Mind your PQQs…

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"We wants it! We wants the precious tender documents!"

One of the things I do on a semi-regular basis in the search for research funding for colleagues is look at public sector tenders for possible opportunities.  The vast majority aren’t relevant for my purposes – I’m sure that tender for cadaver transport (presumably to remove the skeletons from the cupboards?) was a good opportunity for someone, though.

Something I’ve never understood – and if anyone can explain it I’d love to know – is why the UK public sector goes to such lengths to make it difficult to get hold of the full set of documents for their calls for tenders.  Usually there’s the briefest of summaries provided in a publicly accessible form, and it’s this that I usually send on.  To get the full picture, you need to log in to the relevant agency’s shiny web tendering system.

But you can’t log in until you’ve created an account.

And you can only create an account by giving full details of your organisation.  Who you are, where you are, what you do, what type of organisation you are, how many employees the organisation has.  Once that all been entered, then there are usually some activity codes to select to reflect the organisations main line of business.   No doubt this is all crushingly important – I wouldn’t want anyone to mistakenly think that the University of Nottingham was (a) an SME; or (b) a supplier of paperclip-related products.  It’s as if all these information requests are a precursor to a deep and meaningful long-standing relationship, when all I’m doing – for now – is having a quick flirt with a potentially attractive and available funding opportunity (“my academic mate might fancy you”) that may not prove to be our type.

I’m never sure whether to register as ‘University of Nottingham’ or ‘Nottingham University Business School’.  But the problem with signing up as Nottingham University Business School is that it doesn’t have a separate legal existence, while the problem with signing up as UoN is that no-one else can do so later.  I’ve had problems before when using a shiny electronic tendering system with trying to hunt down the institutional username and password set up as a result of a tentative interest in some other call which everyone’s long since forgotten about.

And… am I the institutional contact?  I can’t sign or submit stuff on behalf of the university, so… no.  However, I want the information, and I become very unpopular if I enter the details of the people who can sign stuff off so that they get bombarded with increasingly cryptic shiny electronic tendering system messages.

So far, so tedious.  I’ve put in the minimum possible level of information about UoN or NUBS, and I’ve taken a view on who ought to be the contact.  I’m now mildly annoyed.

Can I see the tender documents, now, please?

Well, no.  The system is going to email you first to confirm your account.  You’ll need to wait about ten minutes and then click on the link.  I’m now quite frustrated.

Okay, so now….

No.  You’ll need to log in again, using the username and password that we’ll send you, possibly in separate emails.  In about another ten minutes.  I’m now very annoyed, and I’m telling myself how more annoyed I’m going to be if this goes nowhere.

Right, so…

Ah, no.  You’ll have to change the password first.  Which means you need to think of a new one that’s memorable yet not important.  You might have to share it with others involved in any tender, so it shouldn’t be your internet banking password, your facebook page, your twitter account, your blog, or your university email password.

Then – and only then – can you see the precious documents.   Of course, if it turns out that the academic who asked you for your information turns out not to be interested, the price of the information you extracted is being bombarded with cryptic emails from the shiny system demanding that you log in… from now until the closing date.  And perhaps months later.  There’s nothing I find more helpful than being informed that some shiny electronic tendering system that I’d long forgotten about is being upgraded to an even shinier system and won’t be available from 7:30 to 7:32 on Sunday week.  I promise I’ll try not to let it spoil my weekend.

I understand why procurement people want to know who is interested in their tender.  I’d want to know that too.  I’d want to know if my call was reaching SMEs, or universities, or consultancies, or overseas, and so on.  I’d want to know who was interested, but didn’t tender, and perhaps even why.  But seriously…. does the process have to be so onerous?  Can’t the information just be made freely available – or at least available with a much shorter registration process?  I don’t want to register and set up a supplier profile on your shiny new system.

I.  Just.  Want.  The.  Call.  Information.  Please?

ESRC Future Research Leaders call announced

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Brazilian international footballers... guaranteed four stars....

The ESRC has recently launched their long-awaited Future Research Leaders scheme, and it’s a mixture of good news and not so good news.

The good news first – that there’s a scheme at all, and that there’s funding at all.  As senior ESRC staff are quick to point out, the research councils did well to get a ‘flat cash’ settlement in the comprehensive spending review.  It could be much, much worse.  Another piece of good news, I think, has been the merger of the old ‘First Grants Scheme’ and the ‘Post-doctoral Fellowship’ scheme.  The problem with the PDF was that those who had a permanent academic contract could not apply.  I don’t know about other disciplines, but in Business and Management, I think it’s fair to say that most of the best and brightest career young researchers would be snapped up.  Now, it’s possible that some of the best and brightest might have turned down a permanent academic (research and teaching) contract for a year or so of concentrated research time, but that would be a brave move.  So I wonder if the ESRC ended up funding the best of the best who didn’t get permanent jobs – but perhaps that’s unfair.

So… limitations of the old PDF scheme and reduced budgets make a consolidated scheme seem sensible.  But the change in emphasis is clear even from the language.  The clue’s in the name – with the old ‘First Grants Scheme’, it was about outstanding career young researchers with outstanding ideas who hadn’t yet had a chance to be PI on their own project.  Make no mistake – it was always very competitive, and before the ESRC introduced an outline stage, the success rates were lower than for the late lamented Small Grants Scheme.  But ‘Future Research Leaders’ strikes a rather different note.  When I first heard the name I thought this marked a shift from the a broad scheme, to a much more narrow, much more elitist one.  And that’s been confirmed by the call specification.

“We expect to see only a limited number of outline applications from a single research organisation; only bids from outstanding individuals, with the potential in Research Excellence Framework terms to become the 4* researchers of the future, should be submitted through this call”

And there are other limitations too.  If I remember rightly, the old FGS eligibility rules were for seven years post-PhD.  With FRL, we’re down to four years.  Add in the fact that there was no call last year because of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and it’s obvious that a whole cohort of early career researchers will miss out on this opportunity.  The only people who should be applying are those sitting right at the centre of a Venn Diagram of demonstrable 4* potential, post-doc experience eligibility, and having an absolutely first class outstanding project.  Anyone else looking at this call, frankly, is wasting their time.

While I’m not sure about the eligibility rule changes, did anyone really think that those getting funding through this scheme or its predecessors weren’t the 4*ers of the future?  Perhaps this is just an example of the ESRC being more up front about its funding criteria – or, better – what it actually takes to get funding through this call.  But I do think that the current social science research funding landscape has very serious problems.  Yes, let’s encourage the 4*s of the future, but we also need 3*s, and even 2*s and 1*s, both in their own right, and to properly exploit, comment upon, and explore the implications and applications of 4* research.  But the dysfunction of the funding landscape is a topic for another blog.

But….. no-one can accuse the ESRC of not being absolutely up front about this.  And it’s not hard to see why.  With no call for two years, other funding sources drying up, institutional hunger for attracting research funding, rising teaching loads across the sector, and promotion incentives for grant getting, there was a real danger of the ESRC drowning in a tidal wave of applications.  In many ways, this is the first test of the ESRC’s “demand management” request for institutions to self-regulate.  Let’s see if we’re capable.