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

ESRC success rates by discipline for 2012-13

Update: 2013/14 figures here.

WA pot of gold at the end of a rainbowith all of the fanfare of a cat-burglar slipping in through a first floor window in back office of a diamond museum, the ESRC has published its Vital Statistics for 2012-13, including the success rates by academic discipline.  I’ve been looking forward to seeing these figures to see if there’s been any change since last year’s figures, which showed huge variations in success rates between different disciplines, with success rates varying from 1 in 68 for Business and Management and 2 in 62 for Education compared to 7 of 18 for socio-legal studies.

The headline news, as trumpeted in the Times Higher, is that success rates are indeed up, and that “demand management” appears to be working.  Their table shows how applications, amount of money distributed, and success rates have varied over the last few years, and has figures for all of the research councils.  For the ESRC, the numbers in their Vital Statistics document are slightly different (315 applications, 27% success rate) to those in the Times Higher table (310, 26%) , possibly because some non-university recipients have been excluded.  The overall picture is hugely encouraging and is a great improvement on 14% success rates last year.  And it’s also worth repeating that these figures don’t seem to include the Knowledge Exchange scheme, which now has a 52% success rate.  This success rate is apparently too high, as the scheme is going to end in March next year to be replaced with a scheme of passing funding directly to institutions based on their ESRC funding record – similar to the EPSRC scheme which also delegates responsibility for running impact/knowledge exchange schemes to universities.

For the ESRC, “demand management” measures so far have largely consisted of:
(i) Telling universities to stop submitting crap applications (I paraphrase, obviously…..)
(ii) Telling universities that they have to have some kind of internal peer review process
(iii) Threatening some kind of researcher sanctions if (i) and (ii) don’t do the trick.

And the message appears to have been getting through.  Though I do wonder how much of this gain is through eliminating “small” research grants – up to £100k – which I think in recent times had a worse success rate than Standard Grants, though that wasn’t always the case historically.  Although it’s more work to process and review applications for four pots of 100k than for one of 400k, the loss of Standard Grants is to be regretted, as it’s now very difficult indeed to get funding for social science projects with a natural size of £20k-£199k.

But what you’re probably wondering is how your academic discipline got on this time round.  Well, you can find this year’s and last year’s Vital Statistics documents hidden away in a part of the ESRC’s website that even I struggle to find, and I’ve collated them for easy comparison purposes here.  But the figures aren’t comparing like with like – the 2011/12 figures included the last six months of the old Small Grants Scheme, which distorts things.  It’s also difficult (obviously) to make judgements based on small numbers which probably aren’t statistically significant. Also, in the 2011-12 figures there were 43 applications (about 6% of the total) which were flagged as “no lead discipline”, which isn’t a category this year.  But some overall trends have emerged:

  • Socio-legal Studies (7 from 18, 3 from 8), Linguistics (6 from 27, 5 from 15) and Social Anthropology (5 from 18, 4 from 5) have done significantly better than the average for the last two years
  • Business and Management (1 from 68, 2 from 17) and Education (2 from 62, 2 from 19) continue to do very poorly.
  • Economics and Economics and Social History did very well the year before last, but much less well this year.
  • Psychology got one-third of all the successes last year, and over a quarter the year before, though the success rate is only very slightly above average in both years.
  • No projects in the last two years funded from Environmental Planning or Science and Technology Studies
  • Demography (2 from 2) and Social Work (3 from 6) have their first projects funded since 2009/10.

Last year I speculated briefly about what the causes of these differences might be and looked at success rates in previous years, and much of that is still relevant.  Although we should welcome the overall rise in success rates, it’s still the case that some academic subjects do consistently better than others with the ESRC.  While we shouldn’t expect to see exactly even success rates, when some consistently outperform the average, and some under-perform, we ought to wonder why that is.

Posted in ESRC, Frustrations, Funding, Funding Policy, University culture | 1 Comment

On strike again, and why you should join a union

"Freedom for the University of Tooting!"

“Freedom for the University of Tooting!”

Last time I took strike action was almost two years ago, and I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. Nevertheless, then  (as now) I think strike action is justified, and that if you’re not already in a union, then you really ought to be.  It’s in your own narrow personal interest, and it’s in the general interest.

