Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Newton Opportunities for 2016

The Newton research fund, the new UK scheme for International research collaborations, is now open for 2016.

Launched 18 months ago, the fund has been such a success that it has recently doubled in size, with £700 million now available for UK researchers, over the next 5 years.

If you know of a researcher based in China, Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey or India then I would strongly recommend taking a look at this scheme. Here are further details of the schemes now open. Please note that the links are tailored for the Sciences and thus focus on the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. However there are equivalent opportunities for the Social Sciences and Humanities through the British Academy and the British Council.

For Researchers coming to the UK
  • Newton Advanced Fellowship (Deadline 2 Mar): For international early career academics, no more than 15 years from their PhD, to partner with a UK academic (the co-I). Eligible countries: China, Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey
  • Newton International Fellowships (Deadline 9 Mar): For International post docs (not more than 7 years from their PhD) to work in the UK, full-time, for 2 years. Applicants from any country can apply but extra Newton funding is available for Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey
  • Newton mobility grants (Deadline 2 Mar): For international researchers (the PI) visiting a UK academic (the co-I) for a single or multiple visits. Eligible countries: South Africa, Turkey, China, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia and Thailand.
  • Newton Research Collaboration Program with RAEng (Deadline 9 Mar). Exchange visits for Engineering researchers between the UK and Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey.
For UK Researchers visiting international partners
For further information please see the main Newton Fund website.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Notes from a BBSRC mock panel

This month, we ran our first BBSRC mock peer review panel, as part of the Grants Factory programme.  Senior Kent academics, who are BBSRC committee regulars, chaired the session and recreated a peer review panel using real-life applications.  The event was a chance for researchers to have their proposals critiqued and for the audience to observe how decisions are made and to tailor their future applications for success.  Here are the key points:

BBSRC panel basics

BBSRC peer review panels take place over 2 days and can assess over 100 funding applications.  The panel is comprised predominantly of academics, with 2-3 industrialists and ~6 administrative staff.

Each grant is represented by two Introducing Members, 1M1 and 1M2.  The IM1 has a very active role to play and will spend 1-5 hours reviewing each of their allotted grants. Panel members are asked which grant they would prefer to introduce beforehand, based on grant title and abstract only, although the final decision rests with the BBSRC. The chair has the unenviable task of reading, in detail, every grant at the panel.

Gaining the support of the IM1 is critical for success. Make sure your title and abstract accurately reflect your research area (i.e. techniques/systems) so that an appropriate IM may be assigned.  The IM's will almost certainly not be an expert in your field so ensure your proposal is accessible to all.


Each grant is scored between 0-7, by the introducing members.  Anything above 3 is "fundable in principle", but in reality you must score 5 or above to have any chance (6-7 are guaranteed).  A score of 5 is defined as:
"Excellent. Work that is of high international standard and meets the majority of the assessment criteria to a very high level and will answer important questions in the field."

With only 20% of applications being successful, competition is extremely tight.  Here are the top 10 essential tips from the our BBSRC panelists to help you write a successful grant:

Top 10 essential tips

  1. Include Pilot data. Show that you can deliver on the proposed research.
  2. Do not have linear work packages or objectives - where the success of 1 relies on the other.  Ask yourself what happens if one of the objectives fail? 
  3. Choose your postdoc wisely.  Do not include a named postdoc who is on their 3rd or 4th position at the same institution.  However a named PhD continuing as a postdoc is good. Training of postdocs is important.
  4. Do not have anymore than 5 objectives.
  5. Include a Gantt chart on the Pathways to Impact. A significant proportion of grants have an "unsatisfactory" impact plan.  Lack of timelines is a common error.  Do not mention impact activities you have done in the past, stick to what will be done.
  6. Computational analysis must be linked to biological experiment.  Computational projects should have a biological collaborator and be linked to wet-lab experiments.
  7. Include an overseas reviewer, if you know of an appropriate one.
  8. Do not use Jargon.  Make it accessible.  If the IM doesn't understand it - game over.
  9. Single PI proposals are no longer the norm.  Would a collaborator help the proposal?  Will the panel know who you are or your place in UK Science?
  10. Multi-technique/multi-discipline is a plus.

