Monday, 22 July 2013

Grands Projets: J'accuse

A previously funded large project.
The Times Higher last month published an article by Prof Bill Amos of Cambridge, who questioned the wisdom of funders moving increasingly to backing big projects, 'taking ever-larger bites from a modest and diminishing funding pot.' By doing so, Amos concluded, the funder 'starves the wider scientific community. Consequently, the next generation of scientists is already leaving, and many undergraduates I have spoken to feel that their chances of getting one of the handful of studentships on offer these days are too low to be worth the effort.'

Amos articulated what many of us have been feeling for some time. In recent years there has been an inexorable move by the Research Councils and the Wellcome Trust to concentrate funding on longer, larger grants. The logic is impeccable:  in order to answer the big questions that will make a big difference to society, we need big teams of big hitters doing big science. Or big social science. Or big humanities. Moreover, big projects don't require proportionately more administration, and by cutting back on all those pesky small grants, funders will be saving a lot of time and money in selecting and monitoring the things.

What has particularly rankled in this is a sense that the funders are shooting themselves in the foot. I always believed that the funders got many, many more bangs for their bucks by funding small grants. Principal investigators tended to makes sure that every pound, every penny counted. Better still, these small grants offered early career researchers a first step on the ladder of research funding. Sure, some funders do offer dedicated routes for ECRs, but they still tend to be be substantial, and the success rate as a result is negligible. Small grants with a high success rate allowed funders to light the blue touch paper and watch as the subsequent careers fizzed and whirred, glittering in a thousand different directions. To many, this initial light has been extinguished.

However, up until now this view was, for me, nothing more than a hunch. This changed last week when I stumbled across 'Big Science vs Little Science: How Scientific Impact Scales with Funding' via Twitter (thank you, Open Access).  Its authors, Fortin and Currie, looked at whether it was 'more effective to give large grants to a few elite researchers, or small grants to many researchers.'

Focusing on the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the National Science Foundation of America, Fortin and Currie start by asking what the goal of the funder is. Is it to maximise major discoveries (sometimes criticised as 'photo opportunity science'), or to maximise the 'summed impact' of the community. The authors looked at four measures of 'impact': total number of papers published, number of citations, number of citations for the most highly cited paper, and the number of very highly cited papers.

Interestingly, they found either no correlation or even an inverse correlation between size of grant and impact:  'impact is a decelerating function of grant size'. They continue: 'our results are inconsistent with the hypothesis that concentrating research funds on 'elite' researchers in the name of 'excellence' increases total impact of the scientific community. Quite the opposite: impact per dollar remains constant or decreases with grant size. Highly cited studies are no more likely to result from large grants than from spreading the same funds among multiple researchers.'

Furthermore, 'if maximising the total impact of the entire pool of grantees is the goal, then the 'few big' strategy would be less effective than the 'many small' strategy...funding more scientists increases the diversity of fields of research, and the range of opportunities available to students.'

The time has come to reconsider this passion for large 'ribbon cutting' projects. Whilst funding many small projects might mean that you can't blow your trumpet about unpicking the human genome, it will have a huge effect on a wide, diverse range of research and careers, which might actually have a more positive effect on the health of your discipline - and consequently your profile as a funder - in the long run. Funders, think again.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Difficulty of Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinarity

'Say, Prof: what's that word again?'
On Friday I went along to a symposium organised by SHARE that looked at the thorny issue of facilitating transdisciplinarity research. Despite the sweltering heat and the fabulous catering, both of which were very diverting, it was an interesting event, but perhaps not for the reasons that the organisers had originally intended.

