I’m running a marathon….

“Tcroydonhalf2015 12he first rule of Running Club is that you DO NOT stop talking about running.”

It starts with the couch-to-5k running programme. This is a relatively gentle start to talking about running, with typical sessions involving only talking about running for a minute or so before resting for another minute while someone else talks about something else before you continue to talk about running. A good way to start is to talk about all your new gear – your suspicion that “gait analysis” may have a slightly dodgy scientific basis and that that nice bloke at the shop might not be fully-qualified podiatrist, but having said that, your new shoes fit brilliantly and running now feels so much easier on your joints.

Once you’re a couch-to-5k graduate, you get to talk about Parkrun – free, weekly, inclusive 5k runs which take places all over the UK (and Ireland, and a few other places) on Saturday mornings. You can talk about how surprised you were about how supportive everyone was, and about perhaps how you felt like a real runner for the first time, and about how they’re open to everyone from serious club runners to couch-to-5k graduates. After you’ve been a few times, you can start talking about “PBs” and how much time you’ve beaten your previous best by, and what your target is now. You can drop “building towards a sub-25” into your conversations.

So once you can run 5k without stopping, you can probably talk about running non-stop for a decent length of time. Attempting a 10k sounds daunting, as you’re doubling the duration of both running and talking about running. But the first 5k/30 minutes is the hardest, and after you’ve done that it’s easier than you’d think to build towards 10k by doing more of what you’ve been doing. By this time (if you’re not already) you might be a member of a local running club or a lone wolf getting advice off the interweb. And you’ve got a whole more terms to sprinkle your running talk with…. tempo runs, hill training, the LSR, interval training, fartleks. You might even be talking about being able to run “negative splits” on race-day, though you should probably explain that’s a good thing and not a terrible injury. And if you did join a running club, you’ve got all your new mates to talk about as well as regional cross country or summer league races.

So things are going great – double it again, add interest, and you’re at the half marathon stage. At this stage, you must seriously advise anyone who’ll listen (and those who won’t) that a half marathon is not a half of anything, and although that’s logically and mathematically false, if you say it in a serious enough tone, no one will pick you up on it. At half marathon stage, you can litter your running talk with pacing strategies and “race day” strategies, carb loading, and about not wanting to be overtaken by a bloke dressed as a gorilla.

If you’re a bloke, you can regale your soon-to-be-former friends with tales of nipple chafing, and associated micropore/vaseline dilemmas, and of course there’s runner’s trots (- if you don’t know, don’t ask).

And this the stage I’m at at the moment. I’ve run five half marathons and I’m going to run my first full marathon in Nottingham at the end of September. I can comfortably talk about running for at least three hours, but on race day I’m going to have to stretch it out to between 3:45 and 4:00 to go the full distance. My training is going really well, and I can’t be happier at the progress I’m making in turn into a monumental bore. I’m having to spend a full three hours every weekend out on my “long slow run”, talking about “nutrition” and I’ve even caught myself referring to the question of what snacks to take with me as a “refuelling strategy”. Believe me, that all this is turning me into a five star prick, and my only redeeming feature is that I don’t wear lycra for training or racing.

And that’s before we get started on requests for sponsorship. So far in my running career I’ve taken the view that it’s basically my leisure activity and I shouldn’t ask people to donate their money to a charity of my choice whose work is clearly in my own interest. But this is a marathon… it’s a monumental challenge even for a semi-regular half-marathoner and underwhelming club runner like me, and to be honest I’m scared. So scared that I have to spend ages talking about it getting reassurance.

So, for the first and almost certainly last time, I’m asking for sponsorship.

If the excellent work that Crohn’s and Colitis UK do won’t motivate you to sponsor me, and if you’ve not got sufficient value out of my blog in the last few years to warrant even a small donation, then please consider the effect of all this on my ever-more-distant-nearest and dearest. Won’t someone think of my colleagues, who dare not ask “how was your weekend” in my hearing any more?

And if all that doesn’t move you, consider this….. at least I’m not a cyclist. Cyclist bores are the worst.

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ESRC success rates 2014/2015 – a quick and dirty commentary

"meep meep"

Success rates. Again.

The ESRC has issued its annual report and accounts for the financial year 2014/15, and they don’t make good reading. As predicted by Brian Lingley and Phil Ward back in January on the basis of the figures from the July open call, the success rate is well down – to 13% –  from the 25% I commented on last year , 27% on 2012-13 and 14% of 2011-2012.

Believe it or not there is a staw-grasping positive way of looking at these figures… of which more later.

This research professional article has a nice overview which I can’t add much to, so read it first. Three caveats about these figures, though…

  • They’re for the standard open call research grant scheme, not for all calls/schemes
  • They relate to the financial year, not the academic year
  • It’s very difficult to compare year-on-year due to changes to the scheme rules, including minimum and maximum thresholds which have changed substantially.

In previous years I’ve focused on how different academic disciplines have got on, but there’s probably very little to add. You can read them for yourself (p. 38), but the report only bothers to calculate success rates for the disciplines with the highest numbers of applications – presumably beyond that there’s little statistical significance. I could be claiming that it’s been a bumper year for Education research, which for years bumped along at the bottom of the league table with Business and Management Studies in terms of success rates, but which this year received 3 awards from 22 applications, tracking the average success rate. Political Science and Socio-Legal Studies did well, as they always tend to do. But it’s generalising from small numbers.

As last year, there is also a table of success rates by institution. In an earlier section on demand management, the report states that the ESRC “are discussing ways of enhancing performance with those HEIs where application volume is high and quality is relatively weak”. But as with last year, it’s hard to see from the raw success rate figures which these institutions might be – though of course detailed institutional profiles showing the final scores for applications might tell a very different story. Last year I picked out Leeds (10/0), Edinburgh (8/1), and Southampton (14/2) as doing poorly, and Kings College (7/3), King Leicester III (9/4), Oxford (14/6) as doing well – though again, one more or less success changes the picture.