The panel were also keen to point out that the BBSRC are not your enemy.  They are here to help and advise.  After all, they want to fund the best research and researchers - it is up to you to make the case.

Many thanks to Prof Mick Tuite, Prof Dave Brown, Dr Ian Blomfield and Dr Dan Mulvihill of the School of Biosciences at the University of Kent for running this event and Dr Helen Leech for organising it.  We hope to run it again in 2015. 

Slides from the event (access by Kent login only).

An EPSRC mock peer review panel will be held on 12 Feb.  Details to follow.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

ICT Funding Frenzy

Times have been tough for the UK ICT academic in the last few years. Critical Mass is the 'Open sesame' of research funding and without it, opportunites can appear a little thin on the ground. However, maybe the wind is changing with a noticeable number of accessible funding schemes being advertised.  Europe too, is opening its arms with a series of networking opportunities in the new year.  Here are the latest calls and deadlines.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves


ICT Perspectives on Big Data workshop. A one-day workshop will be held on 3rd march 2015 to 'engage in discussion, to identify research challenges and to initiate new collaborative working partnerships in the area of Big Data Analytics'.  Apply with an online expression of interest form by 15th December.

Future Systems in ICT workshop. Apply by the 5th January, with an online Expression of Interest form, to attend a one-day workshop on the next generation of photonic ICT systems. Workshop to be held on 18th February 2015.

User Interaction with ICT. As part of the "Towards an Intelligent Infrastructure" theme, EPSRC are inviting research proposals on how humans will interact with ICT technology in the future. Proposals should address a future information infrastructure and environment which will involve areas such as wearable devices, autonomous systems and an internet of things.  Outline proposals must be submitted by 6 Jan 2015.

Making Sense of Data. Cunningly, for research proposals that explore how to make sense of data.  How to extract and convert the vast amounts of data produced into understandable, actionable information.  New techniques must be realistic, compatible and scalable with real-world services and hardware systems.  Outline proposals must be submitted by 6 Jan 2015.

Future Intelligent Technologies Workshop. Apply to attend a two-day workshop on 24-25 February if you have an interest in the broad area of intelligent technologies.  For forming new collaborations and considering the future challenges in this area.  Apply with an expression of interest by 7 Jan 2015.

ICT Fellowships. In October 2014, Robotics and Autonomous Systems was added as one of the ICT fellowship categories. The other ICT fellowship topics are Cybersecurity and Working Together.

Digital Economy fellowships. Are available in Social Computing (Early Career only), Understanding the internet of things for the Digital Economy and Business and Economic models (Early Career only).

EPSRC Responsive Mode. If your research area doesn't fit into any of the above, do not despair.  The largest slice of EPSRC funding, by far, is still awarded to responsive mode grants.  Success rates at the last 3 ICT Prioritisation Panels were an average of 56% for Standard grants (July 64%, Sept 37% and Oct 66%), so there is funding to be had. 

A great piece of advice given to me by an ex-EPSRC programme manager was to ask yourself,
"will I be known to the panel?"
If not, make sure you are connected to recognised groups in your field.  Or, go small - 1 year, exploratory research grants, which are timely and already have pilot data can be very well-received by reviewers.


To accompany the breadth of European funding opportunities on offer in 2015, the EU and UK are offering the following information days.  If you are new to European funding this is a great way to meet experienced consortium members and get your foot in the door.  All events are free to attend but book up quickly.

Friday, 4 July 2014

The EPSRC ICT visit - Jack Bauer not required

With the Iceland Ultimate Party Platter defrosted and the Sunbeam bread bought, we were ready to welcome the mighty Dr Alex Hulkes from EPSRC to the University of Kent, this week.  EPSRC is the UK's Research Funding overlord for Physical Scientists, Engineers and Mathematicians - so we all sat up and jolly well listened.