The first reason was that the whole thing defied easy labelling. The first twenty minutes were spent on a 'taxonomy' of the label that should be used for work that transcends more than one discipline. In summary:
  • Interdisciplinarity: when the techniques from one discpline are used in another;
  • Multidisciplinarity: when many disciplines are working together on the same question;
  • Crossdisciplinarity: is a generic term which shouldn't be used any more. You have been warned;
  • Supradisciplinarity: when new approaches are used to inform a number of disciplines;
  • Transdsciplinarity: when the work moves beyond traditionally defined boundaries. 
There were a couple of other definitions, but by then I was having trouble keeping up and noting down the nuances that differentiated these. Others were having similar problems, so that, throughout the day, whenever anyone mentioned working across the disciplinary divide, it was mentioned as 'Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinarity.' Which was quite a mouthful, and did have the effect of slowing discussion. 

The second, more substantive reason that the day was illuminating was that it became clearer and clearer, to me, that Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinarity cannot be taught. You either get it or you don't. Those that do, like the first speaker, Dr James Steele (UCL), are slightly perplexed that anyone needs to even ask why they do it, or how.

Much of the questioning following his talk were along the lines of, 'but what skills are needed to do Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinarity?' Steele would, say, 'well, there are elements of archaeology, and obviously you need medical scanning techniques...' The exasperated questioner would then interrupt: 'No, but what skills did you need to bring all these different disciplines together?' And on they went.

Because for some, it's just what they do. They recognise that to answer the questions that interest them, they need to bring together experts from a range of disciplines. If you artificially try to do this, to try and answer one of the weird and wonderful RCUK calls developed by their Priorities Generator, then you're on a hiding to nothing, and however hard you try, it's just not going to work.

So what's the role of us research development managers in this? The symposium made me recognise that our job is not to artificially jam people from diverse disciplines together in a room and say, 'you're not coming out until you've created something! And make sure it's expensive!' Instead, we need to make sure that the support that we provide and the environment in which the work, are conducive to Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinary working.

Thus, we might help academics find out what else is going on across campus, or provide information on sources of funding, or make sure that they've thought about how to exploit their pathways to impact, but we can't tell them how, or with whom, they should be working. That is up to those who do this without thinking, those who are the real champions of Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinarity.

Meanwhile, in Moscow Airport...

Call me paranoid, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who's noticed the uncanny resemblance between the recent photos of Enemy of the State/Champion of the People (depending on your point of view), Edward Snowden, and the Times Higher Editor at Large/Rankings Editor (depending on your point of view), Phil Baty.

Was it just that they wanted to save costs by sharing a photo shoot? Did they both get the same PR advisor telling them to look serious, quizzical and suspicious at the camera? Did they both, for whatever reason, happen to end up in the transit area of Moscow Airport at the same time? Or are they, in fact, one and the same person?

We, the people, have a right to know. We should be told. I'm off to picket the American Embassy, on the basis that they must have had a hand in all of this.

Who's with me? Anyone..? You, at the back..?




One of the themes - intentional or otherwise - of EARMA2013 was metrics. Maybe that's an inevitable rule of the sector: whenever more than two research managers meet in one place they shall talk about metrics.

That's not to say it's not interesting. This time we had two sessions, one from Prof John Green of Cambridge talking about Snowball Metrics, and one from Dan Nordquist of Washington State University and Martin Kirk of the University of British Columbia talking about how they used Thompson Reuters and SciVal respetively.

Metrics, for anyone who hasn't met with a research manager recently, are the figures used to assess the performance of your university. They are potentially very useful. They can help you to back up or dispell hunches as to how you're doing. They can help to identify what you should or should not be prioritising. In a word, they can help you strategise.

This was certainly the claim of all four speakers across the two sessions. Snowball Metrics had been developed by eight UK Russell Goup universities which recognised that the figures that they were currently using were not robust. they were reliant on shaky data that had been harvested, generally, by third parties trying to sell their league table software. What was needed was an agreed set of parameters, and an agreement between all those involved to share the results.

Green, in his usual bluff and robust style, said that Snowball had achieved everything they had hoped for. As ever, he gave the impression that anyone that didn't agree with him was, franky, deluded. Like a cross between Robert Winston and a terrier, he bounded around the conference hall, prodding us all with a metaphorical finger, and asking us to rate his product on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being 'quite brilliant' and 10 being 'brain-meltingly brilliant'.