This year, Leeds (8/1) and Edinburgh (6/1) have stats that look much better. Southampton doesn’t look to have improved (12/0) at all, and is one of the worst performers. Of those who did well last year, none did so well this year – Kings were down to 11/1, Leicester 2/0, and Oxford 11/2. Along with Southampton, this year’s poor performers were Durham (10/0), UCL (15/1)  and Sheffield (11/0) – though all three had respectable enough scores last time. This year’s standouts were Cambridge at 10/4. Perhaps someone with more time than me can combine success rates from the last two years, and I’m sure someone at the ESRC already has….

So… on the basis of success rates alone, probably only Southampton jumps out as doing consistently poorly. But again, much depends on the quality profile of the applications being submitted – it’s entirely possible that they were very unlucky, and that small numbers mask much more slapdash grant submission behaviour from other institutions. And of course, these figures only relate to the lead institution as far as I know.

It’s worth noting that demand management has worked… after a fashion.

We remain committed to managing application volume, with
the aim of focusing sector-wide efforts on the submission
of a fewer number of higher quality proposals with a
genuine chance of funding. General progress is positive.
Application volume is down by 48 per cent on pre-demand
management levels – close to our target of 50 per cent.
Quality is improving with the proportion of applications now
in the ‘fundable range’ up by 13 per cent on pre-demand
management levels, to 42 per cent. (p. 21).

I remember the target of reducing the numbers of applications received by 50% as being regarded as very ambitious at the time, and even if some of it was achieved by changing scheme rules to increase the minimum value of a grant application and banning resubmissions, it’s still some achievement. Back in October 2011 I argued that the ESRC had started to talk optimistically about meeting that target after researcher sanctions (in some form) had started to look inevitable. And in November 2012 things looked nicely on track.

But reducing brute numbers of applications is all very well. But if only 42% of applications are within the “fundable range”, then that’s a problem because it means that a lot of applications being submitted still aren’t good enough.This is where there’s cause for optimism – if less than half of the applications are fundable, your own chances should be more than double the average success rate – assuming that your application is of “fundable” quality. So there’s your good news. Problem is, no-one applies who doesn’t think their application is fundable.

Internal peer review/demand management processes are often framed in terms of improving the quality of what gets submitted, but perhaps not enough of a filtering process. So we refine and we polish and we make 101 incremental improvements… but ultimately you can’t polish a sow’s ear. Or something.

Proper internal filtering is really, really hard to do – sometimes it’s just easier to let stuff from people who won’t be told through and see if what happens is exactly what you think will happen, which it always is. There’s also a fine line (though one I think that can be held and defended) between preventing perceived uncompetitive applications from doing so and impinging on academic freedom. I don’t think telling someone they can’t submit a crap application is infringing their academic freedom, but any such decisions need to be taken with a great deal of care. There’s always the possibility of suspicion of ulterior motives – be it personal, be it subject or methods-based prejudice, or senior people just overstepping the mark and inappropriately imposing their convictions (ideological, methodological etc) on others. Like the external examiner who insists on “more of me” on the reading list….

The elephant in the room, of course, is the flat cash settlement and the fact that that’s now really biting, and that there’s nowhere near enough funding to go around for all of the quality social science research that’s badly needed. But we can’t do much about that – and we can do something about the quality of the applications we’re submitting and allowing to be submitted.

I wrote something for research professional a few years back on how not to do demand management/filtering processes, and I think it still stands up reasonably well and is even quite funny in places (though I say so myself). So I’m going to link to it, as I seem to be linking to a disproportionate amount of my back catalogue in this post.

A combination of a new minimum of £350k for the ESRC standard research grants scheme and the latest drop in success rates makes me think it’s worth writing a companion piece to this blog post about potential ESRC applicants need to consider before applying, and what I think is expected of a “fundable” application.

Hopefully something for the autumn…. a few other things to write about first.

Posted in Application advice, Career Young Researchers, ESRC, Frustrations, Funding, Funding Policy, Research Costs, University culture | 5 Comments

ESRC – sweeping changes to the standard grants scheme

The ESRC have just announced a huge change to their standard grants scheme, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s going to prove somewhat controversial.

At the moment, it’s possible to apply to the ESRC Standard Grant Scheme at any time for grants of between £200k and £2million. From the end of June this year, the minimum threshold will raise from £200k to £350k, and the maximum threshold will drop from £2m to £1m.

Probably those numbers don’t mean very much to you if you’re not familiar with research grant costing, but as a rough rule of thumb, a full time researcher for a year (including employment costs and overheads) comes to somewhere around £70k-80k. So a rough rule of thumb I used to use was that if your project needed two years of researcher time, it was big enough. So… for £350k you’d probably need three researcher years, a decent amount of PI and Co-I time, and a fair chunk of non-pay costs. That’s a big project. I don’t have my filed in front of me as I’m writing this, so maybe I’ll add a better illustration later on.

This isn’t the first time the lower limit has been raised. Up until February 2011, there used to be a “Small Grants Scheme” for projects up to £200k before that was shut, with £200k becoming the new minimum. The argument at the time was that larger grants delivered more, and had fewer overheads in terms of the costs of reviewing, processing and administering. And although the idea was that they’d help early career researchers, the figures didn’t really show that.

The reasons given for this change are a little disingenuous puzzling. Firstly, this:

The changes are a response to the pattern of demand that is being placed on the standard grants scheme by the social science community. The average value of a standard grant application has steadily increased and is now close to £500,000, so we have adjusted the centre of gravity of the scheme to reflect applicant behaviour.

Now that’s an interesting tidbit of information – I wouldn’t have guessed that the “average value” would be that high, but you don’t have to be an expert in statistics (and believe me, in spite of giving 110% in maths class at school I’m not one) to wonder what “average” means, and further, why it even matters. This might be an attempt at justification, but I don’t see why this provides a rationale for change.

Then we have this….

The changes are also a response to feedback from our Grant Assessment Panels who have found it increasingly difficult to assess and compare the value of applications ranging from £200,000 to £2 million, where there is variable level of detail on project design, costs and deliverables. This issue has become more acute as the number of grant applications over £1 million has steadily increased over the last two years. Narrowing the funding range of the scheme will help to maintain the robustness of the assessment process, ensuring all applications get a fair hearing.

