Outstanding researcher or Oustanding grant writer?

"It's all the game, yo....."

The Times Higher has a report on Sir Paul Nurse‘s ‘Anniversary Day’ address to the Royal Society.  Although the Royal Society is a learned society in the natural rather than the social sciences, he makes an interesting distinction that seems to have – more or less unchallenged – become a piece of received wisdom across many if not all fields of research.

Here’s part of what Sir Paul had to say (my underline added)

Given this emphasis on the primacy of the individuals carrying out the research, decisions should be guided by the effectiveness of the researchers making the research proposal. The most useful criterion for effectiveness is immediate past progress. Those that have recently carried out high quality research are most likely to continue to do so. In coming to research funding decisions the objective is not to simply support those that write good quality grant proposals but those that will actually carry out good quality research. So more attention should be given to actual performance rather than planned activity. Obviously such an emphasis needs to be tempered for those who have only a limited recent past record, such as early career researchers or those with a break in their careers. In these cases making more use of face-to-face interviews can be very helpful in determining the quality of the researcher making the application.

I guess my first reaction to this is to wonder whether interviews are the best way of deciding research funding for early career researchers.  Apart from the cost, inconvenience and potential equal opportunities issues of holding interviews, I wonder if they’re even a particularly good way of making decisions.  When it comes to job interviews, I’ve seen many cases where interview performance seems to take undue priority over CV and experience.  And if the argument is that sometimes the best researchers aren’t the best communicators (which is fair), it’s not clear to me how an interview will help.

My second reaction is to wonder about the right balance between funding excellent research and funding excellent researchers.  And I think this is really the point that Sir Paul is making.  But that’s a subject for another entry, another time.  Coming soon!

My third reaction – and what this entry is about – is the increasingly common assumption that there is one tribe of researchers who can write outstanding applications, and another which actually does outstanding research.  One really good expression of this can be found in a cartoon at the ever-excellent Research Counselling.  Okay, so it’s only a cartoon, but it wouldn’t have made it there unless it was tapping into some deeper cultural assumptions.  This article from the Times Higher back at the start of November speaks of ‘Dr Plods’ – for whom getting funding is an aim in itself – and ‘Dr Sparks’ – the ones who deserve it – and there seems to be little challenge from readers in the comments section below.

But does this assumption have any basis in fact?  Are those who get funded mere journeymen and women researchers, mere average intellects, whose sole mark of distinction is their ability to toady effectively to remote and out-of-touch funding bodies?  To spot the research priority flavour-of-the-month from the latest Delivery Plan, and cynically twist their research plans to match it?  It’s a comforting thought for the increasingly large number of people who don’t get funding for their project.  We’d all like to be the brilliant-but-eccentric-misunderstood-radical-unappreciated genius, who doesn’t play by the rules, cuts a few corners but gets the job done, and to hell with the pencil pushers at the DA’s office in city hall in RCUK’s offices in downtown Swindon.  A weird kind of cross between Albert Einstein and Jimmy McNulty from ‘The Wire’.

While I don’t think anyone is seriously claiming that the Sparks-and-Plods picture should be taken literally, I’m not even sure how much truth there is in it as a parable or generalisation.  For one thing, I don’t see how anyone could realistically Plod their way very far from priority to priority as they change and still have a convincing track record for all of them.  I’m sure that a lot of deserving proposals don’t get funded, but I doubt very much that many undeserving proposals do get the green light.  The brute fact is that there are more good ideas than there is money to spend on funding them, and the chances of that changing in the near future are pretty much zero.  I think that’s one part of what’s powering this belief – if good stuff isn’t being funded, that must be because mediocre stuff is being funded.  Right?  Er, well…. probably not.  I think the reality is that it’s the Sparks who get funded, but it’s those Sparks who are better able to communicate their ideas and make a convincing case for fit with funders’ or scheme priorities.  Plods, and their ‘incremental’ research (a term that damns with faint praise in some ESRC referee’s reports that I’ve seen) shouldn’t even be applying to the ESRC – or at least not to the standard Research Grants scheme.

