ARMA Conference 2010

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:

Day 1

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 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 19 grant-making schemes with 2600 researchers supported in 2008-2009, including 810 fellowship holders. The presentation covered the Society’s early career and senior fellowship schemes, innovation schemes, mobility schemes and research capacity and infrastructure schemes. The British Academy is the UK’s national body for the humanities and social sciences who work to inspire, recognise and support excellence in all subjects within the social sciences and humanities throughout the UK and internationally. As a funding body in receipt of Government grants the British Academy seeks to support excellent ideas, individuals and intellectual resources in the humanities and social sciences.

Whilst their respective presentations were very much focussed on the types of funding they provide it is worth noting that multi-disciplinary research was something that all funders represented at the conference were keen to promote. Here is a summary of the two presentations:

The Royal Society runs 19 different schemes to support scientists and their work, however mirroring the message given in the previous session on ‘Funding for Science and Engineering’ a heavy emphasis was placed on fellowships as an investment for the future. The Royal Society offers a number of fellowships from Early Career Fellowships through to its highly prestigious Senior Fellowships – in fact there are nine different fellowship schemes run by the society.

Neil was keen to emphasise that there is a great deal of flexibility with regards to the fellowship schemes, in particular the Dorothy Hodgkin’s scheme. This scheme is for early career researchers with just 1-2 postdoctoral positions and provides funding on a flexible basis for up to 4 years. However, applicants must demonstrate a current need for flexible support due to personal circumstances at the time of application such as current parental/caring responsibilities, e.g. raising children or looking after ageing or seriously ill family members; or clinically diagnosed health issues. The British Academy works to promote the importance of individuals, so unsurprisingly their own postdoctoral and senior fellowship schemes were also mentioned during the second presentation.

Innovation was another word which was commonly used during the conference, and the Royal Society offer a number of innovation awards such as the Brian Mercer Awards (Innovation awards at £250 000 for up to two years and Feasibility awards which are a little less, but more are offered in terms of numbers awarded) and the Mercer Prize. Research Capacity and Infrastructure schemes are also run by the Royal Society, including the popular Research Grants scheme which provide ‘seed corn’ funding for projects initiated by early career research scientists (within the first 5 years of the start date of their first permanent academic position). The objective of the scheme is to increase the availability of specialised equipment and essential consumable materials, and to support essential field research. The scheme also provides support for research in the history of science or to assist with publication of scholarly works in the history of science

The Society will also fund mobility schemes to support international collaboration. One of these schemes is the Leverhulme-Royal Society Africa Award. Funded by Leverhulme but administered by the Royal Society the scheme aims to help develop and maintain excellence in science in both Ghana and Tanzania to strengthen the research and training capacity of the African institution. Six of these are awarded each year providing up to £50,000 per annum over a maximum of three years to cover research expenses and costs for mobility. The International travel grant scheme is another hugely popular scheme which enables UK based scientists to: foster collaborations with overseas scientists in order to explore opportunities for building lasting networks, or to participate in international conferences and seminars which are of particular strategic importance.

International collaboration is also something which the British Academy was keen to promote, and their strategic framework is built around enabling UK researchers to work with scholars and resources in other countries, sustain a British research presence in various parts of the world and help to attract overseas scholars to the UK. In addition to a number of country-specific agreements, special programmes and joint programmes the Academy offer it’s popular Overseas Conference Grants which cover the travel expenses of a scholar delivering a paper at a conference abroad.

Perhaps the most popular funding opportunity offered by the Academy, which can also be used for international collaboration, is its Small Research Grant scheme which provides funding of up to £7500 over two years. This is a highly valuable scheme to scholars, and can be used as a pilot study to test the feasibility of a methodology for example for a larger piece of research. They also provide great value for money, resulting in a huge number of outputs, and more often than not will lead to other funding. The scheme also allows the Academy to take a risk with a project as it is not a huge amount of investment. Over 500 awards are made each year giving an average success rate of around 33%.

