Exquisite Life Exquisite Life Research Europe Research Fortnight

October 13, 2010

David Willetts’ straight talk on innovation

by Leila Sattary

Despite being highly pressed for time yesterday due to the release of the Browne Review, David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, addressed delegates of Innovate 10 on innovation and the future role of the Technology Strategy Board, giving clear answers on key issues for universities.

Higher Education Innovation Fund

Although the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), allocated by Hefce, is a relatively small pot of money (total of £150m in 2010/11), many universities rely on it to provide business support, technology transfer support and other innovation operations like science parks and entrepreneurship training for students and academics. HEIF is one of the many funding streams under threat from impending funding cuts and universities have voiced their concerns that cutting this money could have serious consequences to the ability of universities to be innovative and limit their economic return.

Continue reading "David Willetts’ straight talk on innovation" »

June 10, 2010

IT review leaves doubts over future of outcomes project

by Leila Sattary

The Research Councils UK’s Research Outcomes Project has been put on hold while the government reviews its IT projects, members of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators were told at their annual meeting in Manchester on 9 June. However, RCUK still intends to create a new outputs collection system despite there already being an existing system developed by one of its own members, the Medical Research Council.

The ROP system is intended to collect information about the outcomes and impacts arising from projects funded by all seven research councils. RCUK says that this single harmonised process will replace the diversity of collection methods currently in use across the research councils, allowing them to demonstrate the impact of cross-council programmes.

One unified system would also reduce the workload for academics and administrators at universities, says RCUK. But some ARMA members query whether this reduced workload will emerge, when RCUK expects academics to enter the information themselves on a regular basis for potentially decades after the end of their project.

A business case for ROP was approved over a year ago and RCUK issued an invitation to tender in April 2010, but the process has been delayed due to the government review. A decision on whether the project will go ahead or not is expected for some weeks.

For recipients of MRC funding, its eVAL system has already been implemented with the same purpose as ROP. While university administrators clearly want a unified system, they also pushed RCUK to modify one of the existing systems rather than creating a completely new system at great cost to the tax-payer. However, when challenged, Alan Green project manager of the RCUK outputs and outcomes collection project, said “European Law means we have to go out to tender.”

Even with pressure to harmonise processes across the research councils, it is not clear if universities can expect to see one single collection system soon. While the project remains on hold during the government review, Green 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.”

June 09, 2010

Dear David Cameron,

by Leila Sattary

Speakers shared with their colleagues at the ARMA funders’ forum on impact, one key message they would give to our new Prime Minister David Cameron about university research.

Dear David Cameron...

“... don’t cut the Research Council budget, but if you do, don’t simply focus on the short term impacts or let cuts affect blue skies research.”
Steven Hill, head of the RCUK Strategy Unit

“...reduce bureaucracy in medical research. High levels of bureaucracy are bad for universities; their funders and ultimately it negatively impacts on patient treatments and care.”
Simon Denegri, chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities

“...continue to support collaborations in research. Even blue skies research should have external stakeholder collaboration. “
Fiona Nightingale, senior adviser at the Knowledge Transfer Partnership

“...do not underestimate the impact of social science research.”
Alan Warde, University of Manchester

Turf wars between university administrators bad for research

by Leila Sattary

Friction between a university’s research office and its development office can result in missed funding opportunities for researchers. For some funding schemes, it is unclear which of the two departments should handle particular funding applications and so this is causing internal clashes at many institutions, ARMA members were told.

For sources like the AXA Research Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is debatable whether the funding is a research contract or a gift agreement and so these opportunities may fall between the remits of the two offices. However, research administrators at the meeting are looking at ways of addressing this issue to improve internal co-operation and provide better support for their institution’s -academic staff.

Much of the conflict comes from a divergence in mission, values and staff backgrounds between those working in the different offices. Inward facing research offices are often process-driven and see their role in supporting research staff and protecting academic freedom to maintain funding. Development offices are outward facing and so are focussed on building relationships with external donors at the cost of engaging with academics. Research office staff will usually have backgrounds in research or finance, while development offices often prefer to recruit staff from charities or experienced fund raisers from US universities. So this creates two quite divergent cultures in university administration, members heard.

