Things just got even better

By Stephen Elsby, Director of RCUK US

This is a good news story. It begins with a fundamental challenge for research funders and ends with a significant new opportunity for UK and US researchers.

Let’s start with the vital role that government funding plays in supporting high quality research. Investment through the UK research councils has undoubtedly helped support a world leading university capability. This capability, through training future generations, asking difficult questions and generating new ideas and concepts; is a key part of ensuring our future health, wealth and wellbeing.

Now collaboration is often a way to deliver the highest quality research and research itself doesn’t necessarily respect international barriers. The best collaborators may be based in different countries. Apart from these “best with best” collaborations enriching research outputs and capabilities, it’s recognised that collaboration is the only way to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

This is where the challenge comes in and it starts with a confession. I work for a geographically limited national research funder (most of us funders are). I, quite rightly, must justify the way I use the taxpayers’ money and this can limit the scope for funding of projects that involve researchers from multiple countries. Recognising a challenge is the first step to dealing with it, and I can assure you that I am not the only one to consider this (we even get together occasionally to offer each other support).

University researchers often try to address international collaboration by splitting up larger research projects along geographic lines so they can be submitted to different funders. Sometimes this works well; at other times it does not. At worst, this can lead to disjointed parts of a potentially exciting whole project, reduced chances of funding and in general a disincentive to discuss collaborative proposals.

National funders can approach this by issuing joint calls for proposals. This places the emphasis on funders rather than scientists deciding which kinds of research would be best done collaboratively (though in reality these decisions are usually made through a consultative process). It may also require dedicated mechanisms and thus more bureaucracy. However this approach does work well as demonstrated by the increasingly large number of internationally collaborative opportunities.

So it is good after all? For some it’s about to get better.

UK and US research funders (RCUK and NSF) have just entered into an agreement to trial a new approach. The agreement is currently limited to social science research, but may be expanded. We believe it is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Here is how it works:

  • British and American researchers put together a truly joint proposal.
  • They send the proposal to either the US or the UK funding body, depending on where the majority of the research will be carried out.
  • That agency peer reviews the proposal, with input from the other funder, on the same basis and in competition with other domestic proposals.
  • Under the terms of the agreement, if the proposal is approved, the other funding body will also fund research taking place within its own country.
  • Thus only one approval is needed for a project to go ahead, but it will be jointly funded.

It’s a deceptively simple approach that requires trust and understanding of each other’s funding processes, objectives and researcher capabilities. It’s built on an extensive history of collaboration and continued evidence of impact, and is a real game changer for our communities. Beyond the projects it directly funds, it incentivises our communities to explore opportunities and discuss collaborations in areas where they, the experts, see the most benefit from UK/US partnership. Finally, it passes the “value for the tax payer” question by using existing processes (no extra bureaucracy) to facilitate world leading, high impact research.

Does it solve everything? No, but along with engagement through other approaches (e.g. previously mentioned joint calls) it does show a continued focus by national funders to respond to the opportunities presented by an increasingly international research community.

It’s nice to make international collaboration is a little less of a challenge.

New report benchmarks European collaboration and mobility against US

By Professor Paul Boyle, President, Science Europe, International Champion, Research Councils UK. Chief Executive, Economic and Social Research Council.

Today sees the launch of a new report comparing researcher collaboration and mobility within Europe and the United States. The analysis is produced by Elsevier, at the request of Science Europe, and provides a valuable benchmarking exercise. It is well-recognised that the global nature of research is growing rapidly and this, combined with the European Commission’s drive to increase collaboration across the European Research Area (ERA), makes it timely to compare how researchers collaborate and move about within these two global ‘regions’. The report is available at on the Science Europe website.

This study provides much needed evidence on researcher collaboration and mobility. The ERA needs to be built on trust and robust systems which support research funders, performers and administrators to create a space for great research to happen.  This flexible and innovative system needs time to evolve and we recognise that there is still more work to be done, but progress is steady.

In this report, Elsevier looks at the 41 countries in Europe which directly contributed to Framework Programme 7 (the 27 Member States plus 14 Associated Countries) as well as all 50 US states. The researcher populations are broadly similar at approximately 1.64 million for Europe and 1.47 million for the US. For the purposes of the study, which uses data up to 2011, a European country is treated as similar to a US state; a somewhat blunt comparison but the first of its kind and one which provides some useful insights into the process of researcher collaboration and mobility.

