Mar 102014

18466820_sThis post sets out some advice for academics on how often you should submit research grant applications. The advice I give is not what most people expect to hear from a dean, so I will start by stating what I think is an important principle and contradicting a common idea about what deans think.

The principle is that a good university strategy can only work if it promotes strategies that are good for individuals within the university. So whatever a university strategy requires academics to do in terms of submitting grant applications has to be beneficial to those academics. It follows from this that, contrary to a widely voiced complaint, no sensible university wants academics to waste valuable time writing grant applications that have a very high probability of failure.

I don’t want to dwell here on cases where the probability of failure is high because of inexperience or lack of skill. Last week I argued, on the ResearchFundingToolkit blog, that nobody should start writing a grant application unless they have the skill to write a good description of the research project. I will also be happy to discuss ways in which people can improve their skills if they need to do so in order to pursue a sensible strategy, but not right now. Right now I want to concentrate on explaining what is a sensible strategy for an individual to adopt. In line with the principle I outlined above, I will also argue that university strategies should support individuals and encourage them to adopt good individual strategies.

A sensible grant application strategy has to start by asking whether you yourself will need a new grant around the time that you would get the result of the application. We can consider how you answer that question elsewhere but the important point is that if the answer is no, you shouldn’t write any grant applications at all. On the other hand, if the answer is yes, you need a strategy that will get you a grant quickly. To get a grant quickly you will need to submit several applications in quick succession.

The failure rate makes it necessary to submit several applications to be reasonably certain of securing a grant. Even the best-written grant applications from the strongest applicants have a reasonably high chance of failure – maybe as high as 50%. This means it would be foolish to risk too much on a single application – or to be too disappointed by a single failure. I think that the best strategy is to submit four or five grant applications in quick succession, all based on the same set of ideas. Then, if you get five straight rejections, you can be reasonably sure that it is time to change your approach.

I have seen many departmental research strategies recommend that academic staff should write one grant application every year. This is a very poor strategy for individuals. Writing one grant application per year is a recipe for misery.

It’s not hard to understand why this should be. As I pointed out above, most grant applications get rejected. The decision process takes about 6 months. As I have said many times, grant rejections are utterly demoralising. It takes months to recover. Submitting another grant application within six months of a rejection would be a superhuman effort of will. With rejection rates approaching 90%, a strategy of submitting one grant application every year gives an excellent chance of spending several years alternating between demoralisation over each new rejection and anxiety about the next potential rejection.

Another important point is that, if you only submit one grant application per year, it takes too long to get evidence that you need to change your approach. You cannot tell on the basis of a single rejection that a particular set of ideas is unlikely to get funded. You really need four or five straight rejections. Then you can be reasonably sure. If your strategy is to make annual applications it could take five or 6 years to discover that you need to change your ideas. On the other hand, if you follow the strategy that I recommend, you will know within a year.

So I think the best strategy for an individual is straightforward. You shouldn’t write any grant applications until you need a new grant. As soon as you do need a new grant, you need to write several grant applications very quickly. The best strategy for a university is harder to define but one thing is clear. Your university should have a strategy that supports you to make and implement the decisions you need for your individual strategy.

This article has also been posted at Parker Derrington Ltd. The discussion will be continued in the blog on the Parker Derrington website.

May 202013
Boundless Campaign Posters in Toronto

‘Boundless’ campaign posters hang from the lamp posts in the University of Toronto.

I feel I should start this post with an optimism warning: the robust scepticism that is my trademark has been completely dissolved by a cascade of generosity, good humour and potentially priceless information delivered by some of the most professional, friendly and good-humoured colleagues I have ever met. The sensation is almost like a mild hangover after the most astonishingly fabulous party, the CASE fundraising study tour of Canadian universities.