A share of this Sparks/Plods view is probably caused by the impact agenda.  If impact is hard for the social sciences, it’s at least ten times as hard for basic research in many of the natural sciences.  I can understand why people don’t like the impact agenda, and I can understand why people are hostile.  However, I’ve always understood the impact agenda as far as research funding applications are concerned is that if a project has the potential for impact, it ought to, and there ought to be a good, solid, thought through, realistic, and defensible plan for bringing it about.  If there genuinely is no impact, argue the case in the impact statement.  Consider this, from the RCUK impact FAQ.

How do Pathways to Impact affect funding decisions within the peer review process?

The primary criterion within the peer review process for all Research Councils is excellent research. This has always been the case and remains unchanged. As such, problematic research with an excellent Pathways to Impact will not be funded. There are a number of other criteria that are assessed within research proposals, and Pathways to Impact is now one of those (along with e.g. management of the research and academic beneficiaries).

Of course, how this plays out in practice is another matter, but every indication I’ve had from the ESRC is that this is taken very seriously.  Research excellence comes first.  Impact (and other factors) second.  These may end up being used in tie-breakers, but if it’s not excellent, it won’t get funded.  Things may be different at the other Research Councils that I know less about, especially the EPSRC which is repositioning itself as a sponsor of research, and is busy dividing and subdividing and prioritising research areas for expansion or contraction in funding terms.

It’s worth recalling that it’s academics who make decisions on funding.  It’s not Suits in Swindon.  It’s academics.  Your peers.  I’d be willing to take seriously arguments that the form of peer review that we have can lead to conservatism and caution in funding decisions.  But I find it much harder to accept the argument that senior academics – researchers and achievers in their own right – are funding projects of mediocre quality but good impact stories ahead of genuinely innovative, ground-breaking research which could drive the relevant discipline forward.

But I guess my message to anyone reading this who considers herself to be more of a ‘Doctor Spark’ who is losing out to ‘Doctor Plod’ is to point out that it’s easier for Sparky to do what Ploddy does well than vice versa.  Ploddy will never match your genius, but you can get the help of academic colleagues and your friendly neighbourhood research officer – some of whom are uber-Plods, which in at least some cases is a large part of the reason why they’re doing their job rather than yours.

Want funding?  Maximise your chances of getting it.  Want to win?  Learn the rules of the game and play it better.  Might your impact plan be holding you back?  Take advantage of any support that your institution offers you – and if it does, be aware of the advantage that this gives you.  Might your problem be the art of grant writing?  Communicating your ideas to a non-specialised audience?  To reviewers and panel members from a cognate discipline?  To a referee not from your precise area?  Take advice.  Get others to read it.  Take their impressions and even their misunderstandings seriously.

Or you could write an application with little consideration for impact, with little concern for clarity of expression or the likely audience, and then if you’re unsuccessful, you can console yourself with the thought that it’s the system, not you, that’s at fault.

Estimating Investigator and Researcher Time on a Project

PS: Time is also overheads

Prompted in part by an interesting discussion of the importance of the budget in establishing the overall credibility and shape of a research proposal at the ever-excellent Research Whisperer, I thought I’d put fingers-to-keyboard on the vexed issue of estimating staff time on research grant applications.  Partly this is to share some of what I do and what I recommend, but mostly it’s to ask others how they approach it. Comments, thoughts, suggestions, and experiences welcome as ever in the comments below.

Estimating staff time is by some distance the hardest part of the budget, and often when I discuss this with academic colleagues, we end up in a kind of “I dunno, what do you reckon?” impasse.  (I should say that it’s me who speaks like that, not them).  I’ve never been involved in a research project (other than my ‘desk research’ MPhil), so I’ve really no idea, and I don’t have any particular insight into how long certain tasks will take.  Career young academics, and the increasing number of academics who have never had the opportunity to lead on a research project, have little experience to draw upon, and even those who have experience seem to find it difficult.  I can understand that, because I’d find it difficult too.  If someone where to ask me how estimate how much time I spent over the course of a year on (say) duties related to my role as School Research Ethics Officer, I’d struggle to give them in answer in terms of a percentage FTE or in terms of a total number of working days.