Much of the report corroborates widely accepted views, but there are some findings which provide good evidence for Europe’s success – past, present and future – as a research leader. For example in 2011, Europe produced 33.4% of the world’s research outputs, while the US accounted for 23.4% and this gap is growing. The 13% of papers involving collaborators in more than one European country was quite similar to the 16% of papers involving collaborators in more than one US state, and inter-country collaboration in Europe is growing (2003-2011) while inter-state collaboration over the same period in the US fell slightly. It would appear that national and pan-European collaboration mechanisms are working. However, US researchers are more likely to collaborate with researchers outside their own region (30%) compared to European researchers (23%).

There are also some interesting findings relating to mobility, showing that while US researchers are more likely to relocate between states than European researchers are between countries, the impact of this mobility is strikingly different between regions. For example European countries with the highest citation impact, such as Switzerland, tend to show lower percentages of ‘sedentary’ researchers while the US states with the highest citation impact, such as California and Massachusetts, tend to show higher percentages of ‘sedentary’ researchers.

Up, up and away…!

By Shalini Singh, Administrative Officer at RCUK India

About to board the plane, with FAAM, NERC and Indian Scientists

About to board the plane, with FAAM, NERC and Indian Scientists

I boarded the plane on 26th June knowing that the highpoint of my trip to the UK would be to view Great Britain from greater heights; bigger and better than the London Eye could offer. It was a chance to venture out aboard the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Research Aircraft. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed to see an aircraft of this type, up close and personal for the first time. I was accompanying four Indian scientists, two colleagues from NERC and colleagues from the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM).

This visit by the Indian delegation was in follow-up to the UK-India Monsoon workshop held in February 2013, where India expressed an interest to see the UK Research Aircraft and the Data Management Centres. The focus was primarily on acquainting the Indian scientists with the practices of climate monitoring and data management developed and pursued by the UK scientists. Four scientists were shortlisted by India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) to visit the UK facilities. I, along with our office Director, Dr Nafees Meah, lead on NERC projects and assignments, so I had the opportunity to accompany the Indian delegates to the UK for this week-long visit. The aim of this meeting was to share best practice among the UK-Indian participants and have discussions that would assist in shaping and sustaining present and future collaborations.

1000 feet above the English Channel

1000 feet above the English Channel

Launching cloud probes

Launching cloud probes

The second and third days were spent at FAAM, and we were warmly welcomed by the Head of FAAM Guy Gratton and his team. FAAM is collaboration between the Met Office and NERC, managed through the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS). After a morning of presentations, we were taken to see the the aircraft. It was a real deal, seeing the colossus aircraft, glimpses of which I had only previously seen in pictures. It was fascinating and a great learning experience for me.

We had our flight planning and briefing before the actual take-off. Soon after a round of customary photos, outside and inside the plane, we flew from Cranfield at around 12.30pm with all the Star Trek kind of scientific equipment on board. The enthralling bit was when they let out the cloud probes for readings. It was a two-and-a-half hour flight and the plane was brought down to 1,000 ft above the English Channel, which was simply breath-taking. Then there was a chance to take that extraordinary view out of the cockpit and catch up with the pilots.

Super excited to be on a Research Plane!!!!

Super excited to be on a Research Plane!!!!

Two days were then devoted to NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) in Wallingford and the British Atmospheric Data Centre (BADC) in Didcot. CEH organised a visit to the Maharaja’s Well for us after the meetings. The Indian scientists found the visit to the data centres very useful and said they were impressed by how the UK data is managed. The most thrilling part of that day was the video wall (formed by 28 panels arranged in a 7 x 4 matrix) at the Visualisation Facilities.

Supporting research data management costs through grant funding

By Ben Ryan, Senior Manager, Research Outcomes, EPSRC

Making research data available to our stakeholders is very important to the Research Councils and, to ensure we have a consistent approach, there is a set of common principles, published by RCUK, which provides an overarching framework for individual Research Councils’ policies on data policy.

One of these principles states that it is “appropriate to use public funds to support the management and sharing of publicly-funded research data”. Research organisations are responsible for making sure there are enough resources allocated to research data management, for example from quality-related research funding or from research grants.

To help clarify how research grant funding can be used to help cover the costs involved, the JISC Research Data Managers Forum, with the Digital Curation Centre, organised a meeting in April this year, with representatives from the Research Councils and the Wellcome Trust. RCUK have published responses to questions raised at the event.