I think the facts are pretty well established. University staff have had a pay cut in real terms of 13% since October 2008, and what’s on offer – 1% – is still well below the rate of inflation. While I’m sure it’s accurate to point to the large surpluses that many universities have been generating, I suspect that their existence is largely due to understandable caution in what has been a period of tremendous change – undergraduate fees, real terms reductions in research income, the new REF, fluctuations in overseas student numbers etc.  It would be weird if institutions hadn’t built up something of a financial buffer as an insurance policy.  But they can surely do better than 1%, especially now that we (apparently) in economic recovery and many of the recent changes are starting to bed in.

I hesitate to complain about my own pay. I regard it as a privilege to work where I do, and to do the job I do.  When I go to bed on a Sunday night, I don’t do so dreading Monday morning.  And the fact that I don’t dread Monday morning means I’m probably better off than the majority of people who either do dread it or who have no job to go to.  My salary is more than adequate for my relatively modest needs, especially with no dependants.  A 13% pay cut in real terms isn’t – I think – particularly unusual in the current climate, and
I’m sure other sectors could tell a similar story.  Another reason I hesitate to complain about my own pay is that the kind of society I’d like to live in is one that would be more equal – more Rawlsian – and I suspect that a more equal society is one in which I’d probably be less well off in brute financial terms, but would be better off in all kinds of other ways.

But inequality in higher education is getting worse.  While there’s apparently no money for pay rises at the rate of inflation for everyone else, there is apparently money for pay rises for those off the official salary scales – vice chancellors, and other senior professors.  I understand that the REF has distorted labour markets with big names attracting big bucks.  I know that it’s not the case that not paying the best paid even more will save sufficient money to pay everyone else better, but if there is money to spare, it should surely be targeted – in these times of austerity – at those in our sector who are the least well paid.

So although I can’t back a below inflation offer of 1% all round, I would be personally be prepared to vote to accept below-inflation at my grade for a short while longer if it meant above inflation for the least well paid.  At inflation to keep pace with soaring living costs, above inflation to claw back some of the lost ground.  I don’t have the details to hand, but I believe similar deals have been struck before, and this might be a sensible thing to look at.  If the employers were interested in negotiating.  Which they don’t appear to be.

However, even for the better paid there’s only so long we can accept below inflation pay rises.  A point often made is that academic staff (and many academic related staff) are often late starters in terms of pensions and mortgages.  Graduates at 21, Masters graduates at 22, PhD graduates at 25 or 26, permanent employment at 26 or 27.  Although in many disciplines the norm is several years of post-doc fixed term contracts first.  So five or six extra years as a student, during which time it’s very unlikely that any pension contributions will be made or much saving done for a mortgage deposit.

So why should you join a union? Because if you don’t, and you work in the HE sector, and you went to work today, what you are is a free rider.  You didn’t lose a day’s pay, but if and when (I suspect when), we get a better pay settlement, you’ll get it too.  Union members don’t get that money back, or get any extra.  When the unions negotiate on your behalf about various local issues (from parking to disciplinary procedures), you benefit too. I guess one response to this is to congratulate yourself on your cleverness in getting the benefits without any of the responsibilities, but personally I’d be embarrassed and ashamed to be in that position. I accept that some may have principled objections to a particular union (and I agree that UCU did not cover itself in glory over discussions about an academic boycott of Israel) or have negative experiences in the past, but in general terms I think the onus is on those not in a union to explain why not.

But even if your moral compass is orientated in such a way that you don’t see any problem with being a free rider, it’s still fairly clear that it’s in your own best interests to be in a union. Because my experience at least one institution (not where I work at the moment) and what I hear and read about many other places is that there’s a de facto two tier system in place in terms of how people are treated.  Put simply, if you in a union and have union representation, or if you’re fortunate enough to have a friend/colleague who you can take to meetings to help you fight your corner who can be similarly effective, you will be treated better than if you go without union or equivalent representation.  I’ve seen it myself when asked to accompany friends who weren’t in the union to meetings.  I’ve seen attempts to pull stunts that break internal procedures, very probably employment law, and very definitely the principles of natural justice.  They don’t do it to union members, or those who have equivalent representation.  Maybe not all institutions are like that, but everything I’ve heard indicates that we should all assume that ours is exactly like that unless we have strong evidence to the contrary.

