AHRC Study Tour 2012 – Mark Llewellyn on Future Strategic Directions

This is part 1 of a series on the AHRC 2012 Study Tour: First up was Professor Mark Llewellyn, AHRC’s new Director of Research with a wide-ranging talk covering most of what AHRC currently does as well as future directions for the funder.

And when we say “new”, we mean it! It turns out Mark had only been in the job 20 days when he delivered this presentation – he was formerly Professor of English Studies at Strathclyde. Phil Ward, Research Funding Manager at Kent, has already offered his own useful analysis of what Prof. Llewellyn’s appointment might say about the AHRC’s underlying goals. In any case, Prof. Llewellyn did a good job of summing up the state of play at the research council as well as giving some reasonable indications about what AHRC will be interested in over the next year or so. In what follows I’ve picked out some of the key points from the session. You can also take a look at the presentation slides, available on the AHRC website. And remember to leave a comment if you’d like to ask a question.

“Commissioned” Research

One of the points Mark made fairly early on was that AHRC’s remit is wide – over 50 disciplines are represented and supported by the funder. As with other research councils, this support is primarily channelled through their “responsive” mode: a no deadlines, open all year funding stream for anything within AHRC’s remit. After briefly covering the AHRC’s “emerging” themes (which will be the subject of tomorrow’s more detailed post), Mark briefly mentioned the possibility of a new “commissioned” research funding mode which would respond flexibly to priorities raised by the research community. Not a lot was said about this in the presentation – suggesting it is still at an early stage of development – but the presentation (slide 5) shows that it is clearly separate from the emerging themes as well as the cross-council priorities. This is speculation, but perhaps it is one way of the AHRC responding to criticisms last year over the perceived introduction of the “big society” into their research agenda (an issue on which both Mark and the audience were noticeably silent).

The issue of forming longer-term partnerships with the research community was clearly at the forefront as Mark began his presentation with the observation that “grants don’t just stop”. Of course the funding ends, but there are many more events and activities which outlast the duration of the grant. There was a clear indication that the AHRC intend to take an increasing interest in longer-term outcomes and outputs of the research they fund, not just through the RCUK Research Outcomes System, but also in the nature of the relationship between funder and researcher. This may well signal a subtle shift towards the “funder as sponsor” model adopted by the EPSRC.


One of the words of the day for Mark and other AHRC presenters was “embedded”. The significance is this: although the AHRC has and will continue to have separate strands of activity devoted to, say, Knowledge Exchange and International research partnerships, the expectation is that these activities will be embedded and integrated across the AHRC’s research themes and schemes. Mark made the point that funding for Knowledge Exchange doesn’t just have to be chanelled through specialist KE themes. This shouldn’t be too surprising, especially since research councils have been hammering on about including costs for impact activities within grants for quite some time now. The picture is of  longer, larger research grants (see below) which also make time for international and industrial engagement, and of researchers who are prepared to be leaders both within and outside academia.

Demand/Expectation Management

Mark wants to work with research organisations and research offices to share best practice on this issue, both processes and user experiences. From “our” perspective, he suggested that demand management might be better framed as expectation management, although whose expectations wasn’t made clear (research managers’ or academics’?) – and who is doing the managing?

One specific point is worth highlighting here: many institutions understandably call on members of the AHRC Peer Review College to act as internal peer reviewers. Mark acknowledged that this is a good way of sharing peer review expertise but cautioned that institutions shouldn’t overburden PRC members. One suggestion was that PRC members could focus on reviewing applications by early career researchers only. Another was to ensure that membership of internal peer review groups included a mix of PRC members and more junior colleagues, giving the opportunity for those who have not had the benefit of working as a peer reviewer to gain an insight into this process.

On the issue of peer review, Mark also indicated that he wanted members of the PRC to feel more like a community. Peer review is therefore to be given its own section on the AHRC’s new-look website, and there is likely to be some investment in online training for the 1300+ member College.

“Longer and larger”

This was another of the key phrases of the day, along with the corollary – “fewer” – which was mentioned slightly less often. In common with all the other research councils, the AHRC are strategically positioning themselves to invest in a smaller number of longer, larger grants which deliver greater impact. None of this is new, of course, having been highlighted in the Delivery Plans published at the end of 2010. However, Mark was keen to point out that it did not necessarily mean calling for projects worth £4M. He insisted that it was also about engaging with researchers in development of research activity and suggested that AHRC would start running EPSRC-style research “sandpits” to do this.

Mark acknowledged that the calls announced to date for the four existing “emerging” themes (Digital Transformations, Translating Cultures, Care for the Future, Science in Culture) might have given the impression that longer and larger was not the priority – there have been a number of small scale research development calls as well as highlight notices on the £45K max Research Networking scheme. These were designed to scope the research area, and would be followed by a larger scale call, in much the same way as has happened in Connected Communities.

There will be more from the AHRC Study Tour tomorrow.