In practice, this reiterates existing guidance on how research grants may be spent – all costs associated with research data management are eligible expenditure of research grant funds, but there are couple of ‘lines in the sand’ that are emphasised, and are worth repeating here:

  • no expenditure can be ‘double funded’ (a service that is centrally supported by the indirect costs paid on all research grants cannot then also be included as a direct cost on a grant)
  • all directly incurred expenditure of a grant must incurred before the end date of the grant. 

RCUK hopes the written responses will dispel any misconceptions and provide reassurance that research grant funding from the Research Councils may be used to help with any aspect of the cost of research data management.

The early bird catches the worm: engage now with EU Structural and Investment funding

By Professor Dave Delpy, Chief Executive of EPSRC and RCUK Impact Champion

 From 2014, EU Structural and Investment (S&I) funding will, for the first time, be available for investment in research and innovation across the whole of the UK.

Everyone is familiar with the ‘EC Structural Funds’ but many people may not be aware that from 2014, EU Structural and Investment (S&I) funding, which is what they are known by in the UK, will for the first time be available for investment in research and innovation across the whole of the UK. With a total pot of €9.6 billion available for the period 2014-2020, as RCUK we’re keen to encourage universities and research institutes to engage proactively with this funding stream.

For this reason RCUK, in partnership with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and Universities UK, has written to all UK higher education institutions to highlight the opportunity to make use of existing higher education, research and innovation investments to leverage EU S&I funding.

While RCUK has a pan-UK remit, it’s important to note that the EU S&I funding for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be separately managed. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, institutions will engage through the respective local managing authorities (Scottish Enterprise, Welsh Assembly Government and DEL/DETI). In England the situation is far more complicated as institutions will have to engage with their Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to tap into this funding.

The funding will be focused on four national priorities:

  • innovation R&D
  • low carbon
  • SMEs
  • skills and economic inclusion. 

While there are clearly many opportunities to access this valuable source of funding within the ‘innovation R&D’ priority, those interested would do well to consider the remaining three, which may well bear fruit under closer inspection.

Currently, the three devolved nations are each producing Smart Specialisation Strategies which will set out their high-level plans for spending their allocation of EU S&I funding. In England, LEPs will be responsible for designing and delivering local strategies on how best to use this funding, meaning that early engagement with your local LEP now is vital in shaping how the funding will be directed. Each LEP has received a notional allocation from the funds, which must be spent in line with the four national priorities. More information on the background of these funds and how they will be administered for 2014-20 in England can be found in the preliminary guidance that has been issued to LEPs. Final guidance is currently expected shortly.

Although at an operational level, the responsibility to engage with LEPs lies with universities and institutes, RCUK is working closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Technology Strategy Board, HEFCE and Universities UK on a high-level strategic approach to understand how to add value to UK investments by the appropriate use of EU S&I funding. We want to minimise the administrative burden to participants and ensure that where funds are used, the anticipated outcomes are aligned with national funders’ strategies, and do not impose unrealisable reporting requirements.

We know that universities, higher education colleges and public sector research establishments are all playing an important role in the Government’s economic growth agenda, but we want to explore how we might do even more. This is why we have asked institutions to share any feedback on the new arrangements. We would be interested specifically in hearing about any barriers you perceive that prevent the UK gaining full benefit from the availability of EU S&I funding. We’d like to know about how the new arrangements in England working with LEPs can be made to work effectively, but also broader UK comment on research and innovation alignment. Any ideas you may have concerning how best to address those barriers would also be welcome.

Feedback on the new arrangements for EU S&I funding can be sent to RCUK, UUK and HEFCE via by 14 July 2013.

With an ambition for 40 per cent of the funding to be spent on R&D, this is an exciting opportunity to access this newly expanded stream of funding. And in this instance, it looks like it really will be the early bird that catches the worm.

Centre for Ecology and Hydrology visit India

By Dr Nafees Meah, Director RCUK India.

I joined Professor Mark Bailey, the Director of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), and Professor Alan Jenkins, the Deputy Director, on their recent travels around India.  They had taken five days out of their very busy schedules to come to India. CEH is a NERC Centre of Excellence and also a world leading centre for integrated research into ecosystems and biodiversity.  It works in partnership with the research community, policy makers, industry and society to deliver solutions to the most complex environmental challenges facing the world.   The reason why both Mark and Alan came was to raise the profile of CEH in India and to seek to establish institutional partnerships with high quality research institutes in India in the fields of hydrology and water resource management, ecosystem services and landscape ecology.  The RCUK India team was, therefore, very pleased to organise a pretty intensive itinerary for the two Professors which took in policy makers and researchers in Delhi, Bangalore and Roorkee.  It seemed like planes, trains and automobiles all over again.