I have every sympathy for the Grant Assessment Panel members here – how do you choose between funding one £2m project and funding 10 x £200k projects, or any combination you can think of? It’s not so much comparing apples to oranges as comparing grapes to water melons. And they’re right to point out the “variable” level of detail provided – but that’s only because their own rules give a maximum of 6 A4 page for the Case for Support for projects under £1m and 12 for those over. If you think that sounds superficially reasonable, then notice that it’s potentially double the space to argue for ten times the money. I’ve supported applications of £1m+ and 12 sides of A4 is nowhere near enough, compared to the relative luxury of 6 sides for £200k. This is a problem.

In my view it makes sense to “introduce an annual open competition for grants between £1 million and £2.5 million”, which is what the ESRC propose to do. So I think there’s a good argument for lowering the upper threshold from £2m to £1m and setting it up as a separate competition. I know the ESRC want to reduce the number of calls/schemes, but this makes sense. As things stand I’ve regularly steered people away from the Centres/Large Grants competition towards Standard Grants instead, where I think success rates will be higher and they’ll get a fairer hearing. So I’d be all in favour of having some kind of single Centres/Large/Huge/Grants of Unusual Size competition.

But nothing here seems to me to be an argument for raising the lower limit.

But finally, I think we come to what I suspect is the real reason, and judging by Twitter comments so far, I’m not alone in thinking this.

We anticipate that these changes will reduce the volume of applications we receive through the Standard Grants scheme. That will increase overall success rates for those who do apply as well as reducing the peer review requirements we need to place on the social science community.

There’s a real problem with ESRC success rates, which dropped to 10% in the July open call, with over half the “excellent” proposals unfunded. This is down from around 25% success rates, much improved in the last few years. I don’t know whether this is a blip – perhaps a few very expensive projects were funded and a lot of cheaper ones missed out – but it’s not good news. So it’s hard not to see this change as driven entirely by a desire to get success rates up, and perhaps an indication that this wasn’t a blip.

In a recent interview with Adam Smith of Research Professional, Chief Exec Jane Eliot recently appeared to rule out the option of individual sanctions which had been threatened if institutional restraint failed to bring down the number of poor quality applications and it appears that the problem is not so much poor quality applications as lots of high quality applications, not enough money, plummeting success rates, and something needing to be done.

All this raises some difficult questions.

  • Where are social science researchers now supposed to go for funding for projects whose “natural size” is between £10k (British Academy Small Grants) and £350k, the proposed new minimum threshold? There’s only really the Leverhulme Trust, whose schemes will suit some project types and but not others, and they’re not exclusively a social science funder.
  • Where will the next generation of PIs to be entrusted with £350k of taxpayer’s money have an opportunity to cut their teeth, both in terms of proving themselves academically and managerially?
  • What about career young researchers? At least here we can expect a further announcement – there has been talk of merging the ‘future leaders scheme’ into Standard Grants, so perhaps there will be a lower minimum for them. But we’ll see.
  • Given that the minimum threshold has been almost doubled, what consultation has been carried out? I’m just a humble Business School Research Manager (I mean I’m humble, my Business School is outstanding, obviously) so perhaps it’s not surprising that this the first I’ve heard. But was there any meaningful consultation over this? Is there any evidence underpinning claims for the efficiency of fewer, longer and larger grants?
  • How do institutions respond? I guess one way will be to work harder to create bigger gestalt projects with multiple themes and streams and work packages. But surely expectations of grant getting for promotion and other purposes need to be dialled right back, if they haven’t been already. Do we encourage or resist a rush to get applications in before the change, at a time when success rates will inevitably be dire?

Of course, the underlying problem is that there’s not enough money in the ESRC’s budget to support excellent social science after years and years of “flat cash” settlements. And it’s hard to see what can be done about that in the current political climate.

Posted in Career Young Researchers, ESRC, Frustrations, Funding, Funding Policy, Research Costs, University culture | 6 Comments

Using Social Media to Support Research Management – ARMA training and development event

Last week I gave a brief presentation at a training and development event organised by ARMA (Association of Research Managers and Administrators) entitled ‘Using Social Media to Support Research Management’. Also presenting were Professor Andy Miah of the University of Salford, Sierra Williams of the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog, Terry Bucknell of Altmetric. and Phil Ward of Fundermentals and the University of Kent.   A .pdf of my wibblings as inflicted can be found here.

I guess there are three things from the presentation and from the day as a whole that I’d pick out for particular comment.

Firstly, if you’re involved in research management/support/development/impact, then you should be familiar with social media, and by familiar I don’t mean just knowing the difference between Twitter and Friends Reunited – I mean actually using it. That’s not to say that everyone must or should dash off and start a blog – for one thing, I’m not sure I could handle the competition. But I do think you should have a professional presence on Twitter. And I think the same applies to any academics whose research interests involve social media in any way – I’ve spoken to researchers wanting to use Twitter data who are not themselves on Twitter. Call it a form of ethnography if you like (or, probably better, action research), I think you only really understand social media by getting involved – you should “inhabit the ecosystem”, as Andy Miah put it in a quite brilliant presentation that you should definitely make time to watch.

I’ve listed some of the reasons for getting involved, and some of the advantages and challenges, in my presentation. But briefly, it’s only by using it and experiencing for yourself the challenge of finding people to follow, getting followers, getting attention for the messages you want to transmit, risking putting yourself and your views out there that you come to understand it. I used to just throw words like “blog” and “twitter” and “social media engagement” around like zeitgeisty confetti when talking to academic colleagues about their various project impact plans, without understanding any of it properly. Now I can talk about plans to get twitter followers, strategies to gain readers for the project blog, the way the project’s social media presence will be involved in networks and ecosystems relevant to the topic.

One misunderstanding that a lot of people have is that you have to tweet a lot of original content – in fact, it’s better not to. Andy mentioned a “70/30” rule – 70% other people’s stuff, 30% yours, as a rough rule of thumb. Even if your social media presence is just as a kind of curator – finding and retweeting interesting links and making occasional comments, you’re still contributing and you’re still part of the ecosystem, and if your interests overlap with mine, I’ll want to follow you because you’ll find things I miss. David Gauntlett wrote a really interesting article for the LSE impact blog on the value of “publish, then filter” systems for finding good content, which is well worth a read. Filtering is important work.

