Archive for the ‘Research funding’ Category

Back to Kazakhstan – a British Council Institutional Links project workshop

August 24, 2016

One of the other things that’s been keeping me busy recently – I mentioned being busy with the BSc degree I’ve been developing in my last post – is my British Council Institutional Links project. (I guess I’m trying to make excuses for not blogging much recently!)

The project research team looking pretty cool over in Kazakhstan in August 2016.

The project research team looking pretty cool over in Kazakhstan in August 2016.

I’ve recently come back from a project research meeting and it’s been a real learning experience. Not only is the project cross-disciplinary (we’ve got environmental scientists, computer scientists, epidemiologists, toxicologists and social scientists involved) but we’re also working across nations.

One of the big challenges so far has been data. I’m quite used to be able to get hold of lots of different types of data from the UK and, if it’s not available, being able to get out there and collect new data. This has, for various reasons, been a little more challenging in Kazakhstan.

I’m pretty sure that we’re still going to get some good results (watch this space!) but it’s been harder work than I thought it would be.

Thinking more broadly (and I’ve not mentioned Brexit on the blog so far) I wonder if this has implications for a shift away from EU funding/collaborations, which might occur post-Brexit, and towards work in developing nations, assuming that the Global Challenges Research Fund expands and takes off. Whilst there is probably more scope for impact in developing nations, that work might be more difficult because the research infrastructure (including data archiving) is not so well developed.

British Council Institutional Links project – Environmental Health in Kazakhstan

April 9, 2015

BritishCouncilI recently found out that I’d been successful with Newton-Al Farabi Institutional Links grant. Go me!

It should be really interesting and will involve a lot of collaboration with a couple of universities out in Kazakhstan. I’ll also be working with a larger team here at Brunel than I normally would. I’m sure there’ll be more posts here once the project is up and running properly.

In the meantime, here’s a little summary from the Brunel press release for the grant award:

A team of academics from Brunel University London have been given a prestigious award to help reduce health risks and environmental damage in Kazakhstan.

The cross-disciplinary group received the £157,000 grant from the British Council’s Newton Institutional Links programme, with the aim of developing evidence-based recommendations for policy-makers in the central Asian country.

The two-year project, titled “A multi-dimensional environment-health risk analysis system for Kazakhstan”, will begin in April 2015. The research will bring together two universities in Kazakhstan (Kokshetau State University and Pavlodar State University) with Brunel staff from the College of Health and Life Sciences, College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences and College of Engineering, Design and Physical Sciences.

Project lead Dr Andrew Russell, from the Institute for Environment, Health and Societies, said: “Kazakhstan is a really interesting place from an environment and health perspective.

“GDP is quite high, mostly due to natural resources, but health levels are generally quite poor. Environmental degradation plays a large role in this ‘health lag’ as there have been many years of lax environmental control going all the way back to Soviet era nuclear tests.”

The project will employ “Big Data” techniques and scientific knowledge will be applied to health and environment data to identify important relationships. This will enable the development of efficient and robustly tested solutions.


Excellence all round!

September 29, 2012

Some sort of measure of relative “excellence” (top 0.1% in terms of citations) amongst a group of leading research nations.

I guess everyone would like to be excellent but that’s not possible unless everyone was average. But that would be pretty boring, right?

Anyway, we had an EPSRC person visit Brunel last week and they gave a talk on the EPSRC strategy. The main thing I remember is that they’re very interested in “excellence” and, if I recall correctly, they’d like to focus more of their funding on the excellent people.

And it turns out that we’re quite good at being excellent in the UK – if you have a look at the plot to the right, which featured in the talk, then you’ll see that we’re second only to the USA in terms of share of the top 0.1% of papers ranked in terms of citations. (As an example, the department I work in is doing pretty well in terms of citations in environment sciences.)

Well, good for us!