Both the Royal Society and the British Academy mentioned the high level of competition for funding. The Royal Society is a relatively small funder with limited resources and because of this its grants are competitive but the speakers stressed that this should not deter applicants. Society grants are highly prestigious and flexible, and have the added value of offering potential professional development opportunities and provide support from the Royal Society ‘family.’ The British Academy is also highly competitive with most schemes and with the exception of the small grants scheme the average success rate is only around 10%. Funding cuts may also have an effect on success rates. As the British Academy receives over 90% of its funding from the government so it is almost inevitable that they will be affected by any impending budget cuts. If this is the case then plans are to prioritise ideas and individuals – we were reassured that there will not be any cuts to the Small Grants scheme which will be prioritised along with fellowships.

Day 2

Parallel Session 403: Is it really possible to make researchers’ lives easier?
Dr Glenn Swafford – Director of Research Services, University of Oxford

Many research administrators share a commitment to helping researchers at various stages of the research project lifecycle, and ultimately making the process easier for researchers. However this can sometimes be very difficult. Bureaucracy is often cited as the most common problem, or as succinctly phrased by Glenn Swafford from the University of Oxford, ‘Bureaucracy is the demon controlling our lives.’ An estimated £66 billion has been spent on administration over the past 12 years, and accordingly headlines such as ‘Red Tape is Stifling Research,’ ‘Audit Overload,’ ‘Health research buckles under burden of red tape’ and ‘The good, the bad and the ugly red tape of biomedical research’ are appearing more frequently. Efforts are being made to reduce the amount of red tape researchers have to deal with, especially with EC funded projects, however we are never going to completely get away from bureaucracy and in fact some of it is essential particularly when it comes to ethics.

This presentation was jointly given by Glenn Swafford and Chris Bellinger from the University of Oxford and Martin Rowley from the University of Cambridge, and was based around three themes:

o External forces: How can we advocate for change when we have to push against external forces beyond our control?
o Organising ourselves to make lives easier: What can we do more of? How can we do it more effectively?
o Compliance, rules and regulations: What works well in an academic environment?

Glenn raised the problem with marrying research ethics and social sciences that in this field ethics approval is often seen as a medical consent rather than research, and the belief by some that ethics guards are stifling research. However research involves trust so ethics approval is extremely important, and is a way of safeguarding research, protecting your work and professional reputation and that of your discipline from criticism. Oxford has found that the appeal that researchers and their institutions need to demonstrate to others that their research is ethical is the best way to tackle the dislike of forms. A mixture of cultural change, kinship – with academics taking an active role as part of the ethics committee – has helped to address the aversion to paperwork. The practical reasons for ethics approval for research far outweigh the sometimes time-consuming procedures – documentation of approval means that universities can protect and defend their staff and their research against unwarranted complaints. Sometimes the bureaucracy is about making work better and not unnecessarily more difficult: sometimes you just have to fill in forms.

Cambridge has taken a similar approach to Oxford by trying to change the culture both of the Research Office and the academics they help. As Helen Atkinson had described in her presentation earlier in the day the RO was originally structured along functional lines but was reshaped into school teams essentially doing the same things but their title relates to the academics they look after to give a more structured response to PIs. As part of this change the RO was renamed from the Research Services Division to the Research Office. Although this was a small change it has helped to change attitudes to the RO and the work they do. Knowledge has been placed at the forefront of the RO rather than the processes of research administration. Expectations have been raised on all sides and Research Office staff are seen as professionals who academics can go to for help and expertise which has helped to change attitudes towards internal processes.

Bureaucracy is difficult for everyone however it is often very important so cannot simply be ignored. Cambridge found that the change to culture along with the culture of transparency thorough reporting (the Lilac and Yellow book discussed above) brought about greater respect and communication between the RO staff and academics. The change to the structure of the RO along with regular meetings with PIs and greater accessibility has developed a closer working relationship. Whilst the RO still worry about compliance and approvals they have found a medium which works well in an academic environment.