Even allowing for ego, what he was presenting did appear to be very good, and a sensible step forward. There is too much 'hunchwork' in the sector, too many fingers in the air, too few hard comparables. He suggested that the next step for Snowball would be to extend its reach internationally. but what, I wondered, for the rest of the UK sector?

The sense I got was that they really weren't worth dealing with. The eight partners already accounted for some 45 per cent of research funding in the UK, and roughly the same percentage of highly rated outputs. Why should they bother with the 150 or so other UK institutions when the gentlemen from Harvard, the Sorbonne and Max Planck were waiting in the ante room?

Dan and Martin, by contrast, were a little more ambivalent. Whilst both were glowing about the potential of their of the off the shelf products, they questioned the price that the suppliers were charging for them, and I couldn't help but wonder, post-Green, if the underlying data on which they relied were robust enough.

Still, what they did show were graphics that demonstrated clearly and quickly what the relative strengths of their institutions were. Using a series of blobs within a circle, which would have brought a tear to the eye of Damian Hurst, they showed by their relative position and size the intensity and interdisciplinarity of the university's reach portfolio.

So how did I feel after a couple of days in the metrics matrix? I felt that playing with metrics will be increasingly important for the sector, and that soon we'll all be studying complicated, elaborate graphs and scatter charts, if we're not doing so already. We'll be setting our course to benefit from the currents and eddies within our territorial waters - as well as avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis. In the current climate, with a shrinking funding pot and increasing concentration, we've all got to be more savvy about our strengths, and any tool that can effectively help with that should be embraced.

Now where's John Green's phone number..?

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Jan, Schmidt and the lost FPs

'I'm not here! And neither's Jan!'

At the EARMA Conference today Prof Manfred Horvat, the self-styled Framework Programme archaeologist, admitted that it had been 'very difficult' to find any details of the first three programmes, running between 1984-1994. Now read on.

Scene: a nondescript office, somewhere near the Square de Meeus, Brussels. The floor is strewn with papers. Two men are frantically rummaging through a filing cabinet.

Jan: I tell you I can't remember! I'm sure there must have been some reports, but it was so long ago...
Schmidt: Well you'd better start remembering where you put them! Maire's going to be here any minute, and she's going to want answers! How can you lose ten years of records anyway?
Jan: Man, it was a different time, okay? Just leave it!
Schmidt: What do you mean? It can't have been that different. 15 billion euros was still 15 billion euros!
Jan: Well actually it was a bit more complicated than that. There were Deutschemarks, French Francs, Belgian Francs, all got a bit confusing...
Schmidt (stops searching and turns to his colleague): Are you telling me you lost it??
Jan: I'm...I'm not sure, okay? I mean we had other things to think about. There was the whole Berlin Wall thing, and Margaret Thatcher used to be round here quite regularly. Always asking for money. 'It's ours, ours, ours,' she used to say. On and on she'd go. She wouldn't take no for an answer. A bit like Marie, actually.
Schmidt (quietly) What? So you're saying that you used it to pay off Thatcher?
Jan (sheepishly): Might have. Can't remember exactly. She did send a lovely bouquet of red, white and blue roses shortly after one of her more insistent visits.
Schmidt: But, but...all that research that wasn't funded! All those careers, all those researchers, all that work...we might have discovered the cure for cancer by now if it hadn't been for you!
Jan: They really were very lovely roses.
Schmidt: Ahh! (tears some audit reports in frustration)
Jan (putting a hand on Schmidt's shoulder) Look, it was a long time ago. Everyone's forgotten about it.
Schmidt: But Maire hasn't! She wants a full report on the outcomes of the first three Framework Programmes! On her desk! By tomorrow!
Jan: Listen, we've got time. We can cobble something together. (gathers a wad of papers from the floor and sits down. Uncorks a bottle of peach schnapps. Schmidt joins him). Okay, let's see, there was bound to be something about coal and steel in there...
Schmidt: Yes! (writes) 'The intention of the - um - "instruments"...'
Jan: (gulping schnapps) Good!
Schmidt: 'in this first, coordinated research framework is to fund excellent research on coal and steel to' - what's the phrase? - 'make Europe globally competitive'!
Jan: Excellent! I think we should have a worrying statistic in there about the EEC falling behind America and Japan in terms of percentage spend on R&D...
Schmidt: Yes! That always goes down well! Make it look like we were worried.
Jan: And, to make it realisitic, we should say something about it being a break from the past. That we were introducing measures to simplify processes...
Schmidt: What? Even if it's the first one?
Jan: Yes, definitely! It wouldn't be a realistic Framework Programme if we weren't saying it was a break from the past and a move towards simplification. This is looking good already, Schmidt! Why were we worried?
Schmidt: Come on my friend! We've got plenty of paper, half a bottle of schnapps and three hours until dawn!
(suddenly there's a loud hammering at the door. Jan and Schmidt turn in horror. A woman with an Irish voice starts shouting)
Unidentified Irish Woman: I know you're in there, you eijits! I'm not waiting any longer! Now are you going to tell me nicely or am I going to have to drag it out of you: what the fe*k happened to all those billions, so?

