Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Meanwhile, in a Parallel Universe...

For a brief moment yesterday Richard Dawkins was trending on Twitter. Dawkins has, of course, a rich and impressive research career behind him, and was formally the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. The reason he was trending, however, was not so much research (beyond his coining of the concept of the 'meme'), or even public understanding of research, but for this fabulously beyond-parody video.

It certainly did the trick - sort of - in demonstrating the idea of a 'meme', as the Twitter trend showed. But did it lead to a better understanding of science by the public? I imagine not: most who viewed it would be mystified rather than enlightened. Those who weren't too busy wiping away the tears of laughter, of course.

This, in turn, raises the larger question of the remit of those working on advancing the public understanding of science. Should they be saying 'yes' to any opportunity to engage with the public? Is being out there, being seen by the public, enough in itself, or should they choose their engagement carefully?

You won't be surprised that I think the latter. I believe there's a danger, with these kind of events, of public intolerance with both boffins and conceptual artists becoming conflated. And that, ultimately, will be to the detriment of both.

Friday, 21 June 2013

An Introduction to Open Access

This week sees the introduction of the University's Open Access Policy. For those who are new to OA, I thought it would be useful to post a brief introduction to it.

Broad definition

Open Access (OA) is the practice of allowing academic outputs to be available to all, free of charge. Generally this applies to journal articles, but some effort is being made to apply OA to monographs and other outputs.

OA takes two forms:
  • 'Green': in which an article is archived in a freely accessible online repository (such as KAR);
  • 'Gold:' in which an article is made freely available through a journal without subscription. Some publishers levy an 'article processing charge' (APC) for allowing an article to be made available OA.

Although OA can be traced back to the 1940s, the modern movement began in the 1990s, and emerged first in the sciences. The earliest free online archive was arXiv, established in 1991. PubMed, an online repository for medical research, was created in 1997, and the ePrints software was developed in 2000. 

The movement gained momentum in the early 21st Century. 34,000 scholars signed a 2001 open letter to publishers calling for open access, and pledging not to publish in non-OA journals. The Budapest Open Access Initiative pinned down the definition of OA in 2002, and this was followed in 2003 by the Berlin Declaration. An increasing number of OA journals and repositories were established subsequently.

The Wellcome Trust mandated OA in 2006; the European Commission (EC) launched an OA pilot project in 2008, and has made it mandatory for Horizon 2020.

In 2011 the UK Government set up the Finch Group to look at open access. It reported in 2012, and all of its recommendations were accepted by the Government.

UK Research Councils

As a result, the UK Research Councils (RCUK) OA Policy states that, from 1 April 2013:
  • RCUK-funded research published in peer review journals should be made OA;
  • Both Gold and Green OA is supported, but Gold is preferred;
  • If Green is chosen, investigators have 6 months (for STEM subjects) and 12 months (for Humanities and Social Science subjects) to deposit their articles in a repository. There is some flexibility with this during the 'transition period' (until 2018);
  • Articles should be made available under a CC BY licence;
  • Underlying data should also, where possible, be made freely available.
Investigators can check whether their chosen journal complies with these demands on the SHERPA/RoMEO website.

RCUK expects institutions to make a minimum of 45% of the papers arising from RCUK projects OA in 2013/14, rising to 53% in 2014/15. 


OA is not without its controversy. Concerns include: 
  • It may be expensive, and publishers may 'double dip' - i.e. charge readers by subscription, and contributors through the APC;
  • Funders are spending money on OA rather than the research itself. However, the Wellcome Trust estimates that the cost of OA is no more than 1-2% of its budget;
  • The funders' OA mandate may limit individual academic freedom to publish wherever they choose;
  • It may exclude those who can't afford APCs from the more high profile 'Gold' OA;
  • It may threaten the future of learned societies, which rely for their existence on income raised from their journals;
  • Authors may lose control of their work through the CC BY licence.
However, these concerns are countered by those who perceive the advantages:
  • It removes the 'power to publish' from a small number of large publishers;
  • It allows for the wider dissemination of knowledge beyond academia;
  • This, in turn, allows research to be used commercially more quickly;
  • It may raise the profile of a wider range of authors, and increase citation rates for articles.
More information

Peter Suber provides a useful and comprehensive view of open access. The Guardian has an open access section of its Higher Education Network that provides update on its development. Elsewhere there are a wide range of voices and opinions on OA produced by governments, funders, learned societies, universities and individuals. Search any of their websites for specific policies or standpoints, or contact me directly for more information.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

SSC becomes SBS

SBS: I love the smell of paperclips
in the morning...smells like...victory
No one could ever accuse the erstwhile SSC of being laggards. Not only have they processed 3,689 applications on behalf of the Research Councils in the three months up to March this year, and prepared 1,382 offers, committing the Exchequer to some £756m but, more importantly, they have given serious and sustained consideration to their name.

Yes, we all knew that SSC was a non starter. I mean what's the good in that? Doesn't sound very exciting does it? It'll never fly.

