Last month I attended the ARMA annual conference along with David Young (Senior Research Facilitator, whose blog post can be read here) and Carolyn Williams (Research Administrator, MHT.) Whilst David attended most of the policy, operations and governance sessions and Carolyn attended those relating to relevant funding for MHT and post-award support I tried to cover the funding sessions to see if they had any news about what may happen with the impending budget cuts. In the pre-budget period many were unable to give any definite answers about what their plans may be, but the fact that the cuts will inevitably affect funders, and in turn the work they do to support research, was universally accepted. Nevertheless, the prevailing message was ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’ All of the representatives that I spoke to emphasised the importance of research to the long-term economic recovery, and to the UK’s international reputation and are committed to supporting research. Other sessions I attended covered Operations, Systems and Structures for Research Support which looked at the research support process and operational practice, institutional research management systems and funder application and administration systems, and office and support structures and skill sets. Here is a summery of the sessions:
Parallel Session 106: Research support units, how do we measure our performance and success?
Dr Stephen Conway – Associate Director, Research Services, University of Oxford
Helen Atkinson – Assistant Director, Cambridge Research Office, University of Cambridge
This session, given by representatives from both Oxford and Cambridge, examined how research managers and administrators might measure the performance of the services they provide. How do we as research administrators assess the quality of what we do, and what we contribute; how do we use the results internally; and how do we report to others? The speakers discussed their experiences in their institutions including the problems they have had to overcome before inviting participants to share their own experiences, to consider the merits and drawbacks of both so-called qualitative and quantitative indicators, to discuss what use might be made of various approaches and measures, and examine the scope for benchmarking service quality within and across institutions.
Dr Stephen Conway of the University of Oxford began the session with a brief discussion of the importance of measuring our success to ensure we are doing all we can to support our clients and the problems associated with doing so. This is a topic that concerns research offices across the country but is fraught with difficulties: how do we know that we are doing a good job, and how can we improve the services we provide? There are many different indicators which can be used, such as the number of successful bids, however it is more difficult to assess the value a research office adds to an application. This is particularly difficult as we do not have one type of client; research offices deal with academics at all different stages of their career who have different requirements and expectations. Stephen also raised the point that research administration is an increasingly complex environment, where research offices across the sector are not only having to achieve a lot more with fewer resources, but one in which we provide a wide variety of services from training to supporting applications to managing post-award issues which all require different approaches. Thus determining how we measure each aspect of our work and matching these to institutional indicators and objectives is by no means easy.
Whilst it is relatively easy to track trends such as the amount of research income, how many applications are made in a month and how long these took to process the data lacks context so can be overly simplistic. Qualitative assessment can however be a rich source of information which can be used for review and improvement, but is more difficult and time consuming to collect. Both Oxford and Cambridge approached the problem of measuring their success by using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data. Cambridge and Oxford are both much larger institutions than we are. Last year Cambridge, which has a large RO team of 61, processed over 2000 applications and Oxford (whose RO employs 70 people with a combined FTE of 62) received a research income of around £340 million in the last financial year. Nevertheless, although they are much larger research intensive institutions, many of the issues they have faced are mirrored across the sector.
Helen Atkinson, from the University of Cambridge, focussed on the quantitative data which is collected by the Research Office and turned into two internal reports, the Yellow Book which tracks how the university is doing and the Lilac Book consisting of three parts including a summery of statistics, a balanced forecast and tracks trends over the past three years and is the internal report for the Research Office. Most of the data for these reports is pulled directly from their in-house system which records key information on each project or proposal and allows the RO to see key information such as how many applications are received in a month, how quickly they were turned around, how many contracts were received and processed, what projects have been activated and what is due for invoicing. These figures are measured against internal targets providing an indicator of success, however they miss some vital points such as how complicated a project may be if it had industry partners of collaborators and how much time is devoted to each application. Whilst these statistics can be useful indicators they are limited. Both Stephen and Helen emphasised the fact that a lot of what we do is out of our control, such as the number of applications made during a month or how long it may take to negotiate a complicated contract, which often results in negative data.
