Research Councils in 2013, Part 1: Harmonisation, Demand Management and Early Career Researchers

This is part 1 of a 2-part series. I’ll post the second part tomorrow.

Polaris House, Swindon was the location of the latest joint ARMA (Association of Research Managers and Administrators) RCUK “Study Tour” which took place yesterday. We’ve been to these kinds of events before, but this was a little different. All previous Study Tours I’ve attended have been hosted by a single Research Council or funder, whereas this was a joint effort with representatives from all seven RCs, plus the “Shared Service Centre” – the back office for all RCs – and Je-S help desk. There was also a conscious attempt throughout most of the sessions to be more interactive, and the programme was pitched at “senior” research managers with a promise of greater discussion of policy and future strategic directions for RCs.

The key word was “harmonisation“: Peter Hollinswaite (Business Manager at MRC) set the tone by announcing that the RCs have now reached a more or less “stable state”, following a 2-3 year process during which they have moved to a single physical location and aligned pre- and post-award processes (all Councils now use Je-S, for example). However care was taken to distinguish harmonisation from ‘standardisation’. There was a recognition that different RCs serve different academic and user communities with distinct needs, so business models may differ – for example in the way they support postgraduate students, though even here there have been increasingly harmonised moves towards “block grant” models vs the old individual and project grant studentships across all the Councils.

The usual stats and numbers were rattled through first to give some context:

  • RCs processed 14,000 applications in 2012
  • There has been an increase in success rates from 18% to 26% across all schemes over the past 2 years
  • Demand has fallen 5% per annum over the past 2 years

Peter said that the next phase of cross-Council harmonisation would include: further simplification and rationalisation of funding schemes; a review of the process of peer review; scrutiny of terms and conditions and guidance to reduce confusion. As part of this process RCs will be carrying out surveys with various stakeholder groups, including research admin offices in universities.

The perennial topic of “Demand Management” was the focus of Gerald Owenson’s (BBSRC) discussion session. He outlined a number of measures, which he labelled ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’, introduced over the past few years which have led to the reduction in numbers of bids and consequent increase in success rates. Direct measures include:

  • Resubmissions are now generally not accepted by RCs unless invited (NERC is an exception – you can resubmit after 9 months)
  • Use of outline or preliminary stage applications has increased – the rationale is that outlines require less paperwork and so take less time for both applicant and RC to process. However, I’d argue that significant work goes on ‘behind the scenes’, particularly in terms of costing and partnership formation, which although not present in the submitted bid nevertheless take a significant amount of time
  • EPSRC has introduced individual researcher sanctions which limit repeatedly unsuccessful applicants to one bid per year. This has been controversial but has increased EPSRC success rates significantly, though other RCs have been reluctant to follow suit

Indirect demand management measures include:

  • Providing feedback to PI and Research Organisation (RO), including peer review and panel meeting comments. Peer review comments are not currently systematically returned to ROs, but Peter indicated this is set to change
  • Encouraging ROs to undertake internal assessment or peer review  of bids before submission, which most universities do to some extent
  • On this last point in particular, Gerald encouraged ROs to make use of their own internal staff resources, including the “insider knowledge” of people who are on RC peer review colleges and panels. I suggested to him later that it would be useful to offer opportunities for academics and research managers to sit in on RC panel meetings, in order to broaden experience. However he indicated this would be difficult due to limited space in the panel meeting rooms!

Kirsty Grainger and Avril Allman (both NERC) emphasised the importance of PhD studentships and Early Career Researchers to Research Council future plans. Of the annual UK output of 17400 PhDs, 5000 are RC-funded. For some Councils around 50% of funding is invested in PhDs. Increasingly measures to secure fitness for employment is seen as a key part of student training programmes. In addition all Councils now encourage interdisciplinary studentships, although there must be a lead Council. There was a suggestion that there may be specific joint-Council interdisciplinary calls for studentships in future.

Find out what the Research Councils and universities think about Je-S, as well as some insight on EPSRC and NERC priorities for 2013 in Part 2 tomorrow.