But it got me thinking. How did the excellent people become excellent? I would guess that it comes from giving quite a few people the opportunity to prove themselves, which probably requires some funding, and the excellent (or the lucky, right place, right time) people rise to the top. I’m not suggesting that mediocre ideas should be funded just that focussing funding on the already excellent end might be a bit short-sighted.

Ideally, what I would like to see is that scientific proposals were double blind reviewed (where authors and referees are anonymous) for scientific excellence so that excellent ideas can be identified without bias towards people who’d previously done excellent work. Obviously track record should also be considered but I see no reason why this can’t be done separately from the the assessment of excellence.

That sounds like an excellent system to me!

Do scientific projects get funded because the authors make some spurious link with climate change?

October 29, 2010

I was having a discussion in the comments on this blog recently about science funding. Amongst other things, a theory cropped up that to get funded research proposals must include some link, however desperate, with climate change. I thought it was quite an interesting point so thought I’d discuss it a bit more here.

I think this idea came about because there are quite often media stories about climate change that involve quirky results. For example, a colleague of mine recently got covered in the FT about changes in the Caspian Sea and caviar prices. Of course, the project had nothing to do with caviar – that was just the way the journalist spun it to get people reading.

My (albeit limited) experience of writing project proposals is that successful ones need to be focused on a specific point with achievable but significant goals. A quick ramble that its related to climate change wont get you funded. If anything it’ll annoy the reviewers and you’ll get thrown straight on the reject pile (as happens to more than 80% of proposals anyway).

Ok, so the proportion of funds that go to the different research councils and the priority areas within those council’s remit does determine the overall proportion of the fields get funded and climate research has done quite well. But within this regime, proposals are still judged on the quality of the science, not how well they follow the party line.

All the same, if you fancy playing climate change buzzword bingo, there’s a website here where you can search through all the grants that the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) award with little descriptions of the project. Happy hunting!

The beginning of the end of climategate?

April 3, 2010

The UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (S&TC) published their report on “The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia” last week. This follows their oral evidence session and requests for written evidence concerning this matter.

What did they find?

The key conclusions from the report were:

“The focus on Professor Jones and CRU has been largely misplaced.”

“We have suggested that the community consider becoming more transparent by publishing raw data and detailed methodologies.”


“Within our limited inquiry and the evidence we took, the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact.” *

I am very happy with the first and third points here. The excellent work of Phil Jones has been instrumental in bringing attention to climate change and its great that this inquiry has acknowledged that.

Data policy

As for the second point above, I have no problem with this as long as any rules imposed are carefully considered and not “knee jerk” measures designed just to show that something has been done.

Indeed, James Annan has pointed out on his blog that this criticism of “standard practice” regarding data policy must surely be aimed at the Research Councils and not individual scientists or universities. Chris Rowan neatly tweeted that this stance boils down to the “Government condemning government-funded scientists for following government IP policy”. Hmm.

It is also worth considering this point from the S&TC report:

“Even if the data that CRU used were not publicly available—which they mostly are—or the methods not published—which they have been—its published results would still be credible: the results from CRU agree with those drawn from other international data sets; in other words, the analyses have been repeated and the conclusions have been verified.”

This seems to be saying that, whilst desireable, even ideal data sharing rules are not fundamental in verifying CRU’s work.

(To clarify my own position, I’ve never said that I don’t think that data should be shared. However, I did think that it was unfair to criticise CRU for not following ideal data sharing standards that never existed. It seems that the S&TC largely agree with this. Rather, the S&TC criticise UEA for not supporting and advising researchers appropriately.)


The S&TC came to these conclusions despite receiving a rather skewed view of climate research from their evidence.

For example, there was the flawed IoP evidence submission and there were a high number of submissions from prominent “skeptics” (e.g. McKitrick, McIntyre, Global Warming Policy Foundation).

This input, though, does not seem to have shaped the findings of the report in any significant way, other than some of these people being the source of many of the Freedom of Information requests that CRU received and dealt with poorly.