It’s further complicated by the convenient fiction that academic staff work the standard five day weeks, and 37.5 hour working weeks.  Even those who don’t regularly work evenings and weekends will almost certainly have flexible working patterns that make it even harder to estimate how long something will take.  This means that the standard units of staff time that are most often used – total days and percentage of full time – aren’t straightforwardly convertible from one currency to the other.  To make matters worse, some European funding sources seem to prefer ‘person months’.  Rather than the standard working week, I think this probably reflects the reality of academic work in many institutions:

The response to my question about how much time the project will take is often answered with another question.  What will the funder pay for?  What looks right?  What feels right?  Longer, thinner project, or shorter and more intensive?  The answer is always and inevitably, ‘it depends’.  It depends upon what is right for the project.  A longer less intensive project might make sense if you have to wait for survey responses to come in, or for other things to happen.  On the other hand, if it’s something that you can and want to work on intensively, go for it.  But the project has to come first.  What would it take to properly take on this research challenge?

Often the answer is a bit hand-wavy and guesstimate-ish.  Oh, I don’t know….say… about, two days per week?  Two and a half?  Would they fund three?  This is a generally a good starting point.  What’s not a good starting point is the kind of fifteen-minutes-every-Tuesday approach, where you end up with a ‘salami project’ – a few people involved, but sliced so thinly it’s hard to see how anything will get done.  This just isn’t credible, and it’s very unlikely to get funded by the likes of the ESRC (and other funders too, I’m sure) if they don’t believe that you’ll possibly be able to deliver for the amount of money (time) you’re asking for.  Either they’ll conclude that you don’t understand what your own research requires (which is fatal for any chance of funding), or they’ll think that you’re trying to pull a fast one in terms of the value for money criterion.  And they won’t like that much either.

The other way to make sure that you’re not going to get funded is to go the other way and become greedy.  I’ve noticed that – oddly – academics seldom over-estimate their own time, but over-estimate the amount of researcher time required.  I’ve seen potential bids before now that include a heavy smattering of research associates, but no clear idea what it actually is they’ll be doing all day, other than doing stuff that the lead investigator doesn’t want to do.  In a UK context, overheads are calculated on the basis of investigator and researcher time, so including researchers is doubly expensive.  One way round this that I often recommend is to ensure that what’s required is actually a research associate (who attracts overheads) rather than an academic-related project manager or administrator (who doesn’t).  But if it’s hard to estimate how long it will take you to do any given task, it’s doubly hard to estimate how long it will take someone else – usually someone less experienced and less skilled – and perhaps from a cognate sub-discipline rather than from your own.

My usual advice is for would-be principal investigators to draw up a table showing the various phases of the project as rows, and project staff as columns.  In addition to the main phases of the research, extra rows should be added for the various stages of dissemination and impact activity; for project coordination with colleagues; for line management of any researchers or administrative/managerial staff; for professional development where appropriate.  Don’t forget travelling time associated with meetings, fieldwork, conferences etc.  The main thing that I usually see underestimated is project management time.  As principal investigator, you will have to meet reasonably regularly with your finance people, and you’ll have to manage and direct the project research associates.  Far too many academics seem to see RAs as clones who will instinctively know what to do and don’t need much in the way of direction, advice, or feedback.

Once this is done, I suggest adding up the columns and then working backwards from those total numbers of project days to a percentage FTE, or days per week, or whatever alternative metric you prefer.  In the UK, the research councils assuming that 220 days = 1 working year, so you can use this to calculate the percentage of full time.  The number that you come out with should feel intuitively about right.  If it doesn’t, then something has probably gone wrong.  Go back to the table, and adjust things a little.  By going to and fro, from the precision of the table to the intuition of the percentage of time, you should reach what my philosophical hero and subject of my thesis, John Rawls, called ‘reflective equilibrium’.  Though he wasn’t talking about investigator time.  Once you’re happy with the result, you should probably use the figure from the table, and you should certainly consider putting the table in full in the ‘justification for resources’ section.