The second issue I’d like to draw out is an issue around personal and professional identity on Twitter. When Phil Ward, Julie Northam, David Young and I gave a presentation on social media at the ARMA conference in 2012, many delegates were already using Twitter in a personal capacity, but were nervous about mixing the personal and professional. I used to think this was much more of a problem/challenge than I do now. In last week’s presentation, I argued that there were essentially three kinds of Twitter account – the institutional, the personal, and what I called “Adam at work”. Institutional wears a shirt and tie and is impersonal and professional. Personal is sat in its pants on the sofa tweeting about football or television programmes or politics. Adam-at-work is more ‘smart casual’ and tweets about professional stuff, but without being so straight-laced as the institutional account.

Actually Adam-at-Work (and, for that matter You-at-Work) are not difficult identities to work out and to stick to. We all manage it every day.  We’re professional and focused and on-topic, but we also build relations with our office mates and co-workers, and some of that relationship building is through sharing weekend plans, holidays, interests etc. I want to try to find a way of explaining this without resorting to the words “water cooler” or (worse) “banter”, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Just as we need to show our human sides to bond with colleagues in everyday life, we need to do the same on Twitter. Essentially, if you wouldn’t lean over and tell it to the person at the desk next to you, don’t tweet about it. I think we’re all well capable of doing this, and we should trust ourselves to do it. By all means keep a separate personal twitter account (because you don’t want your REF tweets to send your friends to sleep) and use that to shout at the television if you’d like to.

I think it’s easy to exaggerate the dangers of social media, not least because of regular stories about people doing or saying something ill-advised. But it’s worth remembering that a lot of those people are famous or noteworthy in some way, and so attract attention and provocation in a way that we just don’t. While a footballer might get tweeted all kinds of nonsense after a poor performance, I’m unlikely to get twitter-trolled by someone who disagrees with something I’ve written, or booed while catching a train. Though I do think a football crowd style crescendo of booing might be justified in the workplace for people who send mass emails without the intended attachment/with the incorrect date/both.

Having said all that… this is just my experience, and as a white male it may well be that I don’t attract that kind of negative attention on social media. I trust/hope that female colleagues have had similar positive experiences and I’ve no reason to think they haven’t, but I don’t want to pass off my experience as universal. (*polishes feminist badge*).

The third thing is to repeat an invitation which I’ve made before – if anyone would like to write a guest post for my blog on any topic relevant to its general themes, please do get in touch. And if anyone has an questions about twitter, blogging, social media that they think I might have a sporting chance of answering, please ask away.

Posted in Career Young Researchers, Research Impact, Social Media, University culture | Leave a comment

Grant Writing Mistakes part 94: The “Star Wars”

Have you seen Star Wars?  Even if you haven’t, you might be aware of the iconic opening scene, and in particular the scrolling text that begins

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”

(Incidentally, this means that the Star Wars films are set in the past, not the future. Which is a nice bit of trivia and the basis for a good pub quiz question).  What relevance does any of this have for research grant applications?  Patience, Padawan, and all will become clear.

What I’m calling the “Star Wars” error in grant writing is starting the main body of your proposal with the position of “A long time ago…”. Before going on to review the literature at great length, quoting everything that calls for more research, and in general taking a lot of time and space to lay the groundwork and justify the research.  Without yet telling the reader what it’s about, why it’s important, or why it’s you and your team that should do it.

This information about the present project will generally emerge in its own sweet time and space, but not until two thirds of the way through the available space.  What then follows is a rushed exposition with inadequate detail about the research questions and about the methods to be employed.  The reviewer is left with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all that went before it, of the academic origin story of the proposal, but precious little about the project for which funding is being requested.  And without a clear and compelling account of what the project is about, the chances of getting funded are pretty much zero.  Reviewers will not unreasonably want more detail, and may speculate that its absence is an indication that the applicants themselves aren’t clear what they want to do.

Yes, an application does need to locate itself in the literature, but this should be done quickly, succinctly, clearly, and economically as regards to the space available.  Depending on the nature of the funder, I’d suggest not starting with the background, and instead open with what the present project is about, and then zoom out and locate it in the literature once the reader knows what it is that’s being located.  Certainly if your background/literature review section takes up more than between a quarter of the available space, it’s too long.

(Although I think “the Star Wars”  is a defensible name for this grant application writing mistake, it’s only because of the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”. Actually the scrolling text is a really elegant, pared down summary of what the viewer needs to know to make sense of what follows… and then we’re straight into planets, lasers, a fleeing spaceship and a huge Star Destroyer that seems to take forever to fly through the shot.)

In summary, if you want the best chance of getting funded, you should, er… restore balance to the force…. of your argument. Or something.

Posted in Application advice, British Academy, Career Young Researchers, ESRC, Frustrations, Funding, University culture | Comments Off on Grant Writing Mistakes part 94: The “Star Wars”

ESRC success rates 2013/2014

The ESRC Annual Report for 2013-14 has been out for quite a while now, and a quick summary and analysis from me is long overdue.

Although I was tempted to skip straight through all of the good news stories about ESRC successes and investments and dive straight in looking for success rates, I’m glad I took the time to at least skim read some of the earlier stuff.  When you’re involved in the minutiae of supporting research, it’s sometimes easy to miss the big picture of all the great stuff that’s being produced by social science researchers and supported by the ESRC.  Chapeau, everyone.

In terms of interesting policy stuff, it’s great to read that the “Urgency Grants” mechanism for rapid responses to “rare or unforeseen events” which I’ve blogged about before is being used, and has funded work “on the Philippines typhoon, UK floods, and the Syrian crisis”.  While I’ve not been involved in supporting an Urgency Grant application, it’s great to know that the mechanism is there, that it works, and that at least some projects have been funded.