H2020: Where We're at

Going to a European research funding conference before the beginning of a new Framework Programme is a little like doing a jigsaw with no idea of the picture you're trying to piece together.

Each session gives you a few more pieces, and sometimes you pick up some extra pieces in the coffee breaks in between. You treasure these and hoard them, trying to work out their significance. When you have time you try to join them together and gasp in delight when two pieces join to reveal - some non-descript sky.

By the end you are, on the whole, wiser than when you started. You have got most of the basic picture pieced together, though there are always some key sections missing, and you're slightly neurotic that everyone else has those pieces and they're just not sharing them with you.

EARMA2013 has been no exception. At the end of the first day I feel I've got a sketchy understanding of what we're in for with Horizon 2020, but there's still plenty in the middle of the picture that's missing. I thought it would be useful to summarise where we're at with H2020.

The Structure

The basic structure of H2020 has remained essentially unaltered from the one that was first proposed by the Commission almost two years ago . The sense I get is that both the Council and the Parliament recognised it's logic and took the 'if it ain't broke' route. I outlined it in more detail here, but in summary there will be three essential elements - excellent science (i.e. responsive mode funding for 'basic' research, such as Marie Curie, the ERC, and the Future and Emerging Technologies scheme), the societal challenges (similar to FP7's Cooperation, but with more emphasis on the potential of research to solve society's ills) and industrial leadership (i.e. the enterprise and innovation funding).

The Budget

After late night negotiations last week the EC, Parliament and Council came to an agreement over the budget. H2020 got 70.2bn Euros, or 68.7bn Euros if you exclude Euratom. It's intended that small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) will get 20% of this.
It's less than the hoped for 80bn Euros, but its an outcome, a result, and you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief that an agreement has reached and we can move on to the drafting of the detail. Draft work programmes are already beginning to emerge, and we should have more solid detail in September/October.
The three pillars will divide the budget like this:

  • Excellent science: 32%, or 22bn Euros;
  • Societal challenges: 39%, or 27bn Euros;
  • Industrial leadership: 22%, or 16bn Euros.
The shortfall is made up with schemes that don't involve research, such as Science in Society, is the EC's own in-house research (the JRC), or the EIT.

Rules for Participation

This is where things get more interesting. As always with a new Framework Programme, there's talk of simplification, but this time it seems to be justified. There is an intention to have a single document for each call, not the previous smorgsbord of annexes and additional documents. Thus, it will probably be like a home insurance policy, with an all inclusive document and a covering statement telling you which parts refer to you.
Better still there will be no time sheets for researchers working full time on a European project. The EC is also in the process of drafting a simplified Consortium Agreement, and intends to allow a 'broader acceptance' of each participants accounting rules for direct costs.
Yeah, right. We've got to give the Court of Auditors something to keep them busy, surely?

