Tuesday, 30 October 2018

EPSRC's 'Concept Auditions'

'Heeelllooo Swindoooon!'
Photo by James Barr on Unsplash

Last year EPSRC launched a scheme for which applicants had to sign up for a 'concept audition'. What's going on? 

I’m not sure whether it’s desperate or inspired, but the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council seems to be getting increasingly creative when trying to manage demand and keep its success rates buoyant.

Its interdisciplinary call on Human-like Computing was looking for feasibility studies to examine, essentially, what computing could learn from psychology. The call theme was oddly reminiscent of focus areas brought to life by the research councils’ top-secret Priority Generator. What was truly odd about this call was the process by which the EPSRC tried to reduce demand.

Up until now, funders have been quite traditional in how they’ve restricted the flow: at most, they’ve said that each university can only submit one or two bids, or possibly that you can only apply if you’ve received a certain amount of funding already.

Out of left field

This time, however, the council experimented. If there was a box in the vicinity, the council’s thinking was way outside it. Rather than going old school and imposing value judgements on expressions of interest, the EPSRC decided to use the Wimbledon ticketing system crossed with the showbiz sparkle of Dragons’ Den. Thus, it announced that it would make a form available that would “open for 48 hours on 15 June 2017 and close at midnight on 16 June 2017”.

Slots for applicants to pitch their ideas to the EPSRC’s dragons would be limited, of course. Thus, we were told, “in the event that more submissions are received than there are places available, invitations to participate will be issued on a first come, first served basis”.

I’m sorry, but “more submissions are received than there are places available”? What, that more people will apply than you have funding for? Really? But, yes, the Pope did indeed announce his non-Protestant leanings, and the bears of the world, when surveyed, suggested that there were no finer toileting facilities than those to be found among the nearest trees. And seven hours after the EPSRC form opened—a good 41 hours before it was due to close again—all the places were full.

Conceptual frameworks

In this way, a slightly random selection of insomniacs was invited to go to a “concept audition”, if you will, at the crucible of dreams that is the Holiday Inn, Birmingham Airport. There, for precisely three minutes (not four and not two), they outlined their concept, before being quizzed for a further 12 minutes (not 11 or 13) by a panel of six.

Based on this, half of them were invited to submit a fuller application on Je-S and come along to a further grilling in Britain’s very own city of perpetual wonder (Swindon). Somewhat disappointingly, all talk of concept auditions had vanished by this point, and we had returned to the humdrum “interview”. Based on this, half of the shortlisted applications would be invited to share the £2-million kitty.

Impact assessment

So what’s it all about, this new way of working? Why is the EPSRC treating academics as a cross between customers at the deli counter and contestants at a child beauty pageant? The more cynical may see it as a simple way of cooking the figures: if the potential field is restricted on a first come, first served basis, before being further scythed at an audition, the ones actually allowed to submit a Je-S form are a very select bunch of 20. If half of these are funded, it suggests a very healthy 50% success rate for the scheme.

I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to be so cynical. While some parts of this process are questionable—such as the initial ticketing—I think it’s a positive and creative experiment. Managing demand is a perennial problem for funders, and it behoves them to try to find better solutions than just allowing everyone to apply, and wasting 80 per cent of applicants’ time. Rather, it’s better to audition the concept and turn away the pedestrian, the mundane and the frankly hopeless at that stage.

The danger, however, is that it doesn’t necessarily identify the best science, but rather those who are best at explaining or selling the science. This system might favour the performers, rather than the back-room boys and girls who may, in fact, be technically and intellectually more able than their smooth-talking peers.

I reckon that’s a risk worth taking. The system as it stands is unsustainable and in danger of discouraging all researchers. New systems should be tried, but the EPSRC should monitor the results closely and keep changing, keep trying, keep tweaking until we are left with a system that finally matches the quality of the science it serves.

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in August 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

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