The “demand management” agenda

This is what the report has to say on “demand management” – the concerted effort to reduce the number of applications submitted, so as to increase the success rates and (more importantly) reduce the wasted effort of writing and reviewing applications with little realistic chance of success.

Progress remains positive with an overall reduction in application numbers of 41 per cent, close to our target of 50 per cent. Success rates have also increased to 31 per cent, comparable with our RCUK partners. The overall quality of applications is up, whilst peer review requirements are down.

There are, however, signs that this positive momentum may
be under threat as in certain schemes application volume is
beginning to rise once again. For example, in the Research
Grants scheme the proposal count has recently exceeded
pre-demand management levels. It is critical that all HEIs
continue to build upon early successes, maintaining the
downward pressure on the submission of applications across
all schemes.

It was always likely that “demand management” might be the victim of its own success – as success rates creep up again, getting a grant appears more likely and so researchers and research managers encourage and submit more applications.  Other factors might also be involved – the stage of the REF cycle, for example.  Or perhaps now talk of researcher or institutional sanctions has faded away, there’s less incentive for restraint.

Another possibility is that some universities haven’t yet got the message or don’t think it applies to them.  It’s also not hard to imagine that the kinds of internal review mechanisms that some of us have had for years and that we’re all now supposed to have are focusing on improving the quality of applications, rather than filtering out uncompetitive ideas.  But is anyone disgracing themselves?

Looking down the list of successes by institution (p. 41) it’s hard to pick out any obvious bad behaviour.  Most of those who’ve submitted more than 10 applications have an above-average success rate.  You’d only really pick out Leeds (10 applications, none funded), Edinburgh (8/1) and Southampton (14/2), and a clutch of institutions on 5/0, (including top-funded Essex, surprisingly) but in all those cases one or two more successes would change the picture.  Similarly for the top performers – Kings College (7/3), King Leicester III (9/4), Oxford (14/6) – hard to make much of a case for the excellence or inadequacy of internal peer review systems from these figures alone.  What might be more interesting is a list of applications by institution which failed to reach the required minimum standard, but that’s not been made public to the best of my knowledge.  And of course, all these figures only refer to the response mode Standard Grant applications in the financial year (not academic year) 2013-14.

Concentration of Funding

Another interesting stat (well, true for some values of “interesting”) concerns the level of concentration of funding.  The report records the expenditure levels for the top eleven (why 11, no idea…) institutions by research expenditure and by training expenditure.  Interesting question for you… what percentage of the total expenditure do the top 11 institutions get?  I could tell you, but if I tell you without making you guess first, it’ll just confirm what you already think about concentration of funding.  So I’m only going to tell you that (unsurprisingly) training expenditure is more concentrated than research funding.  The figures you can look up for yourself.  Go on, have a guess, go and check (p. 44) and see how close you are.

Research Funding by Discipline

On page 40, and usually the most interesting/contentious.  Overall success rate was 25% – a little down from last year, but a huge improvement on 14% two years ago.

Big winners?  History (4 from 6); Linguistics (5 from 9), social anthropology (4 from 9), Political and International Studies (9 from 22), and Psychology (26 from 88, – just under 30% of all grants funded were in psychology).  Big losers?  Education (1 from 27), Human Geography (1 from 19), Management and Business Studies (2 from 22).

Has this changed much from previous years?  Well, you can read what I said last year and the year before on this, but overall it’s hard to say because we’re talking about relatively small numbers for most subjects, and because some discipline classifications have changed over the last few years.  But, once again, for the third year in a row, Business and Management and Education do very, very poorly.

Human Geography has also had a below average success rate for the last few years, but going from 1 in 19 from 3 from 14 probably isn’t that dramatic a collapse – though it’s certainly a bad year.  I always make a point of trying to be nice about Human Geography, because I suspect they know where I live.  Where all of us live.  Oh, and Psychology gets a huge slice of the overall funding, albeit not a disproportionate one given the number of applications.

Which kinds of brings us back to the same questions I asked in my most-read-ever piece – what on earth is going on with Education and Business and management research, and why do they do so badly with the ESRC?  I still don’t have an entirely satisfactory answer.

I’ve put together a table showing changes to disciplinary success rates over the last few years which I’m happy to share, but you’ll have to email me for a copy.  I’ve not uploaded it here because I need to check it again with fresh eyes before it’s used – fiddly, all those tables and numbers.

Posted in Application advice, ESRC, Frustrations, Funding, Funding Policy, Research Costs, University culture | 1 Comment

Pre-mortems: Tell me why your current grant application or research project will fail

I came across a really interesting idea the other day week via the Freakonomics podcast – the idea of a project “pre-mortem” or “prospective hindsight”  They interviewed Gary Klein who described it as follows:

KLEIN:  I need you to be in a relaxed state of mind.  So lean back in your chair. Get yourself calm and just a little bit dreamy. I don’t want any daydreaming but I just want you to be ready to be thinking about things. And I’m looking in a crystal ball. And uh, oh, gosh…the image in the crystal ball is a really ugly image. And this is a six-month effort. We are now three months into the effort and it’s clear that this project has failed. There’s no doubt about it. There’s no way that it’s going to succeed. Oh, and I’m looking at another scene a few months later, the project is over and we don’t even want to talk about it. And when we pass each other in the hall, we don’t even make eye contact. It’s that painful. OK. So this project has failed, no doubt about it [….] I want each of you to write down all the reasons why this project has failed. We know it failed. No doubts. Write down why it failed.

The thinking here is that such an approach to projects reduces overconfidence, and elsewhere the podcast discusses the problems of overconfidence, “go fever”, the Challenger shuttle disaster, and how cultural/organisational issues can make it difficult to bring up potential problems and obstacles.  The pre-mortem exercise might free people from that, and encourages people (as a team) to find reasons for failure and then respond to them.  I don’t do full justice to the arguments here, but you can listen to it for yourself (or read the transcript) at the link above.  It reminds me of some of the material covered in a MOOC I took which showed how very small changes in the way that questions are posed and framed can make surprisingly large differences to the decisions that people make, so perhaps this very subtle shift in mindset might be useful.