Dave in the Royle Family
Dr Alex Hulkes, Senior Global
Uncertainties Manager for
ICT at the EPSRC

Alex, batted away all that First Great Western could throw at him, dutifully signed autographs for Royle Family fans and made it to the University on time.  It was a full, frank and thought proving afternoon and if you missed it, here are the best bits...
Prof Richard Jones, Faculty Director of Research, kicked off proceedings with an overview of Kent science, noting that ICT and Engineering forms a significant proportion of our funded research.

EPSRC's cheque book and pen

Prof Simon Thompson, Director of Research of the School of Computing spoke about the importance of research funding from Europe, Sun and Oracle, alongside EPSRC (with GCHQ).  Whilst Prof Yong Yan, Director of Research in the School of Engineering and Digital Arts, showcased their truly interdisciplinary department and noted that Europe was their biggest funder, closely followed by EPSRC.  At this point, and not wanting to be outdone by Europe, Alex whipped out the EPSRC cheque book, only to find that the cheque guarantee card had expired in 2010 and only had a £50 limit.

Prof David Chadwick, serial EPSRC awardee, shocked the audience by revealing that his research "had no impact".  The bouncers had just been called when he revealed the method in his madness and discussed the difficulty in knowing whether your research had impact.
"Perhaps the perception of impact is greater than the reality?", David offered.
Dr Nathan Gomes introduced his recently awarded ~£1 Million 'Towards an Intelligent Infrastructure' EPSRC grant, NIRVANA, which promises to be one to watch.  Then, much to Alex's horror, Dr Andy King dug up a long buried EPSRC initiative "Collaboration for the success of people" and credited it with starting his career.  We'll expect to see call 2 next year - deadline March 31st, Alex?

Dr Scott Owens and Dr Jim Ang described their EPSRC first grant funded research.  Jim noted how being a Computer Scientist in an Engineering and Digital Arts department had allowed him to develop electronic flowers for dementia patients - not the original goal of the project but an exciting development.  Finally, Dr Eerke Boiten described the growth of Kent's Centre for Cyber Security since its inception, three years ago.

With that, over to Dr Alex Hulkes.  Not wanting to be palmed off with the party line we had Jack Bauer (right-hand picture) waiting in the wings to interrogate Alex about the real direction of EPSRC funding.  But, Jack wasn't required as Alex was refreshingly frank about, well, everything really.  Here are the highlights from part one of his talk:

  • The Global Uncertainties money has run out. So tough, consider responsive mode.
  • For EPSRC, Global Uncertainties = Cyber Security.
  • Later in the year, EPSRC will be "taking a good look at themselves" to see if they did actually shape capabilities (fund what they intended to).
  • Energy, Healthcare, Digital Economy & Manufacturing are the most heavily funded challenge areas (all dwarfed by the capability themes such as ICT, however)
  • Two reasons for failure in first grants - describing the big picture and forgetting about the project or vice versa.  Put your project in context.
  • EPSRC have internal targets for longer/larger grant funding.
  • Waiting for calls is a DISASTEROUS strategy - most funding is responsive mode.
  • DTC's only account for 25% of the PhD funding - 75% goes to DTA (DTP) accounts.
  • Pathways to impact is not a deal breaker but might tip you over the edge for funding - this section matters when a project has obvious impact that has not been described by the applicant.
  • The word AMBITIOUS is missing from EPSRC literature - more ambition in proposals please.
  • Fellowships are more about demonstrating leader behaviours than the project.
  • Number of ICT proposals with hardware and software research are few.
  • There will be more 'Towards an Intelligent Infrastructure' like calls next year,S in the ICT area.
  • Concurrency and photonics are big ICT areas.
  • Longer and Larger grants get 40% of all funding - 5 years, 5 academics, £5 million...

With that, we all had a break, cried because the biscuits didn't turn up and settled in for part two, on peer review:
  • Think about who will care about the project, when considering who to submit to.
  • 3/4 reviewer scores are the most difficult to come back from.
  • EPSRC guarantee to "ask" at least 1 of your chosen reviewers.
  • About 10-30% of proposals don't make it to panel - the great and good included.
  • Panel members hate seeing reviewers played off against each other in responses.
  • EPSRC never fund out of order, regardless of the value of the grant.