You may think that you’ll never need the union’s help, never need union representation.  But if you’re in an academic-related or administrative/technical/managerial role, then the fact is that restructures and change and cost savings are a fact of life.  I’ve worked in Higher Education for twelve years now, and on average there’s been a restructure that’s affected me every four years.  In the first two, my job either disappeared or would ultimately disappear.  The third passed me by, and arguably left me in a stronger position, but was a worrying time.  In neither of the first two cases did the restructures have anything to do with me or my performance in my role – it was just a case of someone looking at an organogram, looking at costs, and deciding they wanted to make their mark by moving the pieces around a bit.  Anyone in the way was collateral damage.

You might also think that if you behave yourself, keep your head down, and do a good job, you’ll never end up needing union support in a dispute with your employer or with a senior colleague.  Again, I think that’s naive.  My own experience was doing my job too well, and having the temerity to apply to have my job regraded, only to find that a shadow system was being used that bore little relation to the published criteria.  It’s tremendously stressful to be in dispute with your employer and/or colleagues, and having union support gives you someone to rant at, someone to advise you, to set your expectations, and to speak up for you at meetings which can end up – by accident or design – being very intimidating.

Ultimately, union membership won’t save you if you’re in the way of a restructure, or if management wants you out for whatever reason.  But what they will do is make sure that the rules are followed, that your rights are respected, and that you have access to sensible and timely advice about the situation you’re in.  Maybe you’re the kind of person who would back yourself to do all this for yourself, but my advice would be not to underestimate just how stressful these situations can be, and how useful having someone from the union in your corner can be, even if you conduct most of the meeting yourself.

So… back to work tomorrow, and back to dealing with the work left undone today.  As we’re now withdrawing goodwill and working to contract, I’ve got less time than normal to get everything done….

Posted in Frustrations, University culture | Comments Off on On strike again, and why you should join a union

Meanwhile, over at the ESRC…

There have been a few noteworthy developments at the ESRC over the summer months which I think are probably worth drawing together into a single blog post for those (like me) who’ve made the tactical error of choosing to have some time off over the summer.

1.  The annual report

I’ve been looking forward to this (I know, I know….) to see whether there’s been any substantial change to the huge differences in success rates between different academic disciplines.  I wrote a post about this back in October and it’s by some distance the most read article on my blog. Has there been any improvements since 2011/12, when Business and Management had 1 of 68 applications funded and Education 2 of 62, compared to Socio-Legal Studies (39%, 7 of 18), and Social Anthropology (28%, 5 from 18).

Sadly, we still don’t know, because this information is nowhere to be found in the annual report. We know the expenditure by region and the top 11 (sic) recipients of research expenditure, research and training expenditure, and the two combined.  But we don’t know how this breaks down by subject.  To be fair, that information wasn’t published until October last year, and so presumably it will be forthcoming.  And presumably the picture will be better this year.

That’s not to say that there’s no useful information in the annual report. We learn that the ESRC Knowledge Exchange Scheme has a very healthy success rate of 52%, though I think I’m right in saying that the scheme will have been through a number of variations in the period in question. Historically it’s not been an easy scheme to apply for, partly because of the need for co-funding from research partners, and partly because of a number of very grey areas around costing rules.

For the main Research Grants Scheme success rates are also up, though by how much is unclear.  The text of the report (p. 18) states that

After a period where rates plummeted to as low as 11 per cent, they have now risen to 35 per cent, in part because we have committed additional funding to the scheme [presumably through reallocation, rather than new money] but also because application volume has decreased. This shows the effects of our demand management strategy, with HEIs now systematically quality assuring their applications and filtering out those which are not ready for submission. We would encourage HEIs to continue to develop their demand management strategies as this means academics and administrators in both HEIs and the ESRC have been able to focus efforts on processing and peer-reviewing a smaller number of good quality applications, rather than spending time on poor quality proposals which have no chance of being funded.

Oddly the accompanying table gives a 27% success rate, and unfortunately (at the time of writing) the document with success rates for individual panel meetings hasn’t been updated since April 2012, and the individual panel meeting documents only list funded projects, not success rates. But whatever the success rate is, it does appear to be a sign that “demand management” is working and that institutions are practising restraint in their application habits.  Success rates of between a quarter and a third sound about right to me – enough applications to allow choice, but not so many as to be a criminal waste of time and effort.

The report also contains statistics about the attendance of members at Council and Audit Committee Meetings, but you’ll have to look them up for yourself as I have a strict “no spoilers” policy on this blog.