Parallel Session 501: Funding for health research
Dr Angie Borzychowski – Assistant Director, Research for Patient Benefit Programme, NIHR
Emma James – Research Business Manager, MRC
Jo Powell – Senior Manager, NIHR

The Government currently funds health related research through two main routes, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and there is a certain degree of overlap between the two. The funding and major research programmes of the MRC and NIHR between them cover the innovation pathway. The pathway starts with the creation of an innovation, which includes basic research in a laboratory, through to its use in a patient care setting. It covers the full range of interventions, including pharmaceuticals, biologicals, biotechnologies, procedures, therapies and practices, for the full range of health and healthcare delivery such as prevention, detection, diagnosis, prognosis, treatment and care. Unfortunately the representative from the MRC was unable to attend which limited the amount of information available, however we did have the slides to her presentation outlining the various medical research related funded opportunities offered by the organisation.

The MRC’s Strategic Plan 2009-2014 sets out how they see their role in the new environment. They will continue to support excellent and innovative science encompassing basic, non-clinical, clinical, population level research and experimental medicine. There will also be an increased emphasis on translation and an increased commitment to developing research findings for application in new therapies, policies and practices. The translation strategy (see diagram below) is designed to turn discoveries into clinical benefits, while maintaining the basic research that drives it.

In line with other funders, the MRC and NIHR both emphasised their fellowship schemes and between them they funded over 200 researchers last year. The MRC person-led funding is designed to develop and fund the leaders of tomorrow and to provide opportunities to address skills needs in a number of strategic areas such as biostatistics, methodology research and population health. The MRC received 486 fellowship applications in the 08-09 financial year, committing £54 million in the 115 fellowships that were awarded. NIHR fellowships are again designed to support the research leaders of the future and to increase research skills in clinical and applied health and social care research. There is a series of awards available covering all stages of a researcher’s career.

The MRC also offer a number of responsive mode and managed awards. For the MRC these include Developmental pathway funding scheme for patient benefit, Developmental clinical studies and Partnership grants. Some grants from the NIHR are profession specific, however they also offer Programme grants for Applied Research and Programme Development Grants, Invention for Innovation (i4i, to support the translation of good ides into products or services), Research for Innovation, Speculation and Creativity (RISC.)

Perhaps one of the most popular schemes funded by the NIHR is the Research for Patient Benefit scheme. This scheme supports high quality investigator-led research projects that address issues of importance to the NHS. Proposals are developed by health service staff with appropriate academic input on research which could:

o Study the way the NHS services are provided and used
o Evaluate whether interventions are effective and provide value for money
o Examine whether alternative means for providing healthcare would be more effective
o Formally assess innovations and developments in healthcare
o Pilot or assess feasibility of projects requiring major applications to other funders

There are three rounds per year for this scheme, which provides up to £250 000 for a project duration of up to 36 months. It is worth noting that there have been discussions to raise the £250 000 cap on this scheme, but delegates were advised this would be unlikely. The scheme is designed for small projects, so if it is hugely overbudget we were advised that it would probably be more appropriate to submit to another scheme.

Whilst the information was mainly focussed around what types of schemes are available there were some tips for good applications which apply to applications to all funding bodies. Around 10% of NIHR applications are returned for resubmission and a common reason for these instances is often costs which need clarifying so it is important to break these down in the application. Another common mistake is the length of the case for support which must adhere to the specification in the call guidance documents. Basic eligibility – whether of the applicant or the project – is another falling point which can easily be avoided by contacting the funding body and carefully reading the guidance documents. Jo also ran through some common reasons why proposals are not successful, and in addition to the above she raised the issue of ensuring the research questions are clearly defined – the NIHR have to know what they are funding. The proposed project needs to be important within its field and the application should not be overambitious or unfocussed. Here are some of the more general tips:

