can't you talk normally? I'm talking about your review of UK growth. You know, the one with the inappropriate cover.
HESELTINE: You mean the hilarious caricature of me searching beneath a rock? Ah! How John Tenniel and I chortled at that.
WITTY: Yes, I am sure. So I am to look in particular at universities and growth.
HESELTINE: Ha! You won't find much growth there. The exquisite art of idleness, one of the most important things that any university can teach. So which university will you be looking at? Oxford or Cambridge?
WITTY: Both. And I believe idleness in universities is a thing of the past. Universities are the vital crucibles for growth.
(general laughter)
WALES: Ah Witty! Very good.
WITTY: No! I'm serious.
WALES: Honestly, Witty! Do you take me for a fool? What did the Fellows of All Souls do for the Industrial Revolution? Did Telford and Stephenson get inspiration on Parker's Piece?
WITTY: Well no...
WALES: Was the Spinning Jenny borne on Christ Church Meadow? Is Brunel a Professor of Engineering at Kings College? No Witty, universities will never be anything but nurseries of idle dreams. Imagine, sir, if we were to force our academics to explain the relevance of their research to society!
(unrestrained laughter)
WALES: Yes! And we set them against each other as in a race, and compiled the results in tabular form! We could give them a certain number of stars: the higher number, the better their research! Ha! What do you think of that, Witty?
WITTY: Well that's patently ludicrous, your highness...
WALES: Or, better still, we consult their students and let them decide which university is best based on what they thought of their tutors or beer halls! We would then publish the findings in national periodicals!
(sustained laughter)
HESELTINE:  (puts an arm around Witty's shoulder) Yes, Witty, education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.