I very much look forward – and I think the research community is too – to seeing the success rates by academic discipline at a later date.

2. A new Urgency Grants Mechanism

More good news…. a means by which research funding decisions can be taken quickly in response to the unexpected and significant.  The example given is the Riots of summer 2011, and I remember thinking that someone would get a grant out of all this as I watched TV pictures my former stomping ground of Croydon burn.  But presumably less… explosive unexpected opportunities might arise too.  All this seems only sensible, and allows a way for urgent requests to be considered in a timely and transparent manner.

3. ESRC Future Research Leaders call

But “sensible” isn’t a word I’d apply to the timing of this latest call.  First you’ve heard of it?  Well, better get your skates on because the deadline is the 24th September. Outline applications?  Expressions of interest?  Nope, a full application.  And in all likelihood, you should probably take your skates off again because chances are that your institution’s internal deadlines for internal peer review have already been and gone.

The call came out on or about the 23rd July, with a deadline of 24th September. Notwithstanding what I’ve said previously about no time of the academic year being a good time to get anything done, it’s very hard to understand why this happened.  Surely the ESRC know that August/September is when a lot of academic staff (and therefore research support) are away from the university on a mixture of annual leave and undertaking research.  Somehow, institutions are expected to cobble together a process of internal review and institutional support, and individuals are expected to find time to write the application.  It’s hard enough for the academics to write the applications, but if we take the demand management agenda seriously, we should be looking at both the track record and the proposed project of potential applicants, thinking seriously about mentoring and support, and having difficult conversations with people we don’t think are ready.  That needs a lot of senior time, and a lot of research management time.

This scheme is a substantial investment.  Effectively 70 projects worth up to £250k (at 80% fEC).  This is a major investment, and given that the Small Grants scheme and British Academy Fellowship success rates are tiny, this is really the major opportunity to be PI on a substantial project.  This scheme is overtly picking research leaders of the future, but the timetable means that it’s picking those leaders from those who didn’t have holiday booked in the wrong couple of weeks, or who could clear their diaries to write the application, or who don’t have a ton of teaching to prepare for – which is most early career academics, I would imagine.

Now it might be objected that we should have know that the call was coming.  Well…. yes and no. The timing was similar last year, and it was tight then, but it’s worse this year – it was announced on about the same date, but with a deadline 4th October, almost two working weeks later.  Two working weeks that turns it from a tall order into something nigh on impossible, and which can only favour those with lighter workloads in the run-up to the new academic year. And even knowing that it’s probably coming doesn’t help.  Do we really expect people to start making holiday plans around when a particular call might come out?  Really?  If we must have a September deadline, can we know about it in January?  Or even earlier?  To be fair, the ESRC has got much better with pre-call announcements of late, at least for very narrow schemes, but this really isn’t good enough.

I also have a recollection (backed up by a quick search through old emails, but not by documentary evidence) that last year the ESRC were talking about changing the scheme for this year, possibly with multiple deadlines or even going open call.  Surely, I remember thinking, this start-of-year madness can only be a one-off.

Apparently not.

Posted in Career Young Researchers, ESRC, Frustrations, Funding, Funding Policy, University culture | Comments Off on Meanwhile, over at the ESRC…

Is there a danger that research funding calls are getting too narrow?

The ESRC have recently added a little more detail to a previous announcement about a pending call for European-Chinese joint research projects on Green Economy and Population Change.  Specifically, they’re after projects which address the following themes:

Green Economy

  • The ‘greenness and dynamics of economies’
  • Institutions, Policies and planning for a green economy
  • The green economy in cities and metropolitan areas
  • Consumer behaviour and lifestyles in a green economy

Understanding population Change

  • changing life course
  • urbanisation and migration
  • labour markets and social security dynamics
  • methodology, modelling and forecasting
  • care provision
  • comparative policy learning

Projects will need to involve institutions from at least two of the participating European counties (UK, France (involvement TBC), Germany, Netherlands) and two institutions in China. On top of this is an expectation that there will be sustainability/capacity building around the research collaborations, plus the usual further plus points of involving stakeholders and interdisciplinary research.

Before I start being negative, or potentially negative, I have one blatant plug and some positive things to say. The blatant plug is that the University of Nottingham has a campus in Ningbo in China which is eligible for NSFC funding and therefore would presumably count as one Chinese partner. I wouldn’t claim to know all about all aspects of our Ningbo research expertise, but I know people who do.  Please feel free to contact me with ideas/research agendas and I’ll see if I can put you in touch with people who know people.