The tour is an annual event, led by Joanna Motion and organised this year by the indefatigable Emma Darwin. Groups of academic leaders and fundraising professionals from Europe visit Canadian universities to learn how they approach fundraising. Canada is a good place to learn about university fundraising because the culture is fairly similar to ours but the practice tends to be about 20 years ahead. We visited McMaster, Wilfrid Laurier and Waterloo Universities, and the University of Toronto Mississauga. Everywhere we went we were given lavish hospitality while fundraising professionals, university leaders and, in some cases, multimillion-dollar donors shared with us stories of past difficulties and present successes. On day one, at McMaster we learned about the motivations of the three main actors, the fundraising professionals, the donors and the academic leaders.

Lorna Somers, vice president of McMaster University Foundation, told us about the transition from her early days at McMaster, in the late 1980s, when academics treated her ‘like someone with advanced leprosy’ and alumni would tell her that universities should look to the government for any money they wanted. Now academics are eager – sometimes too eager – to be involved. McMaster’s annual fundraising target is $21 million and their last campaign raised $470 million in 4 years.

Donors have changed too, as we discovered over lunch, when we met three of McMaster’s most generous donors. All were alumni who had lost touch with the university and had been attracted back, either to study or because they wanted to get involved in the running of the university. For each of them, giving was prompted by the realisation that they had the means to help the university do something exciting and extraordinary. This realisation is not the result of a fevered sales pitch but rather the culmination of a long relationship. Most of McMaster’s top 20 donors started small, with less than $1000 and more than a decade elapsed between their first gift and their major gift.

McMaster was not the only place where we heard how important it is to manage, or steward, relationships with donors. Donors give because they want to make a difference. Once they have given, they need to be told what their gift has achieved. Then they may know that they can achieve more by giving again. Professionals, who take the lead in donor stewardship, involve academic leaders to generate and sustain both the excitement, that may result in a gift, and the satisfaction, that the gift has been put to good use.

Lorna told us that not all academic leaders are good at this. My inference is that we tend to get too hung up on the issue of asking for money, ‘the ask’. Some of us are terrified of the idea, so we treat Lorna and her colleagues like lepers. Others become too eager to ask; they become ‘askaholics’.

Fortunately, Lorna had arranged for John Kelton, Dean of Health Sciences at McMaster, who has raised over $200 million in the last ten years, to talk to us about his relationships with major donors. Significantly, our meeting took place in the ‘floating board room’ which floats in space in the atrium of the Michael G. De Groote School of Medicine, a building funded by a donation of $105 million, the largest single donation to a Canadian University.

John’s account of his work with donors made it clear that listening is at least as important as talking. John listens to donors and remembers what they say. He wants to understand what a prospective donor is interested in, so that he doesn’t waste their time talking to them about projects they will never care about. One of the reasons Lorna likes working with John is that he listens well and is good at crafting a version of what the university wants that will excite a prospective donor: ‘he always has a dream in his pocket’ she says. But he also takes a university-wide perspective and shares prospective donors whose interests are outside his area.

Our day at McMaster ended with a dinner party at Lorna’s house. The house looks ordinary from the outside but it contains the most extraordinary collection of collections of clothes, books, shoes, oil cans, semi-precious stones, fossils, china among others. The list is not endless but it is not short either. I could not possibly do justice to it here but if you Google Lorna you can find a hint of what may be there. And the food was great too!

After our day at McMaster, I felt that there was no more to learn. I was wrong. Although our visits to the other three universities confirmed everything we had learned at McMaster, in each of them we learned something distinctive and new.

Max Blouw, President of Wilfrid Laurier University,  talked to us about the fact that a successful campaign must be rooted in reality. One of the first tasks he had set himself as President was to lead the university to develop a story about itself based on the facts of the present rather than the myths of the past. As a result the Wilfrid Laurier mission ‘Inspiring Lives of Leadership and Purpose’ contains a strong component of business excellence which adds distinctiveness to the slightly bland image that had been based on their origins as Waterloo Lutheran University. A significant component of their current campaign is a $103 million ‘Global Innovation Exchange’ building, which will house their School of Business and Economics and their School of Mathematics.