o Discuss what is planned with the funder. Not only can this help with clarifying issues you need to address in your own application, but will save a lot of time if your project does not fit with the remit of the call or funder.
o Pre-screen applications internally prior to submission so only the best go to the funder
o Read the instructions and guidelines carefully. There is a lot of information in these documents which is often overlooked.
o Assemble the right team with the right expertise to carry out the research, for example if a study involves data, include a statistician if this is needed.
o Keep it simple and clear
o Don’t under-cost but be realistic. Funding bodies are aware of what projects may cost, so will be able to see if one has been costed too highly, or too low.
o Use services available. There is often a named contact for each call, so if you have any questions with regards to your application, and please contact the Research Office if you need any help.

Parallel Session 603: RCUK Research Outcomes project: telling the story of success
Sue Smart – Head of Evidence and Evaluation, EPSRC
Alan Green – Project Manager for the RCUK Outputs and Outcomes Collection project

The Research Outcomes project is a cross-Council initiative to enable all of the Research Councils to capture quantitative and qualitative evidence of the research that they fund and to do so in a harmonised manner, collecting common information in a common format. This will allow the Research Councils to assess their own performance, demonstrate their effectiveness to BIS and other stakeholders, and to inform future strategy. It will essentially be one unified system which in theory would reduce the workload for academics and administrators. However some have questioned whether the reduced workload will materialize due to the dual data entry system with academics at some universities expected to enter the information themselves on a regular basis for potentially decades after the end of their project. Here is a brief summery of the presentation by Alan Green from the RCUK which gave an update on the project, outlined the main principles behind the system and outlined the next steps to implementation.

Alan began his presentation by informing ARMA members that the ROP project is currently on hold. Whilst a business case was approved over a year ago with an invitation to tender issued in April 2010 the process has been delayed due to the government budget review, and a decision on whether the project will go ahead or not is not expected for quite a few weeks. However this is not the only problem with ROP. Whilst university administrators are pushing for a unified system questions were raised over why the MRC system, eVAL, which has already been implemented and essentially does the same thing as ROP is expected to do cannot be used across the Research Councils. There is also the issue of getting all seven Research Councils to agree on one system, which clearly isn’t going to be easy; while the project remains on hold Alan said “councils agree we should be working on the same IT system, but it will take a number of years for all seven councils to come on to it.”

So what is ROP? It is essentially a web based system designed to record information about the outcomes and impacts arising from projects funded by all seven Research Councils, primarily with the grant holder providing the information although there is an option to link the system with an in-house system if the university already has this in place, and in the right format. Once the information has been collected it will then be made available to the public, so people can see exactly where the money is going to and what the returns are. Information such as immediate outcomes (publications/exhibitions etc,) knowledge transfer (how does your research benefit industry/society,) exploitation and innovation (has the project led to further funding, spin off or IP,) career development (of the PI and any others involved in the project) and impact will all be recorded. However it is important to stress that they are not looking for detailed case studies, just a narrative paragraph saying what has happened as a result of the research.

Impact is a big driving force behind the proposed new system. With less money available Research Councils need to be able to show that they are spending their government grants properly and to show that there is a return – societal, cultural, environmental or economic – on their investments. The single harmonised process is intended to replace the diversity of collection methods currently in use across the research councils, allowing them to demonstrate the impact of cross-council programmes more easily. It should also allow them to see where Research Councils are investing their money and where funds may need to be invested in the future.

The system may also prove to be useful for internal reporting purposes. With all the information in one place it should be easy to draw out data in a consistent format which could also be used for the REF – although Alan was quick to reassure us that the system was not trying to compete with or replicate the REF. As all the information contained on the system is available in the public domain it will also be a useful tool for benchmarking with other institutions across the UK. Alan did also mention that the system may well be used in the future during the peer review process. However, the challenges the RCUK will have to face in designing a system for all seven Research Councils are vast, and it is certainly not something we expect to happen in the near future.