Something I’m starting at the moment as part of the end-of-project review process is to go back to the original estimates of staff time, and to get a sense from the research team about how accurate they were, and what they would estimate differently next time, if anything.  The two things that have come out strongly from this so far I’ve outlined above – managing staff and project administration – but I’ll be looking for others.

So…. over to you.  How do you estimate researcher and investigator time?  Have you been involved in a funded project?  If so, what did you miss in your forecasts (if anything)?  What would you do differently next time?

ESRC Demand Management Part 5: And the winner is…. researcher sanctions!

"And the prize for best supporting sanctions scheme goes to...."
And the winner is.....

The ESRC today revealed the outcome of the ‘Demand Management’ consultation, with the consultation exercise showing a strong preference for researcher sanctions rather than the other main options, which were institutional sanctions, institutional quotas, or charging for applications.  And therefore….

Given this clear message, it is likely that any further steps will reflect these views.

Which I think means that that’s what they’re going to do.  But being (a) academics, and (b) British, it has to be expressed in the passive voice and as tentatively as possible.

Individual researcher sanctions got the vote of  82% of institutional responses, 80% of learned society responses, and 44% of individual responses.   To put that in context, though, 32% of the individual responses were interpreted as backing none of the possible measures, which I don’t think was ever going to be a particular convincing response.    Institutional sanctions came second among institutions (11%), and institutional quotas (20%) among individual respondents.  Charging for applications was, as I expected, a non-starter, apparently attracting the support of two institutions and one learned society or ‘other agency’.  I’m surprised it got that many.

The issue of the presentation of the results as a ‘vote’ is an interesting one, as I don’t think that’s what this exercise was presented as at the time.  The institutional response that I was involved in was – I like to think – a bit more nuanced and thoughtful than just a ‘vote’ for one particular option.  In any case, if it was a vote, I’m sure that the ‘First Past the Post’ system which appears to have been used wouldn’t be appropriate – some kind of ‘alternative vote’ system to find the least unpopular option would surely have been more appropriate.  I’m also puzzled by the combining of the results from institutions, individuals, and learned societies into totals for ‘all respondents’ which seems to give the same weighting to individual and institutional responses.

Fortunately – or doubly-fortunately – those elements of the research community which responded delivered a clear signal about the preferred method of demand management, and, in my view at least, it’s the right one.  I’ll admit to being a bit surprised by how clear cut the verdict appears to be, but it’s very much one I welcome.

It’s not all good news, though.  The announcement is silent on exactly what form the programme of researcher sanctions will take, and there is still the possibility that sanctions may apply to co-investigators as well as the principal investigator.  As I’ve argued before, I think this would be a mistake, and would be grossly unfair in far too many cases.  I know that there are some non-Nottingham folks reading this blog, so if your institution isn’t one of the ones that responded (and remember only 44 of 115 universities did), it might be worth finding out why not, and making your views known on this issue.

One interesting point that is stressed in the announcement is that individual researcher sanctions – or any form of further ‘demand management’ measures – may never happen.  The ESRC have been clear about this all along – the social science research community was put on notice about the unsustainablity of the current volume of applications being submitted, and that a review would take place in autumn 2012.  The consultation was about the general form of any further steps should they prove necessary.  And interestingly the ESRC are apparently ‘confident’ they they will not.

We remain confident that by working in partnership with HEIs there will be no need to take further steps. There has been a very positive response from institutions to our call for greater self-regulation, and we expect that this will lead to a reduction in uncompetitive proposals.

Contrast that with this, from March, when the consultation was launched:

We very much hope that we will not need additional measures.