What they needed was something snappier. Something that smacked of danger and adventure. I mean, what's more dangerous and adventurous than  processing applications and authorising payments? Nothing. That's what.

So we were very pleased that they rightly chose to rename themselves Shared Business Services which, I think you'll agree, is much more descriptive than the Shared Services Centre. Not only does this 'reflect broadening services and ownership', but more importantly it shares the acronym of the Special Boat Service.

Synchronise watches! Don the black facepainty stuff! Use those assertive hand gestures! Boom! Bang!

'Charlie Sierra Oscar One! We are in position and ready to process this AHRC Research Networking Scheme application. I repeat, we are in position and ready to process!'
'Incoming payment! Incoming payment!' Whizz! Boom!
'Ah! Prof Smith has bought it...and he's not completed the necessary claim form!' Whooosh...Bang!

Keep your eyes posted for further exciting developments in the area. There's rumours that the ESRC is going to become 'Sense and Society', or SAS, to better 'reflect broadening services and ownership' (natch). Similarly the Leverhulme Trust will be dropping all that Edwardian soap magnet nonsense and renaming itself '3 Commando', whilst AHRC, not to be outdone, is going for the 'Primary Portal for Arts Research Anywhere', or 1 PARA.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

A Decade of Development

Research Fortnight asked me to write an article to coincide with the 2013 ARMA Conference. I've reproduced it below (thanks to John Whitfield for this), but you can see the original on their website, here.

Spoiler: Neil Young doesn't feature
in this article. At all. 
Ten years ago, Iraq had just been invaded. Tony Blair was still in office. The iPhone hadn’t been invented. John Peel was still alive.

Ten years ago, I started working as a research funding officer at the University of Kent in Canterbury. University research offices up to then had essentially been branches of finance: they acted as accountants, costing applications and managing awards. Anything else—an occasional visit from a funder, a termly newsletter—was an add-on.

The introduction of a research development service was intended to provide more proactive support to researchers at the university. We could do whatever we thought necessary to help staff improve the quality and quantity of applications. Here was a service that aimed to change the role of university administrators: to have them stand beside academics, take them by the hand and lead them through the funding maze.

In the decade since, research development has become embedded in higher education, transforming the relationship between academics and administrators. It is now unthinkable that a research-intensive university would not have a research development team, says Adam Golberg, a research manager at Nottingham University Business School. “An institution where researchers have no access to specialist information about funders, and no-one sending them possible leads, is not one that is serious about research,” he says.

Each university has defined the job in its own particular way. Some focus on supporting applications, others take a more strategic view; some have a dedicated research development officer, whereas others combine the role with costing and contract duties. David Young, research funding manager at Northumbria University, sees funding development as falling into two categories: direct and indirect. “Direct support,” he says, “is about one-to-one or group-based co-writing support for particular grant applications. Indirect support covers the whole framework or environment surrounding research bidding activity—such as mentoring schemes, training programmes and mock panels.”

Development is still a relatively small part of research support. Jon Hunt, deputy director and head of the Research Development and Collaborations team at the University of Bath, estimates that such roles account for about 10 per cent of the team’s service. However, though the team gets involved in only a fifth of grant proposals, they “have supported nearly 40 per cent of the value of this year’s awards—around £20 million”, he says.

Even so, it’s difficult to attribute a successful application to a development office’s input. This makes practitioners wary of taking the credit. “It is hard to attribute increases in success rates to any one element,” says Linsey Dickson, research funding and liaison manager at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

For Justine Daniels, head of research development at the University of Sheffield, proactive engagement with funders is vital. They discuss schemes and applications and listen to feedback “that principal investigators can’t always hear”. As a result, Sheffield’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council applications have become more in tune with the council’s priorities, success rates have improved, and 20 Sheffield researchers hold fellowships from the European Research Council, up from four in 2010.

Daniels thinks that research development will increasingly become linked with post-award activity. As funders aspire to become sponsors, rather than distant bodies distributing funds, universities need to build on a relationship that begins before an award, and project managers will need to interact more closely with funders. Hunt agrees: his team has both research development managers and a research project management service that works on 14 projects worth around £17m.

Research development is a child of these straitened times, its bullish rise shadowed by the bearish withering of the economy. Budgets are tighter, and schemes have been axed or restricted by demand management. In this climate, research development has not led to a great leap forward, but it has prevented a slow slip backward.

At Kent, I believe the funding team has fostered a more positive research environment, from supporting individuals to developing an internal peer-review system. This has led to some notable wins, but more importantly has kept research—and research funding—at the top of the university’s agenda when the shutters outside have been banging in the cold wind of austerity.

Monday, 10 June 2013

#ARMA2013: A Tale of Two Cities

Nottingham. Or is it Las Vegas?
As many of our regular readers will know, ARMA is the Association of Research Managers and Administrators. Except when it's the Association of Residential Managing Agents. Or the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. Or the Armenian Medical Assocation. Or the Assocation of Records Managers and Administrators.