However, using these reports and other qualitative data the RO discovered that the lack of a personal approach meant that they did not have the reputation they wanted. As a result the office was rearranged from departments dealing with separate aspects of the process, such as pre-award, contracts and post-award, into school based teams which encompassed all the old departments. Oxford is arranged along similar lines with the team divided into divisional teams for the areas of Science, Medicine and Humanities/Social Sciences. Customer feedback is essential to the Oxford Research Office as they are funded by academic divisions so have to have a very transparent approach to their work. In addition to a programme of regular departmental visits and a much closer working relationship with the departments the RO also conducted an online feedback survey directed at research administrators and departmental facilitators. Using Bristol Online Survey respondents were asked to complete a short, user friendly survey to rate their satisfaction with the services provided by the research office from 1-5. The respondents, who could complete the survey anonymously, were then asked to write a few comments to expand on their ratings to supplement the quantitative data with some qualitative feedback. Overall the survey was well received at Oxford, and although seeking and receiving feedback in this way can be challenging and often confrontational the RO now has a baseline for the future. Thus although reporting can be difficult and time consuming it does have some significant benefits. Frequent reporting allows research offices to identify trends or issues which may not have been apparent beforehand, and allows them to measure the impact of any internal changes made to the services they provide.
If you have any suggestions about how we can improve the services we provide in the Research Office at Lincoln, please get in touch.
Parallel Session 201: Funding for science and engineering
Helen Meade – Director’s Policy Officer, BBSRC
Dr Steve Milsom – Senior Capacity Building Manager, EPSRC
Funding for science and engineering is covered by two of the Research Councils, the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) and the BBSRC (Biology and Biotechnology Research Council.) During the presentation Steve Milsom from the EPSRC discussed the current 2008/11 programme of activities and the outcomes from the major EPSRC Balance of People exercise which took place during 2009 to examine support across research grants, studentships and fellowships. Helen Mead, the Director’s Policy Officer from the BBSRC structured her presentation in a similar way, discussing the BBSRC’s current research priorities and RCUK and BBSRC’s plan for the delivery of excellence with impact. Here is a brief overview of what they had to say:
Steve began the session with a brief reference to the current 2008/11 programme of activities. He told us that at the moment there are no plans for large calls, but the focus will be on a mixture of smaller calls to plug gaps in the current strategy. This also applies to EPSRC doctoral training units, so whilst there are no immediate plans to put out a large call for doctoral training the EPSRC may be advertising on their website for smaller, more specialist units to fill gaps in expertise.
Steve also used the session to urge the research community they fund to advocate their research and the work of the EPSRC so that the council will continue to receive their own funding from the government. Echoing a message made by many of the Research Council representatives we were told that Research Councils and academics must work together to protect the money that goes into research. In a conference based around the theme of impact, it was inevitable that it would come up during the discussion. Research Councils have to justify the money they spend on funding research to the treasury, and one way to do this is to measure the potential impact of a research project. Reiterating the point made by Julia Goodfellow in the morning’s plenary session that impact would become more important as the amount of money available to Research Councils decreases, Steve asked delegates to think as widely as possible about impact. The change from impact plans to pathways to impact was designed to encourage applicants to consider the longer term impact of a research project, and what your work may lead to in the future. A common difficulty is that economic impact is commonly believed to be the only relevant impact, but there are many other impacts which are equally as important such as societal impact, the creation of jobs and wealth via spin off activities and knowledge transfer, especially if PhD students are involved. (It is worth noting that the UK is actually the second highest in Europe in terms of the numbers of students we train.) However, Steve did stress that impact is not the only measure for judging proposals, and emphasised that it was the creativity of the project and the enthusiasm of the academic that made a project stand out. Although impact is important not all projects will have that much, especially if they are broad in scope, and if this is the case applicants should explain why.
It is also worth noting that in line with the EPSRC’s Strategic Plan, a slim document which is worth reading, there is a strong emphasis on people and impact through people. The EPSRC ‘will ensure excellent research and talented people deliver maximum impact for the health, prosperity and sustainability of the UK’s research through three goals: excellence with impact, shaping capability, and developing leaders. Although the EPSRC Delivery Plan will not be available until the autumn, it is expected that there will be a greater emphasis on fellowship schemes with potentially more funding being directed towards these schemes in line with the aim to ‘commit greater support to the world-leading individuals who are delivering the highest quality research to meet UK and global priorities.’