Might none of this happen?  I’d like to think not, but I don’t share their confidence, and I fear that “very much hope” was nearer the mark.  I can well believe that each institution is keen to up its game, and I’m sure discussions are going on about new forms of internal peer review, mentoring, research leadership etc in institutions all across the country.  Whether this will lead to a sufficient fall in the number of uncompetitive applications, well, I’m not so sure.

I think there needs to be an acceptance that there are plenty of perfectly good research ideas that would lead to high quality research outputs in quality journals, perhaps with strong non-academic impact, which nevertheless aren’t ‘ESRC-able’ – because they’re merely ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ rather than ‘outstanding’.  And it’s only the really outstanding ideas that are going to be competitive.  If all institutions realise this, researcher sanctions may never happen.  But if hubris wins out, and everyone concludes that it’s everyone else’s applications that are the problem, then researcher sanctions are inevitable.

A visit from the British Academy….

The British Academy logo, featuring the Greek Muse Clio, according to wikipedia...
The British Academy

Ken Emond, Head of Research Awards of the British Academy, came to visit the University of Nottingham the other week to talk about the various and nefarious research funding schemes that are on offer from the British Academy.  To make an event of it, my colleagues in the Centre for Advanced Studies also arranged for various internal beneficiaries of the Academy’s largesse to come and talk about the role that Academy funding had had in their research career.  I hope no-one minds if I repeat some of the things that were said – there was no mention of ‘Chatham House’ rules or of ‘confidential learning agreements’, and I don’t imagine that Ken gives privileged information to the University of Nottingham alone, no matter how wonderful we are.

Much of what funders’ representatives tend to say during institutional visits or AMRA conferences is pretty much identical to the information already available on their website in one form or another, but it’s interesting how many academics seem to prefer to hear the information in person rather than read it in their own time.  And it’s good to put a face to names, and faces to institutions.  Although I think I shall probably always share Phil Ward‘s mental image of the BA as an exclusive Rowley Birkin QC-style private members club.  But it’s good to have a reminder of what’s on offer, and have an opportunity to ask questions.

I met Ken very briefly at the ARMA conference in 2010, and his enthusiasm for the Small Grants Scheme then (and now) was obvious.  I was very surprised when it was scrapped, and it seems likely that this was imposed rather than freely chosen.  However, it’s great to see it back again, and this time including support for conference funding to disseminate the project findings.  It seems the call is going to be at least annual, with no decision taken yet on whether there will be a second call this year, as in previous years.

It seems much more sensible than having separate schemes for projects and for conference funding.  It’s unlikely that we’re going to see a return of the BA Overseas Conference Scheme, but…. it was quite a lot of work in writing and assessing for really very small amounts of money.  Although having said that, when I was at Keele those very small amounts of money really did help us send researchers to prestigious conferences (especially in the States) they wouldn’t otherwise have attended.

One of the questions asked was about the British Academy’s attitude to demand management, of the kind that the EPSRC have introduced and that the ESRC are proposing.  The response was that they currently have no plans in this direction – they don’t think that any institutions are submitting an excessive number of applications.

Although the British Academy has some of the lowest success rates in town for its major schemes, they are all light touch applications – certainly compared to the Research Councils.  Mid-Career and Post-Doc Fellowships both have an outline stage, and the Senior Research Fellowships application form is hardly more taxing than a Small Grant one.  Presumably they’re also quick and easy to review – I wonder how many of those a referee could get through in the time it took them to review a single Research Council application?  Which does raise the suggestion from Mavan, a commenter on one of my previous posts, about cutting the ESRC application form dramatically.

But… it’s possible that the relative brevity of the application forms is itself increasing the number of applications, and that’s certainly something that the ESRC were concerned about when considering their own move to outline stage applications.

I guess a funding scheme could be credible and sustainable with a low success rate and a low ‘overhead’ cost of writing and reviewing applications or a high success rate with a high overhead cost.  The problem is when were get to where we are at the moment with the ESRC, with low success rates and high overhead costs.