The positive things.  The topics seem to me to be important, and we’ve been given advance notice of the call and a fair amount of time to put something together.  There’s a reference to Open Research Area procedures and mechanisms, which refers to agreements between the UK, France, Netherlands and Germany on a common decision making process for joint projects in which each partner is funded by their national funder under their own national funding rules.  This is excellent, as it doesn’t require anyone to become an expert in another country’s national funder’s rules, and doesn’t have the double or treble jeopardy problem of previous calls where decisions were taken by individual funders.  It’s also good that national funders are working together on common challenges – this adds fresh insight, invites interesting comparative work and pools intellectual and financial resources.

However, what concerns me about calls like this is that the area at the centre of the particular Venn diagram of this call is really quite small.  It’s open to researchers with research interests in the right areas, with collaborators in the right European countries, with collaborators in China.   That’s two – arguably three – circles in the diagram.  Of course, there’s a fourth – proposals that are outstanding.  Will there be enough strong competition on the hallowed ground at the centre of all these circles? It’s hard to say, as we don’t know yet how much money is available.

I’m all for calls that encourage, incentivise, and facilitate international research.  I’m in favour of calls on specific topics which are under-researched, which are judged of particular national or international importance, or where co-funding from partners can be found to address areas of common interest.

But I’m less sure about having both in one call – both very specific requirements in terms of the nationality of the partner institutions, and in terms of the call themes. Probably the scope of this call is wide enough – presumably the funders think so – but I can’t help think that that less onerous eligibility requirements in terms of partners could lead to greater numbers of high quality applications.

Posted in ESRC, Frustrations, Funding, Funding Policy, Research Costs, Research Impact | 2 Comments

Demand mismanagement: a practical guide

I’ve written an article on Demand (Mis)management for Research Professional. While most of the site’s content is behind a paywall, they’ve been kind enough to make my article open access.  Which saves me the trouble of cutting and pasting it here.

Universities are striving to make their grant applications as high in quality as possible, avoid wasting time and energy, and run a supportive yet critical internal review process. Here are a few tips on how not to do it. [read the full article]

In other news, I was at the ARMA conference earlier this week and co-presented a session on Research Development for the Special Interest Group with Dr Jon Hunt from the University of Bath.  A copy of the presentation and some further thoughts will follow once I’ve caught up with my email backlog….

Posted in Application advice, Frustrations, Funding, Funding Policy, Open Access, University culture | Comments Off on Demand mismanagement: a practical guide

Stammering and the Academy: What the rest of you need to know

This post is something of a departure from my usual focus and normal service will be resumed next time. This post is going to be about my work-related (and higher-education related) experiences of coping with a stammer.  Is “coping” the right word?  I’m not entirely sure – working with, working around, working through.. something along those lines, anyway.

You should continue to read this (even if it’s not the kind of topic you normally come here for) because you’re a decent human being who is interested in finding out what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes and how you can avoid making their lives harder than they need to be.  And in return, you can ask me anything you like about stammering in the comments below, or via email if you prefer.  I absolutely don’t set myself up as any kind of authority or spokesperson  – especially as my own stammer is atypical and relatively mild – but I have my own experiences, my own opinions, I’m open about my stammer, and willing to answer questions.

Some facts

Approximately 5% of under 5s and around 1% of adults have a stammer, and these numbers are pretty consistent across cultures, social class, and over time.  Between 3.5 and 4 times as many men stammer as women. There’s a weak genetic component.  There’s no cure. While psychological factors may make a stammer worse or better at any given time, research points to a neurological cause. A stammer is not a sign of low intelligence, slow wits, childhood trauma, low resilience, or mental illness, and is not the same as – or caused by – shyness, nervousness or introversion. Though it may itself cause or contribute to those things.  Stuttering and Stammering are interchangeable terms.

Stammering ‘disfluency’ generally takes three forms. Repetition (“r…r….repet-repetition”), stretching (“stretttccchhhhiiinnnng”), and blocking (“……. blocking”).  Repetition is probably what most people would recognise as stammering.  My own stammer is about 95% blocking, 5% stretching.

