Friday, 12 May 2017

'It's Very Much Worth the Effort'

Dr Richard Guest
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks (ITNs) are one of the most popular schemes within Horizon 2020, and it’s easy to see why: they offer an opportunity for the recruitment of talented early career researchers to be trained in any discipline, whilst also enabling them to flex their wings across national and sectoral boundaries.

However, this popularity comes at a cost, and the success rates for them can make bleak reading. A perfect opportunity, then, to hear from a successful applicant about what’s involved and how best to prepare for the ‘trial by resubmission.’

Dr Richard Guest, from the School of Engineering and Digital Arts, has just received funding for AMBER (enhAnced Mobile BiomEtRics), an ITN that addresses a range of current issues around biometrics on mobiles, and stretches across five universities and seven industrial partners.

He began by saying that, in reality, ‘ITN’s are actually three schemes in one:
     European Training Network (ETN)
     European Joint Doctorates (EJD)
     European Industrial Doctorates (EID)

Broadly, ETNs are longer and involve more institutions, generally 6-10 members; EIDs are intended to encourage engagement with industry, and EJDs are a more formal agreement to provide doctoral training between institutions.

Structuring an ETN

For Richard, a successful ETN needs to both understand key definitions, but also demonstrate a range of core qualities:

     Understand the definitions:
     ‘Beneficiary’ and ‘partner’. Essentially a beneficiary receives funding from the EC; a partner does not. Beneficiaries tend to be universities or other degree-awarding bodies; partners tend to be commercial or non-HE bodies. However, there are exceptions to these broad categories, and all of those involved in an ETN need to be clear about what they will contribute to the Network, but also what they will get out of it.
     ‘Early stage researcher’ (ESR). These are researchers recruited onto the network and become Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellows.
     Experience: the EC is very strict on this: at the time of recruitment, the ESR must be in the first 4 years (full time research experience) of their research careers and have not been awarded a doctoral degree. However, they must be in a position/have qualification ready for PhD. That’s not always easy, particularly if an ESR has taken a sidestep into industry and the length of their research experience is not clear.
     Residency: The ESRs can’t be taken on in a country where they’ve been  resident for 12 months in the last three years. The scheme is all about mobility, but it does make it complicated.
     Real integration and mobility. Whilst each doctoral project within the ETN is independent, they all contribute to an overall aim, and there should be a clear interrelation between them. For Richard, he took this further and ‘paired’ the projects in different themes (or ‘work programmes’) and across national borders to get a sense of integration and engagement between them, of a community being built. Doing so also encouraged mobility, which is fundamental to the scheme. Up to 30% of the ESRs time can be spent on secondment.
     Development of the next generation: A strong, comprehensive training programme is crucial. Once again, there needs to be clear integration between the different sites, and the EC particularly welcomes innovative programmes and events.
     Public engagement. You can’t just talk to other academics. The EC expects and demands a strong programme of public engagement, including such events as the European Researchers’ Night.
     Interdisciplinarity. This isn’t always possible, but is a clear benefit for any project. However, it should ‘make sense’, and not just be a bolt on of contrasting disciplines.

Understanding the Assessment

The importance of these is clear when it comes to the assessment of proposals. Whilst the quality of the proposed research is important, it’s not everything.

     Excellence (50%). This goes beyond you and your track record, and includes the quality, innovation and credibility of the research and /training programmes, such as the quality of the supervision, and the interaction between the participating organisations. There doesn’t necessarily need to be a history of interaction, but mechanisms need to be in place to encourage interaction
     Impact (30%) on next generation of researchers. You need to show that the ETN will enhance career prospects and employability or researchers, and their ability to communicate with different audiences. Moreover, you need to show that your focus will be relevant for some time to come, and that you are developing a growth area.
     Quality and Efficiency of Implementation (20%). This repeats some of the points made in the first two criteria, but demonstrates the importance the EC places on having a coherent and effective work plan and appropriate support structures.

Success Rates and Resubmissions

Richard shared a chart which showed scores and funding cut offs in the last round.

It was a stark demonstration of how tough it is to get funding: those in green got funded. In some disciplines you need to score 97.5% or above. However, the EC does allow resubmissions, and Richard’s story was salutary: he submitted a previous version of his ETN three times between 2011-2013, then redrafting it, before finally crossing the funding threshold in 2015. Even then he was put on a ‘reserve list’ for 15 months before final confirmation came through. ‘A good proposal and a slice of fortune is required,’ he commented wryly.

Final Thoughts

Richard finished with some final reflections and advice following his experience:

     Give yourself a lot of time to bring this together
     Know your consortium
     Project management is significant
     Balance the projects and experience for ESR
     Implementation (management, structures, conflict, resolution, risk) is important
     Training excellence is just as important as the research excellence

'It's very much worth the effort,' he concluded. For others wishing to find out more, 'the next deadline is due in early January 2018. Contact us if you are planning to apply, and start to think about your network now.

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