How might we use the idea of a pre-mortem in research development?  My first thought was about grant applications.  Would it help to get the applicants to undertake the pre-mortem exercise?  I’m not sure that overconfidence is often a huge problem among research teams (a kind of grumpy, passive-aggressive form of entitled pessimism is probably more common), so perhaps the kind of groupthink overconfidence/excessive positivity is less of an issue than in larger project teams where nobody wants to be the one to be negative.  But perhaps there’s value in asking the question anyway, and re-focusing applicants on the fact that they’re writing an application for reviewers and for a funding body, not for themselves.  A reminder that the views, priorities, and (mis)interpretations of others are crucial to their chances of success or failure.

Would it help to say to internal reviewers “assume this project wasn’t funded – tell me why”?  Possibly.  It might flush out issues that reviewers may be too polite or insufficiently assertive to raise otherwise, and again, focuses minds on the nature of the process as a competition.  It could also help reviewers identify where the biggest danger for the application lies.

Another way it could usefully be used is in helping applicants risk assess their own project.  Saying to them “you got funded, but didn’t achieve the objectives you set for yourself.  Why not?” might be a good way of identifying project risks to minimise in the management plan, or risks to alleviate through better advanced planning.  It might prompt researchers to think more cautiously about the project timescale, especially around issues that are largely out of their control.

So… has anyone used anything like this before in research development?  Might it be a useful way of thinking?  Why will your current application fail?

Posted in Application advice, Funding, Funding Policy, University culture | 4 Comments

MOOCing about: My experience of a massively open online course

I’ve just completed my first Massively Open Online Course (or MOOC) entitled ‘The mind is flat: the shocking shallowness of human psychology run via the Futurelearn platform.  It was run by Professor Nick Chater and PhD student Jess Whittlestone of Warwick Business School and this is the second iteration of the course, which I understand will be running again at some point. Although teaching and learning in general (and MOOCs in particular) are off topic for this blog, I thought it might be interesting to jot down a few thoughts about my very limited experience of being on the receiving end of a MOOCing.  There’s been a lot of discussion of MOOCs which I’ve been following in a kind of half-hearted way, but I’ve not seen much (if anything) written from the student perspective.

“Alright dudes… I’m the future of higher education, apparently. Could be worse… could be HAL 9000”

I was going to explain my motivations for signing up for the course to add a bit of context, but one of the key themes of the MOOC has been the shallowness and instability of human reasons and motivations.  We can’t just reach back into our minds, it seems, and retrieve our thinking and decision making processes from a previous point in time.  Rather, the mind is an improviser, and can cobble together – on demand – all kinds of retrospective justifications and explanations for our actions which fit the known facts including our previous decisions and the things we like to think motivate us.

So my post-hoc rationalisation of my decision to sign up is probably three-fold. Firstly, I think a desire for lifelong learning and in particular an interest in (popular) psychology are things I ascribe to myself.  Hence an undergraduate subsidiary module in psychology and having read Stuart Sutherland’s wonderful book ‘Irrationality‘.  A second plausible explanation is that I work with behavioural economists in my current role, and this MOOC would help me understand them and their work better.  A third possibility is that I wanted to find out what MOOCs were all about and what it was like to do one, not least because of their alleged disruptive potential for higher education.

So…. what does the course consist of?  Well, it’s a six week course requiring an estimated five hours of time per week.  Each week-long chunk has a broad overarching theme, and consists of a round-up of themes arising from questions from the previous week, and then a series of short videos (generally between 4 and 20 minutes) either in a lecture/talking head format, or in an interview format.  Interviewees have included other academics and industry figures.  There are a few very short written sections to read, a few experiments to do to demonstrate some of the theories, a talking point, and finally a multiple choice test.  Students are free to participate whenever they like, but there’s a definite steer towards trying to finish each week’s activities within that week, rather than falling behind or ploughing ahead. Each video or page provides the opportunity to add comments, and it’s possible for students to “like” each other’s comments and respond to them.  In particular there’s usually one ‘question of the week’ where comment is particularly encouraged.

The structure means that it’s very easy to fit alongside work and other commitments – so far I’ve found myself watching course videos during half time in Champions League matches (though the half time analysis could have told its own story about the shallowness of human psychology and the desire to create narratives), last thing at night in lieu of bedtime reading, and when killing time between finishing work and heading off to meet friends.  The fact that the videos are short means that it’s not a case of finding an hour or more at a time for uninterrupted study. Having said that, this is a course which assumes “no special knowledge or previous experience of studying”, and I can well imagine that other MOOCs require a much greater commitment in terms of time and attention.

I’ve really enjoyed the course, and I’ve found myself actively looking forward to the start of a new week, and to carving out a free half hour to make some progress into the new material.  As a commitment-light, convenient way of learning, it’s brilliant.  The fact that it’s free helps.  Whether I’d pay for it or not I’m not sure, not least because I’ve learnt that we’re terrible at working out absolute value, as our brains are programmed to compare.  Once a market develops and gives me some options to compare, I’d be able to think about it.  Once I had a few MOOCs under my belt, I’d certainly consider paying actual money for the right course on the right topic at the right level with the right structure. At the moment it’s possible to pay for exams (about £120, or £24 for a “statement of participation”) on some courses, but as they’re not credit bearing it’s hard to imagine there would be much uptake. What might be a better option to offer is a smaller see for a self-printable .pdf record of courses completed, especially once people start racking up course completions.

One drawback is the multiple choice method of examining/testing, which doesn’t allow much sophistication or nuance in answers.  A couple of the questions on the MOOC I completed were ambiguous or poorly phrased, and one in particular made very confusing use of “I” and “you” in a scenario question, and I’d still argue (sour grapes alert) that the official “correct” answer was wrong. I can see that multiple choice is the only really viable way of having tests at the moment (though one podcast I was listening to the other day mooted the possibility of machine text analysis marking for short essays based on marks given to a sample number), but I think a lot more work needs to go into developing best (and better) practice around question setting.  It’s difficult – as a research student I remember being asked to come up with some multiple choice questions about the philosophy of John Rawls for an undergraduate exam paper, and struggled with that.  Though I did remove the one from the previous paper which asked how many principles of justice there were (answer: it depends how you count them).