“Stammer? You don’t have a stammer”

My stammer is fairly mild and a lot of people don’t notice, or if they do, think it’s just something idiosyncratic about me rather than making the connection. Some people don’t believe me when I tell them. They don’t notice because I’m pretty good at passing for fluent through various tricks and techniques and distractions.  Where repetition-stammering is hard to hide, blocks can be worked around and disguised.  This can lead to a form of stammering called “covert” or (better) “interiorised“.  Like the swan gliding across the lake, there’s a huge amount of effort and kicking and splashing going into maintaining that illusion of effortless serenity. Everything about the way I speak is carefully crafted to hide my stammer. It’s hard to explain what that’s like, because I’ve never known anything different, but the best analogy I can come up with is a resource-hungry computer program, always running in the background, always taking up some measure of resource that could be better used for something else. For people who are not open about their stammer, being ‘caught out’ can be something they dread, and although some of that dread has dissipated for me, I still find myself working very hard to pass for fluent.

Particular Issues for Higher Education

1% of the adult population is really quite a lot, and I expect that’s a lot higher than most people think.  Probably 1% of your students, 1% of your colleagues.  The chances of you not knowing anyone who has a stammer is really quite small. Stammering usually counts as a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act – yet I’ve never heard it mentioned on any disability awareness training, whether in relation to supporting students or staff.

Meetings and Tutorials

Sorry to keep labouring this point, but if you have five tutorial groups with twenty students each, chances are that one of your students will have a stammer.  As a module tutor, or as chair of a meeting or a conference session, there are a few things you need to be aware of, and to consider.  For general information about how not to embarrass yourself when talking to someone who stammers, I’d suggest this (for work) and this (for everyday situations), but if you’re chairing meetings or tutorials, you have to consider and control the behaviour of other people too.

At one point in my working life (details removed to protect the guilty), I had to attend a semi-regular meeting. I used to dread this meeting, because it had the perfect storm of a weak chair and a number of participants who sought to dominate. People would regularly talk over each other (increasingly loudly), not listen properly, and interrupt. When I was able to get a word in edgeways, I’d manage about half a sentence before someone would take a wild guess at what contribution I was going to make and then interrupt.  This was a problem for me for four reasons:

  • it’s damn rude. Were other people not taught this when growing up?
  • the view that had been ascribed to me or the impression I’d been permitted to give was often not what I’d intended to say.  What I hoped would be a nuanced and sophisticated and useful contribution would regularly be cut off before I’d made it past the obvious
  • I plan what I’m going to say quite carefully to maximise my chances of being able to say it, and I can’t recalibrate quickly to take account of interruptions or questions
  • I don’t have the vocal agility to verbally fend off people when they interrupt me

Back then I wasn’t open about my stammer, and virtually never mentioned it to anyone. These days I wouldn’t stand for being treated like that, but that’s because I have more life experience, more personal and professional confidence and higher expectations of the reactions of people around me.  You’ll note, though, that of the four reasons why you shouldn’t allow your meeting or tutorial to run as a Competitive Interruptathon, only two of them apply exclusively to people who stammer.  So there’s not really any special pleading here – just another reason why if you’re running a tutorial or chairing a meeting you actually need to chair it. It’s your job to stop people interrupting, to watch for signs that people are trying to contribute, to allow the less vocally assertive to have the chance to contribute, and for that contribution to be listened to. Please do your job.

It’s also a potential issue at conferences. As a postgraduate student I once went to a presentation from a visiting speaker and plucked up the courage to ask a question, which was answered.  But before I could follow up, the self-appointed Alpha Academic in the room (you know, the man – always a man – who always prefaces asking questions with a deep sigh) interrupted me. Not just spoke at the same time, actually deliberately interrupted and spoke right across me – effectively dismissing me and my ideas and my contribution as worthless, to ask yet another question about his hobby horse.  ‘Was there anything else you wanted to…” murmured the chair, afterwards, far too little and far too late.  I just shook my head and went home feeling furious and humiliated, and I can’t be sure that this incident didn’t play some role in me deciding that I didn’t want to pursue an academic career.

Another task as chair or tutor or even in everyday conversation is not to accidentally humiliate yourself or someone else through your own thoughtlessness.  If you ask me an open-ended question, I can navigate around my stammer and give you a fairly fluent answer.  If you ask me a closed question with only one possible answer, there’s a chance I might not be able to give it to you immediately. This is particularly common when I’m asked for my name, or for some other obvious snippet of information where I can’t cover my block by pretending to be thinking about it, making up my mind, or trying to remember. When I moved house a couple of years back, my ability to fluently state the address of potential abodes was a minor consideration in decision-making. Growing up, I used to dread maths (and to a lesser extent, sciences), where there was only one answer that could be given, and using faux-doubt to hide a slow answer wasn’t always an option.