Reimbursement Rates

Reimbursement rates - i.e. the amount of funding you'll actually get - have been set at a 'simplified' 100% for the direct costs of all participants, and 25% for indirect costs. That's certainly simpler than than the complex algorithms which have characterised previous FPs.
However, there are some caveats. Projects that are 'close to market' may only get 70% funding for commercial partners, and there's talk of a 8k  Euro 'bonus' that projects can seek for non-profit partners.
In addition VAT will be an allowable expense.

Time to Grant

Most heartening of all, the EC is going to try to cut the 'time to grant' (i.e.negotiation time between being told you've got a grant and it actually being awarded) from the current 1+ year to 8 months. Uh-huh. Is that even possible? The EC certain hopes so. Two possible solutions 'being talked about in the canteen' are a tougher 'take it or leave' it line on negotiations, and asking reviewers to consider the project as a whole, rather than allowing them to favour the projects that excite them in principle, and leaving it up to EC officers to try and work out how to make it work in practice.

New Innovation Measures

Whilst many elements of H2020 will be a continuation of FP7, albeit reconfigured, the EC does intend to introduce additional funding to support innovation. This may include prizes, including inducement to commercial organisations to take part, and a 'fast track to innovation' scheme, which would have a rolling deadline, and would offer up to 3m euros for no more than 5 partners.

Open Access

The EC ran a pilot on OA during FP7. It is believed they are happy with the results, and want to roll it out throughout H2020. The costs of doing so - i.e. funding for article processing charges (APCs) can be included in a project, but will have to be included in the orginal budget. So bear that in mind when you come to us for your costing.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Encouraging EU-US Research Collaboration

The 2013 EARMA Conference kicked off with a full and frank assessment of the progress on the Bilat project. This had been funded under the FP7 Coordination pillar to try and encourage more involvement of American researchers in European projects. Who wouldn't want that?

Well, a whole raft of American universities, as it turns out. Although over 4,000 American academics and researchers have got involved in FP7 applications, of which around a quarter are successful, 40 per cent pull out during contract negotiations. The reason? The EC's fearsome bureaucracy.

When you think about it, this isn't a great surprise. The Americans have enough on their plates coping with the demands of the NIH, the NSF and other federal funders. To them the EC is small fry, and why should they bother untangling a whole new bureaucracy, and learning a whole new legal, contractual, financial and reporting system? To quote the Kids of Grange Hill, just say no.

And it was clear that the feeling was mutual. Agatha Keller of EU Grants Access spoke about her experience of having to learn the language of the NIH when the universities of Zurich were getting more than ten times as many projects from the EC.

However, all is not lost. Although a large number of American partners drop out during the negotiations stage, 88 per cent of them continue to maintain a relationship with the project. So the funding is not a deal breaker. The US collaborators really want to work with their EU colleagues.

What should be done to make this possible? Well the promised simplifications of Horizon 2020 will definitely help - as long as they materialise, of course. But Prof Manfred Horvat, who conducted a survey on behalf of the EC on its research cooperation with the USA, finished the session with some firm suggestions;

  • Raise the visibility of the Framework Programme amongst American universities. This might be easier said than done; most American institutions are very 'mission oriented', and anything that falls beyond this is treated as an afterthought. 
  • Get individual European countries to work more closely together, and present a more coherent, unified front. He gave a startling example, from his last visit to Washington, when he went to a number of European embassies, all of whom trumpeted their bilateral agreements with the US in nanotechnology, but none of whom were aware that any of their European colleagues were doing the same. At the very least all 28 EU states could set up shop together in the same building in Washington, so that it became a 'one stop shop' for American HEIs, as well as allowing the sharing of information between member states.
  • Encourage 'bottom up' engagement in the US.
  • Develop strategies for collaboration in the ERC, ETPs and JTIs.
  • Stimulate mobility between US and the EU.

Whether this comes to pass remains to be seen. There has to be the political will to make it happen. With the simplification of H2020, as well as the desperate need to dig the world of the economic hole its in, the time might just be ripe.