Waterloo University, just next door to Wilfrid Laurier, has a story of themselves as producers of scientific and technological innovations that fuel a local high-technology economy. They encourage their staff, their students and their alumni to generate wealth, substantial chunks of which get fed back as donations. Waterloo alumnus and inventor of the BlackBerry, Mike Lazaridis, has given hundreds of millions to support research to develop technologies of the future – Nanoscience and Quantum Computing. A Waterloo student donated the million dollars profit he made from selling his first business. Despite these successes, only a small fraction of the alumni who could make substantial donations do so. Many alumni are out of reach; they are disconnected from the university. Jason Coolman, Director of Alumni Affairs, told us about his research on how to use ‘elite’ alumni to engage these disconnected alumni and gradually get them engaged.

UT Mississauga’s President, Deep Saini, has had his car licence plate changed to ‘Boundless’ – truncated by the 8 letter limitation. Colleagues call it the ‘boundlesmobile’.

On our last day, at University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), Gillian Morrison, Assistant Vice-President, Divisional Relations and Campaigns, from the University’s central Campaigns office, talked us through the stages in developing UT’s extraordinary $2 billion ‘Boundless’ campaign. The biggest in Canadian university history, the campaign is completely coherent with the academic mission, and, as illustrated by UT Mississauga President Deep Saini’s car (see left), has the complete commitment of academic leaders. This shows that smaller universities can have no excuse for lack of coherence in their campaigns.

As my euphoria begins to clear, the serious question I think we should consider is this. Could we emulate what the Canadians have done? The more I think about it the more that I think that we could. Moreover, if we learn from their mistakes rather than repeating them, we could do it faster. I think that an average sized, middle-ranking UK university should be able to get to a point where they are raising £5-£10 million per year from philanthropy within 5-10 years.

Postscript: I’d like to record the immense gratitude of all the tour delegates to Joanna Motion and   Emma Darwin.  Joanna was our guide; she prepared us for each of the very different visits, checking with each of us what we wanted to discover and making sure  that we had the opportunity to discover it. Emma arranged everything, effortlessly resolving the minor crises and making sure that lost delegates and lost suitcases all returned to the fold.
A shorter version of this post is available at The Guardian
May 092012

I am going to write in praise of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the successor to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which currently determines the distribution of university research funding grants in the UK. I am going to argue that the RAE is good value and good at what it does. I will speculate that its replacement, the Research Excellence Framework will likely be even better.

The main points I want to make are:-

  • The RAE is an extremely efficient way of giving out a large sum of money to support university research in the UK.
  • The RAE appears to be much cheaper than obvious alternatives.
  • The RAE is highly discriminatory but is generally perceived as fair.
  • The bad consequences of the RAE are not inevitable: they are usually consequences of decisions by institutions.

Before I try to develop these arguments I feel an urge, or possibly a duty, to explain how I come to be making them, not least because I have always been openly sceptical about the value and robustness of the RAE and more aware of bad consequences than good.

It all started a couple of months ago when I decided that I fancied writing a blog. Since then I have been avidly following some of the wonderful HE blogs out there and wondering what on earth I could write that would match the quality of what I was reading. I particularly commend the blogs by Dorothy Bishop and Athene Donald, which are both interesting and provocative – in the best sense.  If you are interested in looking at HE blogs you will find a good list of them on Phil  Ward’s blogroll.

Both Athene and Dorothy have made me think and have given me ideas for what I would like to write about in the future. It is to Dorothy that I owe my interest in today’s subject. Let me reiterate that I think Dorothy’s blog is terrific because I am going to disagree with almost everything that she said about the REF in a post in March, in which she described the REF as ‘a monster that sucks time and money from academic institutions’.

My first thought on reading Dorothy’s post was that I should perhaps see if the REF can be defended on the basis of available data on what it gives to Universities and what it costs them. Before I do that, I should declare an interest: my own career has benefited significantly from the invigoration of the UK academic job market caused by the RAE. Without the RAE I would probably still be a lecturer in Physiology in Newcastle. I can’t prove that my mobility is a consequence of the RAE but I can’t remember a job interview in which my likely contribution to the RAE hasn’t figured.