But could it replace an undergraduate degree programme?  Could I imagine doing a mega-MOOC as my de facto full time job, watching video lectures, reading course notes and core materials, taking multiple choice questions and (presumably) writing essays?  I think probably not.  I think the lack of human interaction would probably drive me mad – and I say this as a confirmed introvert.  Granted, a degree level MOOC would probably have more opportunities for social interaction – skype tutorials, better comments systems, more interaction with course tutors, local networks to meet fellow students who live nearby – but I think the feeling of disconnection, isolation, and alienation would just be too strong.  Having said that, perhaps to digital natives this won’t be the case, and perhaps compared (as our brains are good at comparing) to the full university experience a significantly lighter price tag might be attractive.  And of course, for those in developing countries or unable or unwilling to relocate to a university campus (for whatever reason), it could be a serious alternative.

But I can certainly see a future that blends MOOC-style delivery with more traditional university approaches to teaching and learning.  Why not restructure lectures into shorter chunks and make them available online, at the students’ convenience?  There are real opportunities to bring in extra content with expert guest speakers, especially industry figures, world leading academic experts, and particularly gifted and engaging communicators.  It’s not hard to imagine current student portals (moodle, blackboard etc) becoming more and more MOOC-like in terms of content and interactivity.  In particular, I can imagine a future where MOOCs offer opportunities for extra credit, or for non-credit bearing courses for students to take alongside their main programme of study.  These could be career-related courses, courses that complement their ‘major’, or entirely hobby or interest based.

One thought that struck me was whether it was FE rather than HE that might be threatened by MOOCs.  Or at least the Adult Ed/evening classes aspect of FE.  But I think even there a motivation to – say – decide to learn Spanish, is only one motivation – another is often to meet new people and to learn together, and I don’t think that that’s an itch that MOOCs are entirely ready to scratch. But I can definitely see a future for MOOCs as the standard method of continuing professional development in any number of professional fields, whether these are university-led or not. This has already started to happen, with a course called ‘Discovering Business in Society‘ counting as an exemption towards one paper of an accounting qualification.  I also understand that Futurelearn are interested in pilot schemes for the use of MOOCs 16-19 year olds to support learning outcomes in schools.

It’s also a great opportunity for hobbyists and dabblers like me to try something new and pursue other intellectual interests.  I can certainly imagine a future in which huge numbers of people are undertaking a MOOC of one kind or another, with many going from MOOC to MOOC and building up quite a CV of virtual courses, whether for career reasons, personal interest, or a combination of both.  Should we see MOOCs as the next logical and interactive step from watching documentaries? Those who today watch Horizon and Timewatch and, well, most of BBC4, might in future carry that interest forward to MOOCs.

So perhaps rather than seeing MOOCs in terms of what they’re going to disrupt or displace or replace, we’re better off seeing them as something entirely new.

And I’m starting my next MOOC on Monday – Cooperation in the contemporary world: Unlocking International Politics led by Jamie Johnson of the University of Birmingham.  And there are several more that look tempting… How to read your boss from colleagues at the University of Nottingham, and England in the time of Richard III from – where else – the University of Leicester.

Posted in Open Access, Public Sector, Research Impact, University culture | 3 Comments

Adam Golberg announces new post about Ministers inserting themselves into research grant announcements

“You might very well think that as your hypothesis, but I couldn’t possibly comment”

Here’s something I’ve been wondering recently.  Is it just me, or have major research council funding announcements started to be made by government ministers, rather than by the, er, research councils?

Here’s a couple of examples that caught my eye from the last week or so. First, David Willetts MP “announces £29 million of funding for ESRC Centres and Large Grants“.  Thanks Dave!  To be fair, he is Minster of State for Universities and Science.  Rather more puzzling is George Osborne announcing “22 new Centres for Doctoral Training“, though apparently he found the money as Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Seems a bit tenuous to me.

So I had a quick look back through the ESRC and EPSRC press release archives to see if the prominence of government ministers in research council funding announcements was a new thing or not.  Because I hadn’t noticed it before.  With the ESRC, it is new.  Here’s the equivalent announcement from last year in which no government minister is mentioned.  With the EPSRC, it’s being going on for longer.  This year’s archive and the 2013 archive show government ministers (mainly Willetts, sometimes Cable or Osborne) front and centre in major announcements.  In 2012 they get a name check, but normally in the second or third paragraph, not in the headline, and don’t get a picture of themselves attached to the story.

Does any of this matter? Perhaps not, but here’s why I think it’s worth mentioning.  The Haldane Principle is generally defined as “decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians”.  And one of my worries is that in closely associating political figures with funding decisions, the wrong impression is given.  Read the recent ESRC announcement again, and it’s only when you get down to the ‘Notes for Editors’ section that there’s any indication that there was a competition, and you have to infer quite heavily from those notes that decisions were taken independently of government.

Why is this happening? It might be for quite benign reasons – perhaps research council PR people think (probably not unreasonably) that name-checking a government minister gives them a greater chance of media coverage. But I worry that it might be for less benign reasons related to political spin – seeking credit and basking in the reflected glory of all these new investments, which to the non-expert eye look to be something novel, rather than research council business as usual.  To be fair, there are good arguments for thinking that the current government does deserve some credit for protecting research budgets – a flat cash settlement (i.e. cut only be the rate of inflation each year) is less good than many want, but better than many feared. But it would be deeply misleading if the general public were to think that these announcements represented anything above and beyond the normal day-to-day work of the research councils.

Jo VanEvery tells me via Twitter that ministerial announcements are normal practice in Canada, but something doesn’t quite sit right with me about this, and it’s not a party political worry.  I feel there’s a real risk of appearing to politicise research.  If government claims credit, it’s reasonable for the opposition to criticise… now that might be the level of investment, but might it extend to the investments chosen?  Or do politicians know better than to go there for cheap political points?

Or should we stop worrying and just embrace it? It’s not clear that many people outside of the research ‘industry’ notice anyway (though the graphene announcement was very high profile), and so perhaps the chances of the electorate being misled (about this, at least) are fairly small.