Looking at the minutes of the report, it seems that Graham Stringer MP attempted to amend some elements of the document to bring it more in line with the “skeptical” evidence. He was unsuccessful. However, as Deep Climate points out, even his proposed amendments would not have changed the conclusions much.

Why did this situation arise in this inquiry? Some of the comment on a recent post from Stoat suggests that those working in climate science should be more active in contributing to these inquiries, which sounds like a good idea to me.

Where next?

Of course, this is only the first of three inquiries to investigate this episode with the other two being the Muir Russell headed Independent Climate Change Email Review and the Scientific Appraisal Panel, which includes some very big names.

Hopefully, though, this report heralds the beginning of the end of “climategate”.

* Graham Stringer MP voted against the inclusion of this point.

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Make science an issue

January 14, 2010

The Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CaSE) last night hosted a debate between the science spokesmen of the three main parties: Lord Drayson (Lab), Adam Afriyie MP (Con) and Dr Evan Harris MP (LibDem).  Firstly, what a great development this is for science policy in this election year – science and engineering have a massive impact in the UK and any effort to “Make science an issue” has to be applauded.  The debate can still be viewed here.

Ok, what about the debate?  Well, the opening statements from Drayson and Afriyie did not fill me with confidence.  Afriyie wants to “get Britain working again” – to me, this sounded like he thinks science in this country is broken.  He probably didn’t mean that and was just mindlessly spouting a party slogan but it’s not how I would have kicked off if I was in his position.  Drayson started off by saying that there “have been no cuts” in the science budget.  I’m sure that most people relying on STFC funding (a topic that was brushed under the carpet in this debate) might find that like a kick in the teeth.  In this company, it was not hard for Harris to tower above his opponents on the scientific, as well as general political, issues at hand.

Given the topic of my previous blog post, I was keen to hear the panel’s views on the “Impact” agenda.  However, as seemed to be a problem with the debate format, the question (“What impact do you expect from government funded research?”) was a bit vague and the initial answer from Drayson was very fluffy.  Harris was negative with respect to the Impact Plan, espousing the merits of blue sky research with unknown impact.  Afriyie picked up the ball and gave more of an opinion on the impact debate and mirrored my own (and the research council’s) views that getting scientists to think about impact at the proposal stage is no bad thing but it should not be used to determine funding decisions.  However, when a question on private/public funding of science came up, Afriyie then seemed all for more applied research to close the “innovation gap” between top quality research and industrial output.

Afriyie later well and truly dropped the ball on the subject of Prof. Nutt.  His view seemed to be that ministers should be free to sack any “advisor” they have for any reason at all!  (This also missed the point, made by @SmallCasserole on the Twitter #scidebate feed, that Prof. Nutt was not a personal advisor; he was the head of a statutory body.)  Afriyie’s opinion seemed even more ridiculous as, in response to a previous question on scientific knowledge within the House of Commons, he had described his passion for evidence based policy.  This evidence can, presumably, be cherry picked from whichever advisor suits your opinion.

Libel reform also got a lot of support from all on the panel.  However, given that the question (as well as most of the momentum behind the libel reform campaign) came from Sense About Science, Afriyie’s assertion that he was making the libel reform case “very loudly within the Conservative Party” rang a little hollow after Zac Goldsmith’s pathetic hatchet job of Sense About Science in the Guardian’s CiF.

So, my conclusion from all this is that Drayson was keen to keep his head down; Harris is clearly a massive bonus for parliament even if his chances of becoming the next Science Minister are relatively slim; and that Afriyie veered from good (repaying student loans for graduates going into teaching, compulsory “science lessons” for all Conservative MPs) to catastrophic (Prof. Nutt, David Cameron’s “zeitgeist” being enough to increase donations to medical research charities).  But I am excited about this interaction between science and politics and really hope that this is widespread and continues all the way to the general election this year.