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.