The fellowship schemes are already very popular, last year having a success rate of just 16%, however there are opportunities for researchers at all stages of their career from Postdoctoral Fellowships, of which 25 are expected to be funded this year, to Leadership Fellowships, of which 50 are anticipated to be funded. Career Acceleration Fellowships are designed to be extremely flexible and can be awarded on a part-time basis to postdoctoral researchers with 3-5 years experience. The last round had an average success rate of just 6% for the first stage, however of the full proposals that were invited for submission one in three was funded. The call for Career Acceleration schemes was announced in May with a deadline of 11th August, and the calls for Postdoctoral and Leadership Fellowships are expected to be announced shortly with an anticipated deadline of 15th August.
The importance of people was also a strong message in the second presentation of the session given by Helen Atkinson, representing the BBSRC, who centred her talk on the BBSRC’s strategy and priorities. Overall the BBSRC’s planning is designed to address the key challenges and opportunities in biosciences, including:
• Ensuring a sustainable and world-class research base, and keeping the UK the European location of choice for investment in bioscience R&D
• Developing the new approaches and technologies needed as bioscience becomes increasingly quantitative and predictive
• Accelerating the translation of research outputs into business and policy applications to increase social and economic impact
• Providing skilled scientists for research and business
The BBSRC’s driving mission is to lead world-class 21st century bioscience, promoting innovation and realising benefits for society within and beyond the UK. Through its funding for research and training they aim to provide the knowledge and skilled people necessary to provide solutions to the major challenges facing us today. These include problems such as:
• feeding 9 billion people sustainably by 2050
• developing renewable ‘low carbon’ sources of energy, transport fuels and chemicals to reduce dependence on dwindling oil reserves
• staying healthier for longer as lifespans increase and society ages
The recently released Strategic Plan for 2010 – 2015 can be obtained from the BBSRC’s website but in essence the BBSRC aims to support world class bioscience and skills through three main research priorities: bio-energy, food security and health.
‘Excellent bioscience drives advances in medicine and health, ‘green materials’, new pharmaceuticals, and safe and nutritious food; it leads to more sustainable agriculture, helps to combat infectious diseases and underpins responses to climate change.’
As with all funding bodies, the rate of progress will depend on their future budget, but excellence and skills will remain their overarching priority.
Three enabling priorities underpin the strategy:
• Knowledge exchange, innovation and skills: maximising the impact of our science and skilled people in boosting the UK economy, informing policy and improving quality of life
• Exploiting new ways of working: enabling innovative working practices in an era of rapid technological advancement
• Partnerships: working with stakeholders and other funders, nationally and internationally, to deliver the BBSRC’s ambitious vision for UK bioscience
The BBSRC recognise that highly skilled researchers are vital for the strong science base which is needed to deliver their strategic aims, so once again there is a strong emphasis on the importance of people, with fellowships available from early career through to very senior researchers, including industry fellowships.
The session finished with a brief summary of hints and tips for successful grant proposals, which can be applied to all funding proposals and covered common downfalls such as the JoR and Case for Support:
• Justification of Resources: Make sure you fully justify everything so there is no confusion over what the funds will be spent on. And if you ask for resources to attend conferences name them so that the costs are fully explained.
• Case for Support: Include detailed plans for data sharing, or explain why data sharing may not be appropriate.
• Impact: Academic, Societal and Economic etc. This obviously depends very much on the research topic, but try to think as widely as possible and explain who the work will impact and how.
• Eligibility: If you have any doubt whether or not your proposal will match the BBSRC’s remit then do not hesitate to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also if your proposal looks as though it will overlap panels send a one page summery to the Research Council who will be able be able to advise you on which to apply to. DO NOT apply to both at the same time as your proposal will automatically be rejected.
Helen also emphasised that should an applicant have any queries about anything they should contact the BBSRC who will be happy to help. Enthusiasm for the project is also an important aspect in funding decisions, so it is important to ensure this comes across in your proposal.
So to summarise the main points of the two presentations, in line with the MRC which has already announced that it is putting more money into studentships, in looks like more money will go towards supporting people with the EPSRC and BBSRC supporting more fellowships.
Parallel Session 301: Funding for multi-disciplinary research
Neil Meemaduma, Grants Scheme manager, Grants, The Royal Society
Jane Buckley, Grants Scheme Manager, Grants, The Royal Society
Ken Emond – Head of Research Awards, The British Academy
The third session I attended was on the subject of multi-disciplinary research, and was delivered by representatives from the Royal Society and the British Academy. Founded in 1660, the Royal Society is the independent scientific academy of the UK, dedicated to promoting excellence in science. Nearly £50 million is spent annually by the Society across Continue reading