There was considerable interest shown at the National Institute of Hydrology (NIH) at Roorkee in working in partnership with CEH.  Indeed, it was more of a case of re-establishing a relationship that had been very strong at one time as the Institute had been modelled (when it was founded in 1978) on the UK’s national hydrology centre before it amalgamated with the ecologists to form CEH in the recent past.  Indeed Dr S K Jain from NIH explained some of the fascinating history of the Roorkee site (which is also home to an Indian Institute of Technology or IIT) and the role that the British played in channelling the Ganges through huge engineering projects to provide water for irrigation for the whole region.  An engineering college had been established in the 1850s to provide trained personnel to help build the water management and irrigation systems.

Water resources, or more precisely, water scarcity, remains a big problem in India and has rightly been identified as one of the two absolutely critical issues that have to be addressed in the Twelfth Five Year Plan (the other being energy).  CEH has world leading expertise in the understanding of river flows, the basic science for understanding floods and droughts and the likely impact of climate change on fresh water systems.  As a result, there was much discussion of potential areas of collaboration between the two institutes.  It was agreed that further meetings and exchanges would be very useful to prioritise the areas of potential collaboration.

In Bangalore, there was a series of meetings with researchers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and at the Ashoka Trust for Research into Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).   An issue identified through discussion was the possibility of developing partnership between the UK and India on an integrated soils research programme to better understand the changes that are happening through intensification of agriculture, deforestation, impact of water scarcity,  increasing salinity of groundwater and, of course, climate change on soil structure, microbiology and quality.   A much better understanding of soils and what is happening to soil quality is needed if India is to deliver on its food security goals in the future as its population and, therefore, demand for foodstuffs increases.   In a discussion with Professor Vinod Gaur, it was proposed that a fruitful next step would be to organise a joint India-UK workshop on the topic with a view to establishing a Joint Indo-UK Centre.   As well as soils, another area of potential collaboration was in developing the hydrological modelling aspect in a system called JULES which is used by the UK’s Met Office in its Earth System climate models to take into account land surface and atmosphere interactions.  India currently uses the Met Office climate models as well as US climate models for its weather and climate predictions.

Both Mark and Alan were keen to stress that theirs was very much an exploratory visit to see whether there was an opportunity for CEH working more closely in partnership with Indian researchers and institutes.  There is no doubt now that this will be the first of many exchanges between CEH scientists and their Indian counterparts.

Professor Alan Jenkins (left), Dr S K Jain (centre) and Professor Mark Bailey (right) at the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee.

Professor Alan Jenkins (left), Dr S K Jain (centre) and Professor Mark Bailey (right) at the
National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee.


Doctoral graduates from 2003-2006 – please complete our survey!

There are developments to report on the Doctoral Impact and Career Tracking study. The questionnaire has been developed and has been piloted with the aid of some very helpful doctoral graduates. We asked about their current employment and whether they think that doing a PhD seven years ago mattered for the job they have now and has made a difference to what they have been adding to our knowledge, economy and society.

We have today launched the main survey following completion of the pilot, and this is open until 31st May.

Previously we asked Doctoral graduates what they were doing about three years on from completing their studies. This was published by Vitae in the “What Do Researchers Do?” series ( The publication provides analysis of the Longitudinal survey of the Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education or L DLHE and provides some interesting evidence about the experience of doctoral study, the jobs and impact of doctoral graduates. This is all analysed by job clusters and broad disciplinary grouping.

Of course three years is rarely the whole story in a career and the new study is to ask about careers and impact further on. This presents its own challenges as people move, change jobs and (if they marry) may change names. Reaching enough people for the results of the survey to be robust remains a key challenge. If you, or someone you know finished a doctorate between 2003 and 2006, do please take part in the survey. Please pass this link to anyone else if relevant.

RCUK are not the only ones interested in what doctoral graduates have to say.  The Higher Education Funding Councils for England and Wales are partners in this study and we have jointly commissioned the research consultancy CFE to undertake it. CFE and their associates from The University of Sheffield and Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) bring not only the technical know-how and resources for managing and conducting the survey, but also expertise in developing questions that will show the impact that doctoral graduates have.