According to data in the public domain, the RAE is an extremely efficient way of giving out a large sum of money to support university research in the UK. The 2008 RAE exercise cost the Higher Education funding Council for England (HEFCE) about £12 million to run. The indirect costs to Universities were estimated at £47 million, according to  a report commissioned by HEFCE.

£60 million sounds like a lot of money but it goes a long way: over the RAE cycle about £10 billion will be allocated to universities using the 2008 RAE results. So the review costs about 0.6% of the funds given out. This is about a tenth of the proportional cost of research council peer review, which was estimated as  about £196 million per year, split about 95:5 between universities and the research councils, to allocate an annual spend of around £3 billion. Not only is research grant peer-review more expensive but a bigger proportion of the cost is borne by the universities. In comparison the RAE looks more like a midget that pumps money into universities and less like a monster that sucks money out.

I don’t want to get hung up on the cost of these processes, because they are not exactly comparable and anyway, the quality of the decision making is extremely important. We don’t have direct measures of the quality of either the RAE scoring process or of Research Council peer review but both processes seem to have earned a high degree of trust.

Trust in the assessment process is crucially important because the RAE delivers very uneven outcomes.

The graph here shows data from the HEFCE website: the distribution of HEFCE Research grant to institutions in England in 2012, based on the outcome of the 2008 RAE. Each datapoint represents the grant to an institution. I have ranked the grants by size and plotted them cumulatively to show how the total grant 0f £1.56 billion is divided between institutions. The increase in the slope of the graph from left to right shows how unequal is the distribution of funds. At the left, the slope is zero because the bottom few institutions get nothing. Yes, nothing. At the right, the increasing separation between the institutions is measured in tens of millions of pounds. The top institution, Oxford University, gets over £130 million, about 8% of the total. The top 12 institutions share half of all the money.

This very unequal distribution is widely accepted as fair because it is based on a robust evaluation process, one that places most weight on the quality of the research outputs, and one that is carried out by nominated representatives of the research communities that are being judged. The money is seen to go to the institutions that deserve it. Any radical simplification of the evaluation process, such as putting it to a vote, rather than basing it on measures of the quality of the research outputs, would risk breaking that trust.

Restricting research grants to a limited number of ‘research intensive’ universities, as has been proposed from time to time would also be counterproductive. It is an important feature of the current system that excellent performance can be recognised and rewarded, wherever it occurs. And importantly, in every RAE the process throws up surprises. Departments in weak institutions achieve excellent results. Formerly excellent departments in which everybody smart has left town, or stopped producing are uncovered. All this contributes to the sense that the process is fair. And the cost of inclusiveness is not high. The 65 institutions in the lower half of the distribution share less than 5% of the money. But they get the money that they earn.

A new feature of the REF is that 20% of the evaluation score will be based on a measure of the social or economic value of research, referred to as impact. This has led to widespread concern about the appropriateness and practicality of such measures, although many, including me, think that they will be very helpful in justifying the spending of public funds on university research.

Dorothy complains that the introduction of impact into the REF has also led to time-consuming meetings in Oxford and to the creation of jobs at University College London for people who will do nothing but help prepare the associated impact statements. I agree that these are diversions of time and money from the mainstream activities of the Universities but change always has a cost and the resources ‘wasted’ in this way are small in relation to the hundreds of millions of pounds that will be brought into each of these institutions by the REF.  And, of course, these wasteful activities are undertaken freely by the institutions concerned. They are not required by the REF. I think that there are both beneficial and damaging responses to the RAE and the REF that I would like to discuss in future blogs.

To finish on a positive note, I think that the long term effect of including impact as part of the routine assessment of research will be immensely positive. I think it will reinforce the view – inside and outside our universities – that we work for the good of society. In short, I think the REF will be a good thing.