Something that still happens to me occasionally is that someone asks me my name, and sometimes I’m unable to answer within the apparently-obligatory two seconds, and the next question is sometimes along the lines of whether I’ve forgotten my name. I’ve already said that 1% of adults have a stammer, and although I don’t have the figure to hand for spontaneous amnesia, I’m prepared to stick my neck out and guess that it’s much lower.  So if it happens to you when you’re speaking to someone…. you know… play the percentages, keep your mouth shut, and be a fraction more patient.

Laughing and asking me whether I’ve forgotten my name gives me a difficult choice to make. One option is just laugh along with everyone else, use that to buy a bit of time, get an answer out somehow, try not to show how humiliated I’ve just been made to feel, and then say nothing else.  The other option is that I call my interlocutor out on their behaviour, and explain that I have a stammer.  But by doing that, even calmly and politely, I embarrass the person who asked the question, risk putting everyone else present on edge, and reveal personal information which may not be appropriate. In any case, most people who do this aren’t malicious, and are just reacting (however inappropriately) to cover a moment that they perceive as awkward.

I used to think this was more of a dilemma than I do now – these days I think I have an educational duty, and I’m much less prepared to take the hit for someone else’s thoughtlessness. But if you factor in power differentials it’s much harder.  Did I call tutors out on this as a student?  Absolutely not.  Would I call out senior colleagues on it today?  I’d like to think so, but I’m honestly not sure.

Other issues

Presentations can be a particular issue for people who stammer. Public speaking is something that most people worry about, but for people who stammer it can be an even greater concern. I’m fairly fortunate in that I’ve had quite a lot of practice of public speaking/teaching/coaching, and that I’m usually able to process it as performance or acting rather than me speaking. I’ve taken to telling the audience at the start of presentations that I have a slight stammer, and I’ve found that that helps me. Even if I don’t subsequently stammer during the presentation, I know that if I do, it won’t come entirely as a surprise. In fact, the very first time I mentioned it was as part of a presentation for my current role, and the positive reaction told me a lot about the culture of the place.

It’s hard to say whether it’s best to expect someone who stammers to give a presentation – either as part of a module assessment or as part of their job – or make an exception for them. Certainly it’s hard to imagine being an academic without a requirement to present, and I’d imagine that presentation skills would be important for most graduate career paths. So I tend to think that unless someone has some combination of a very high level of anxiety and/or a severe stammer, it’s probably best to encourage them to present and make sure that there’s a supportive environment. Even little things like subtly asking if they have a preference about when to present may help – generally people don’t like being first up or having a nerve-shredding wait until the end. Of course, in a group exercise it may be that someone who stammers decides to contribute to their team in other ways, but I think it would be a shame not to get some experience.  But equally, getting another team member to present might well be a “reasonable adjustment” of the kind expected in the workplace by the DDA.

One final issue to mention is telephone calls. I hate using the phone, and will avoid it if I possibly can. Non-verbal communication and body language suddenly doesn’t work.  If I get a block, it just comes over as a silence on the other end, and that’s quite hard to cover for. I’m usually okay once I get going, and it’s easier if someone calls me than if I call them, as they already know who I am, and what the topic of the conversation will be. So you may well find that people who stammer prefer email or face-to-face conversations than phone calls.


I’ve gradually”come out” about my stammer over the last three years or so, and although it’s not been my experience that being open about it has made it go away or reduced it, what it has done is enable me to worry about it less. Of course, many people who stammer don’t have the option of hiding it, but what I would say is that my experience of being much more open about it has been entirely positive. The vast majority of people are more than capable of focusing on what’s being said rather than how it’s being said, and these days (especially in university environments) I think there’s more acceptance and understanding of difference and disability than in the past.  Four out of five children who stammer will grow out of it, and I’d say that an even higher proportion of children who mock those who are different from them will also – largely – grow out of it. The workplace or the university campus is not the playground.

Right. That’s more than enough from me. Any comments or questions?

[Updated 27/09/19 to fix outdated links]

Posted in Frustrations, University culture | 3 Comments