Thursday, 23 February 2017

Generating Priorities

Deep in the heart of Death Star House, RCUK
workers tirelessly adjust the settings for the Priority Generator
Sometimes, calls for thematic programmes make complete sense. Sometimes they sort of make sense, once you dig a little deeper. Sometimes they make no sense at all.

It was the last category that prompted me to develop the Research Council Priority Generator for my blog. It was a tongue-in-cheek look at how the funders seem to jam together apparently random and often conflicting ideas to create new themes. The generator would give you Nanotechnology and Remembrance, for instance, or Progress towards Language, Radicalisation beyond Space and Expressionism in Transport.

None of these seemed a million miles from the real thing, such as Science in Culture, Lifelong Health and Wellbeing, Nanoscience through Engineering, Care for the Future and Living with Environmental Change. Indeed, the random generation of priorities gave us themes that were all too plausible, such as Progress and Islam, Technology of Wellbeing and Curating the Future.

Last week, Laura Shockley, research development officer at the University of Sussex, suggested that this should be turned into a quiz to test the mettle of research support staff around the world. The result, Real Call or Bugger All, offered up a series of serious programmes interspersed with those cooked up by the generator. Were you the ‘research support ninja’ you always claimed to be?

Although it was never intended to be anything other than a bit of fun, the statistics make interesting reading and there’s a serious point to be gained from them. There were eight ‘false’ calls and 12 ‘true’ ones. The highest percentage of correct answers was for the true calls: 68 to 87 per cent of respondents got these right. The highest percentage of incorrect answers was for the false calls: 60 to 80 per cent of respondents got these wrong. The overall average, for all 20 titles, was 54 per cent correct.

So, in practice, true call titles were only slightly more believable than the false ones.

I’m not sure whether this says more about my creativity or about the excesses and exuberance of the research councils in creating their calls. Whichever it is, there’s a danger in the fact that it is so difficult to distinguish the fictional from the factual. It may lead to the discrediting of interdisciplinary research programmes. When faced with Curating Uncertainty: Heritage in the Virtual World, or Religion and Wellbeing, 80 per cent and 71 per cent of my colleagues, respectively, thought, ‘You know what? I can imagine the AHRC or ESRC cooking up something like that.’

So how do the research councils and other funders actually arrive at the topics for their calls? Sometimes there’s an obvious driver. Many of the Horizon 2020 calls are clearly responding to the needs of European society or industry. But in other areas the decision-making is less clear.  
The Arts and Humanities Research Council, for instance, states that its vision is to “fund excellent research and deploy interdisciplinary and thematic approaches addressing new research questions and agendas in themes and strategic initiatives”, but doesn’t indicate how these approaches and initiatives would be identified.

This will become increasingly important as, following the Nurse review and the higher education white paper, the research councils are forced to work more closely together. There is a nod to this in their delivery plans, which were summarised in Research Fortnight on 5 May. As they scrabble for the windfall that came in the form of the Global Challenges Research Fund there’s a faint whiff of the scattergun to their priorities. The AHRC identifies conflict, humanitarian aid, migration, global public health, environmental change and cultural heritage. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, on the other hand, offers up synthetic biology, agriculture and food security. All worthy, but how were they identified?

The Economic and Social Research Council, in its Delivery Plan 2015-16, talks of how its “priorities encapsulate some of the biggest social science issues for Britain and the wider world, as identified through a widespread consultation with academics and other stakeholders”. But who are these academics and stakeholders, and how were they identified? Was it limited to the council's own peer review panelists? Or its college? Or learned societies? Did the ESRC go on a road trip and hold town hall meetings? Or was it more a case of Polaris House policy wonks jotting down notes while listening to the Today programme in the morning?

I hope the consultation was more systematic, but I must confess that it passed me by. If the research councils—and all funders, for that matter—are going to maintain their relevance in an increasingly difficult financial climate, they have to demonstrate that they speak on behalf of researchers and the beneficiaries of the research. Rather than continuing with the somewhat surreal rattlebag of empty buzzwords, they must identify the main questions that have the potential to secure our future welfare, prosperity and security. Otherwise, they may as well just use my Priority Generator. 

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in June 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

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