The importance of the project also means that we have a steering group including economics, labour market and survey expertise from government and academe as well as several of my colleagues from the Research Councils. This dedicated group have helped to design the questionnaire and are keenly awaiting the results.

Gateway to Research Hack Day event outputs

Over thirty technically minded people gathered together on the 14th &15th March 2013 at The Lakeside Centre at Aston University for the Hack Day hosted jointly by the Gateway to Research (GtR) project & United Kingdom Office for Library and Information Networking (UKOLN).

The event was helped along by the Developer Community Supporting Innovation (DevCSI) project. Their considerable expertise in running Hack events and engaging developers was a huge help in guiding the GtR team and developers over the two days.

The Hack opened by GtR Project Manager, Dr Darren Hunter, who gave a summary of the GtR project as a joint initiative between Research Councils UK to deliver a web based Portal to provide a single public point of access for searching and analysing information for Research Council funded research projects including their outcomes and outputs.

A key aim of the project was, as he explained, to facilitate improving the links between the research base within institutions and small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

The Hack itself had been set up to give the group chance to test the two APIs (CERIF and bespoke) that the GtR team had developed and also build prototype applications to show how they might be used in practice.

Darren, Paul Chitson (GtR Technical Co-ordinator), Rhys David (GtR Technical Architect) and Scott Paisey (GtR Developer) all got actively involved throughout the event.

The GtR team were keen to get feedback from all those involved with the Hack so they could find out how the APIs performed. At the end of the two days they were really encouraged by the amount that was achieved in such a short time and took away a number of actions that reinforced GtR user stories and added focus to some areas of the project.

This first hack event was primarily to provide early feedback and was kept necessarily small.  The team learnt a lot from all who were present and the organisers.  The excitement and interest have reinforced our commitment to run further hack events and challenges involving a wider audience.

In closing the event the GtR team stressed that they didn’t want to lose the momentum built up throughout the intensive two days and established a Google Group (!forum/gtrHackday) to keep developers informed about future build and to foster a community around the APIs. Watch this space for further details about the upcoming autumn Hack Day….

Check out this link for more detail about the day including videos.

UK- India research and innovation collaboration gets big fillip from PM summit

(Photo courtesy: UK Prime Minister David Cameron and India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

By Dr Nafees Meah, Director RCUK India.

This has been a truly tremendous week for the Indo-UK research partnership.  UK Prime Minister David Cameron came to India on 18th February with the largest business and academic delegation ever to accompany a British Prime Minister.  That’s not counting four Ministers and a cross-party group of British Parliamentarians who also accompanied him.

Eleven UK University Vice Chancellors came not only to talk about the UK offer in Higher Education but also to launch a whole series of institution-to-institution partnerships cementing further the research links between the UK and India.  Universities of Edinburgh, Cambridge, Warwick and Cardiff all had major announcements to make on new partnerships.

The icing on the cake for the RCUK India team, however, was the extensive reference to the joint research programmes that we have set up with our Indian partners over the last four years, in the Summit Communiqué.   This states that [PMs Cameron and Singh] welcomed the rapid expansion of India-UK research and development cooperation which is helping to generate and develop high quality and high impact research partnerships leading to new knowledge creation.   Since RCUK India opened in 2008, the value of the co-funded research partnership has gone from less than £1 million to over £100 million and is still rising.  This is a reflection of both the strength of the UK and Indian research bases but also that crucial, global issues are being addressed through ground breaking research – renewable and other forms of energy, food security, climate change, water management, advanced engineering  – are key to the future prosperity of both countries.  Research collaboration is seen by both countries as a lynchpin, bringing us closer together.

It’s not only in the areas of physical sciences that we have established a very successful partnership, but also in the area of social sciences, arts and the humanities. India with its population of 1.2 billion undergoing rapid transition from a rural to a more urbanized society is going to be a fascinating place to study to learn about how and why these transitions happen and the cultural dimension of this rapid change.

We highlighted a series of new and ongoing programmes and initiatives; more information is available in our press note here.

There was an excellent meeting between our Science Minister, David Willets, and his Indian counterpart, Shri S Jaipal Reddy at which both said how much they welcomed the intensification of the relationship on research between the two countries.  David Willets highlighted eight technology areas of interest to the UK for international collaboration.  These were: the big data revolution and energy efficient computing; satellite technology; robotics and autonomous vehicles; synthetic biology; regenerative medicine; agri-science; advanced materials and nanotechnology; and energy storage.

It looks like we are going to be very busy…