However, Chris Cox, director of development at the University of Manchester, described the changing role of development offices and their interactions with research offices at the meeting. He said donors now ask for clear agreements on how their gifts will be spent and how this will make tangible differences to the institution that they are supporting. So their working practices are gradually converging with the model that development offices are accustomed to working with. Hence, development offices are now trying to “be more consistent, co-ordinated and safeguard ethical integrity”, he said.
Heavy pressure on development offices to perform, combined with a lack of dialogue with academics can be major contributor to these internal disagreements. But many development offices are now following the research office practice of recruiting staff with experience of working in research. This enables administrative staff to communicate more effectively with academics. Although development offices remain facing outwards, “a university development officer who can’t work with an academic is no use” said Cox.

Other speakers agreed that it will be essential to develop closer ties. “We either need to come together as one function or work much better in co-operation,” noted John Montgomery, research manager at the Cass Business School, City University London.

November 23, 2009

Telling the world why Universities matter

by Leila Sattary

Demonstrating the impact that Universities have on the economy and society is high on government agenda: RCUK have introduced impact plans to encourage academics to think about their impact at the outset of research and Hefce are introducing an assessment of impact into the Research Excellence Framework (which will replace the RAE). Measuring research impact is fundamentally fraught with problems - research can take decades (if not centuries) to reach its tangible impact, types of impact vary hugely depending on discipline and do not necessarily have a monetary value. To start tackling the many issues, Hefce are piloting their proposed impact assessment in the coming months to inform how impact could robustly be assessed as part of the REF. In parallel to the impact pilot, Hefce and UUK are also piloting ‘Wellings Benefit Statements’ that could also shed light on the issue of impact assessment.

In 2008, Professor Paul Wellings, Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University, published a report commissioned by the Secretary of State which reviewed the area of intellectual property and research benefits. The review highlighted the need to demonstrate how Universities contribute to a broad range of benefits to the economy and society, through maximising the impact of their research. He suggested that statements of beneficial economic and social outcomes could build the confidence of society in the value of HEIs. These Wellings Benefit Statements, as they are now called, could be a tool to demonstrate to the taxpayer, funders, industry or students that money put into Universities is put to the best possible use in the interests of all in society. Depending on the success of the pilot and the views after the next general election, it is possible that the Benefit Statements will become compulsory for all Universities in 2011.

Over 25 Universities, including my own institution Oxford, have volunteered for pilot exercise. It is certainly going to be a challenge – the contributions to society from the higher education sector are so rich, complex, wide-reaching and difficult to distil into key messages, especially at larger institutions. A summary of all our benefits to society could be a 100 page volume in itself – and I’m sure no politician would read that. Hefce have asked us to focus our messages by choosing audiences to target (perhaps the general public, policy makers, local community or businesses) and types of benefits to showcase. A typology for knowledge based benefits to society is emerging - it includes categories such as supporting society to debate, knowledge access, stimulating economic or social development, supporting public policy, HE-community research and student community volunteering. A representative from BIS has already describe the draft typology as ‘excellent, inspiring even’ while still encouraging Universities to think openly and broadly about their benefit to society. Choosing which audience to target our message will also be key and we are being encouraged to choose the audience we currently find it most difficult to engage with.

The ultimate plan is that Hefce and UUK will assimilate the pilot institution contributions into a few overarching key messages that can be fed back to Treasury with supporting case studies and metrics. Meanwhile the pilot institutions will be left to convert their Benefit Statements into some sort of communication back to their intended audiences. Universities, and the sector as a whole, still have a lot to learn about communication with the outside world. Newer Universities seem be a lot more active in their marketing (I recall the sign at Cambridge Railway Station that reads ‘Cambridge – Home of Anglia Ruskin University’) whereas here in Oxford much of the local community have no idea that the museums and botanic gardens are even Oxford University facilities. The Benefit Statements initiative will hopefully give us the support to communicate in an effective and appropriate way and the flexibility to target the groups who matter to us.

There is also a danger that Universities concentrate on showcasing benefits that are easy to describe, like public engagement. We run the risk of Disneyfying University research and doing more harm than good in an attempt to communicate more effectively with the public. The biggest impact that Universities have are not straightforward stories to tell.  

There are many challenges ahead - balancing depth of case studies with range of activities while keeping the document short and engaging, understanding the breadth of knowledge based benefits, providing useful metrics and communication channels. Some of these are similar obstacles facing the REF impact assessment so it would not surprise me if some of the findings of the Benefit Statements pilot also feed into how the REF will work in practice.

Leila Sattary

Leila Sattary

Leila is a part-time freelance science writer and has been published in a range of print and online journals. In her day job she works on research policy at Oxford University.