Once a year, the 'proper' ARMA has a conference, and this year decided on the hashtag #ARMA2013 to use on Twitter. Only problem was, those interlopers, the so-called 'ARMA', decided to use #ARMA2013 too. And to heap confusion on confusion, they've only gone and held it in a similar sort of city to the Real ARMA!

Imagine the potential chaos! Fortunately, help is at hand. Fundermentals has provided this helpful cut out and keep guide for confused conference delegates, unsure whether they have arrived in the right city for their profession.

Nottingham and Las Vegas

So tell me, how do I know if I'm in the right city? Can you see a replica of a pyramid?
No. Statue of Liberty? Eiffel Tower?
No, no. And do you have your coat on?
Yes. Safe to say you're in Nottingham.
Ah. Jolly good. So what else do I need to know? Well, when Las Vegas was founded in 1905 Nottingham was approximately 1300 years old.
What! It had all that time but didn't make even a small replica pyramid? Yes, I know. Go figure.
So what were they doing? Well, hiding in caves, initially. Then making lace. Then bicycles.
Busy people. Probably trying to keep warm. Perhaps.
Anything else I should know? Nottingham's famous for Robin Hood.
Ah! The Sheriff of Nottingham! I knew I'd heard the name somewhere. Yes.
Surprised Las Vegas hasn't created a Sherwood Forest Casino. It's only a matter of time.
So Nottingham's got the history. What's Las Vegas got? Elvis.
Of course! But surely Nottingham's had some of the greats? Well Swing Out Sister did come from Nottingham.
Hmm. Is it too late to join the other ARMA?

Do say: 'Ah! They've reintroduced trams! How wonderfully sustainable!'
Don't say: 'The good thing about trams is they're so silent you can't hear them com-'

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Brenda Blethyn to Be New Chief of BBSRC

News has come through on the wires that the BBSRC has appointed a new Chief Executive. Imagine our surprise, at Fundermental Towers, that they decided on our old friend Brenda Blethyn. The national treasure will forever be in our hearts. However, we did question her knowledge of biotechnology and biological sciences.  The more paranoid amongst the Faculty are saying that her staring role in Secrets and Lies gave her insight into the development of funding policy. I, for one, couldn't possibly comment. Suffice to say that we were pleased that this Ramsgate girl has risen to the top in Death Star House, and wish her every success.


Balancing the Conflicting Demands of Academia

The final Early Career Research Network meeting of the year focused on how to balance the conflicting demands of academia. The fact that the room was full suggested that this was something that was close to the heart of many starting out. However, the speakers, Profs Gordon Lynch and Sarah Spurgeon, made it clear that the issue doesn't disappear with seniority; like parenthood the challenges and demands change, but they never go away.

In the first part of the session, participants talked together in small groups about the main tensions in juggling different parts of their jobs. When these were fed back it was clear that there were a number of common themes: balancing immediate and pressing deadlines with long term research work; frustrations with unnecessary and inefficient administration; unrealistic demands of some students; knowing your limits and knowing when (and how) to say 'no'.

'There's no simple algorithm for dealing with these,' confessed Sarah, and the rest of the session was an opportunity to share strategies for coping. Not all of these would work for everybody, but achieving a successful balance is about working out which of them would work for you.
  • Try to work out which pressures are individual, and which are the result of the structure or institution within which you work. Having recognised this distinction, consider what can be done about them. You will have more control over the individual pressures (see the next point), but sometimes you can facilitate collective change if enough people suffer from the same pressures and are able and willing to work differently.
  • Work out which of your tasks are essential and which desirable, and concentrate on the first.
  • Get a sense of perspective: how much work do others have? If they have less, are their tasks more consuming? If everyone's pressured, is there any possibility of working more intelligently, or sharing workloads? (see the first point).
  • Try to double up tasks, especially between research and teaching. For example, if your research project requires a literature review and you have some control over your teaching programme, try and include an element  that would require you to undertake a literature review to inform your teaching.
  • Create email-free periods of work time. Modern technology has made periods of intense concentration increasingly difficult to find. By carving out a period each week which colleagues and students know as a period when you won't respond to emails, you can regain time for proper thought.
  • Look for external funding to buy out your time to do things that you want to do. 
  • Think more strategically about managing your time. For instance, if you want to keep weekends sacrosanct, you might have to sacrifice weekday evenings to keep on top of work.
  • Have a broad career strategy, which is important to you but is informed by local, national, and international contexts.There will be times when it might make sense to go part time. Accept them, and recognise them as temporary and transitory.
  • Have a plan which has many strands. Don't rely on a single strand of research, which might depend on a single grant, but consider what other options, what other interests you have, and be prepared to change between them as your life changes.
  • Set realistic goals over different time scales and review them regularly.
  • Get help from the right people. Having supportive mentors and colleagues is invaluable.
Sarah concluded by saying that ‘most importantly, it is difficult to get this right and, in my view, however glittering the careers of others may appear to us, I firmly believe nobody achieves the perfect balance all the time.’