But we could go further.  MEPs to announce Horizon 2020 funding? Perhaps Nick Clegg should announce the results of the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grants Scheme, although given the Victorian origins of investments and wealth supporting work of the Leverhulme Trust, perhaps the honour should go to the ghosts of Gladstone or Disraeli.

Posted in British Academy, ESRC, Funding, Funding Policy, Research Impact, University culture | 4 Comments

Six writing habits I reckon you ought to avoid in grant applications…..

There are lots of mistakes to avoid in writing grant applications, and I’ve written a bit about some of them in some previous posts (see “advice on grant applications” link above).  This one is more about writing habits.  I read a lot of draft grant applications, and as a result I’ve got an increasingly long list of writing quirks, ticks, habits, styles and affectations that Get On My Nerves.

Imagine I’m a reviewer… Okay, I’ll start again.. imagine I’m a proper reviewer with some kind of power and influence…. imagine further that I’ve got a pile of applications to review that’s as high as a high pile of applications.  Imagine how well disposed I’d feel towards anyone who makes reading their writing easier, clearer, or in the least bit more pleasant.  Remember how the really well-written essays make your own personal marking hell a little bit less sulphurous for a short time.  That.  Whatever that tiny burst of goodwill – or antibadwill – is worth, you want it.

The passive voice is excessively used

I didn’t know the difference between active and passive voice until relatively recently, and if you’re also from a generation where grammar wasn’t really teached in schools then you might not either.  Google is your friend for a proper explanation by people who actually know what they’re talking about, and you should probably read that first, but my favourite explanation is from Rebecca Johnson – if you can add “by zombies”, then it’s passive voice. I’ve also got the beginnings of a theory that the Borg from Star Trek use the passive voice, and that’s one of the things that makes them creepy (“resistance is futile” and “you will be assimilated”)  but I don’t know enough about grammar or Star Trek to make a case for this.   Sometimes the use of the passive voice (by zombies) is appropriate, but often it makes for distant and slightly tepid writing.  Consider:

A one day workshop will be held (by zombies) at which the research findings will be disseminated (by zombies).  A recording of the event will be made (bz) and posted on our blog (bz).  Relevant professional bodies will be approached (bz)…

This will be done, that will be done.  Yawn.  Although, to be fair, a workshop with that many zombies probably won’t be a tepid affair.  But much better, I think, to take ownership… we will do these things, co-Is A and B will lead on X.  Academic writing seems to encourage depersonalisation and formality and distancing (which is why politicians love it – “mistakes were made [perhaps by zombies, but not by me]”.

I think there are three reasons why I don’t like it.  One is that it’s just dull.  A second is that I think it can read like a way of avoiding detail or specifics or responsibility for precisely the reasons that politicians use it, so it can subconsciously undermine the credibility of what’s being proposed.  The third reason is that I think for at least some kinds of projects, who the research team are – and in particular who the PI is – really matters.  I can understand the temptation to be distant and objective and sciency as if the research speaks entirely for itself.  But this is your grant application, it’s something that you ought to be excited and enthused by, and that should come across. If you’re not, don’t even bother applying.

First Person singular, First Person plural, Third Person

Pat Thomson’s blog Patter has a much fuller and better discussion about the use of  “we” and “I” in academic writing that I can’t really add much to. But I think the key thing is to be consistent – don’t be calling yourself Dr Referstoherselfinthethirdperson in one part of the application, “I” in another, “the applicant” somewhere else, and “your humble servant”/ “our man in Havana” elsewhere.  Whatever you choose will feel awkward, but choose a consistent method of awkwardness and have done with it. Oh, and don’t use “we” if you’re the sole applicant.  Unless you’re Windsor (ii), E.

And don’t use first names for female team members and surnames for male team members.  Or, worse, first names for women, titles and surnames for men. I’ve not seen this myself, but I read about it in a tweet with the hashtag #everydaysexism

Furthermore and Moreover…

Is anyone willing to mount a defence for the utility of either of these words, other than (1) general diversity of language and (2) padding out undergraduate essays to the required word count? I’m just not sure what either of these words actually means or adds, other than perhaps as an attempted rhetorical flourish, or, more likely, a way of bridging non-sequiturs or propping up poor structuring.

“However” and “Yet”…. I’ll grudgingly allow to live.  For now.

Massive (Right Justified) Wall-o-Text Few things make my heart sink more than having to read a draft application that regards the use of paragraphs and other formatting devices as illustrative of a lack of seriousness and rigour. There is a distinction between densely argued and just dense.  Please make it easier to read… and that means not using right hand justification.  Yes, it has a kind of superficial neatness, but it makes the text much less readable.

Superabundance of Polysyllabic  Terminology

Too many long words. It’s not academic language and (entirely necessary) technical terms and jargon that I particularly object to – apart from in the lay summary, of course.  It’s a general inflation of linguistic complexity – using a dozen words where one will do, never using a simple word where a complex one will do, never making your point twice when a rhetorically-pleasing triple is on offer.

I guess this is all done in an attempt to make the application or the text seem as scholarly and intellectually rigorous as possible, and I think students may make similar mistakes.  As an undergraduate I think I went through a deeply regrettable phase of trying to ape the style of academic papers in my essay writing, and probably made myself sound like one of the most pompous nineteen year olds on the planet.

If you find yourself using words like “effectuate”, you might want to think about whether you might be guilty of this.

Sta. Cca. To. Sen. Ten. Ces.

Varying and manipulating sentence length can be done deliberately to produce certain effects.  Language has a natural rhythm and pace.  Most people probably have some awareness of what that is.  They are aware that sentences which are one paced can be very dull.  They are aware that this is something tepid about this paragraph.  But not everyone can feel the music in language.  I think it is a lack of commas that is killing this paragraph.  Probably there is a technical term for this.

So… anyone willing to defend “moreover” or “furthermore”? Any particularly irritating habits I’ve missed?  Anyone actually know any grammar or linguistics provide any technical terms for any of these habits?

Posted in Application advice, Career Young Researchers, ESRC, Frustrations, Funding, University culture | 4 Comments