And finally, Alex's top tip was that applicants who write a balanced case of support, with background information and project description being roughly equal, have a higher chance of being funded.

So the bottom message for ICT researchers was to think about Programme grants, responsive mode & fellowships.  Put your project in context, don't wait for calls and make sure your nominated reviewer is a friend not a foe.

At this point the academics rushed out of the room and started furiously ringing up their pals to put a programme grant application together.  We can't thank Dr Alex Hulkes enough for visiting us at Kent and giving an informative, candid and inspirational talk.  Many thanks also to Dr Helen Leech and Prof Richard Jones for organising this event.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The unstoppable force of Social Media

The unstoppable force of Phil Ward, aka @frootle and Lynne Bennett @KentHumsRes discussed the merits of using Social Media and Public Engagement with research at the University of Kent's Research Administrator Meeting this morning. 

Discussion was lively, with concerns raised over inappropriate content, what there might be to lose, from an institutional perspective, lack of take-up by academics and 'personal' vs. 'official' social media accounts.

My own personal perspective is that until a few months ago I rolled my eyes and silently sniggered at the mere mention of Twitter.  However, I now rate Twitter as one of the most useful tools I have for broadening my knowledge, accessing other people's views and experiences, promoting the University and for having a bit of a laugh.  The choice nuggets of information I get on a daily basis... be it a new funding scheme, new research at the University, events or just a bit of light-hearted commentary, on subjects of interest, cannot be found elsewhere with such little effort.

The West Wing
Without Twitter, I would never have known about the truly impressive research, collaborations and media/event work being done in Kent's Viral Pseudotype unit @ViralPseudoType, The Centre for Cyber Security @CyberSecKent or The School of Sports and Exercise science @UniKentSportSci

I would have been ignorant of Science policy, which is the heavenly mix of The West Wing meets Brian Cox, in my eyes. 

I would have been blissfully ignorant of interesting events such Q&A sessions with MP's, science writing courses run by the @Guardiansciblog and jamborees such as the Cheltham Science festival @cheltfestivals

Twitter also challenges me to be creative and to think about what I'm writing, something that doesn't come naturally to an ex-scientist... as you can tell.

So, to return to this morning's meeting.  At a university, I think there is a place for both 'personal' Twitter accounts, from academics and more 'official' departmental accounts, which focus on promoting research. Social media provides huge networking opportunities and free advertising and promotion at the touch of a button.  Why on earth wouldn't universities want to use this?  The funders, publishers, policy makers and public are engaged so we should be to.

So, I'm a convert and it is clear that love it or loathe it social media is not going to go away. In fact, we have a real opportunity for the University of Kent to be a pioneering institution in the way we use social media in research.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A piece of the Life Sciences pie

EPSRC have just published a report on The importance of engineering and physical sciences research to health and life sciences

It's a 46 page whopper but crammed with lots of good stuff.  A probable precursor to the next wave of funding calls?

Here at Kent Research Services we know how busy you academics are with marking exam papers, remarking exam papers, second marking exam papers and writing next years exam papers.  So, I've summarised the main points below. 

Setting the Scene

A quarter of EPSRC's investment is relevant to health/life sciences, 1/10 science publications are at the interface between Physical/Engineering & Health/Life sciences and medical informatics publications are rising at a rapid rate.

Drafting in an expert panel
Entrance to Polaris House

EPSRC invited the following Supremos of Science into a secret chamber within the bowels of Polaris House to debate, discuss and advise on the strategic direction of the review: Dr David Lawrence, Syngenta, Prof. Steve Furber, Manchester, Prof. Patrick Vallance, GSK, Prof The Lord Darzi of Denham (I'm not making this up), Imperial and Prof Sir John Bell, Oxford.  They identified the following opportunities for the future.

Opportunities for the Future (abridged)

Brain Mapping

  • Improving fault-tolerance in computer systems
  • processors that run multiple instructions at the same time
  • Models of computation that mimic processing techniques in the nervous system

Big data, genomics and healthcare

  • Using big data in conjunction with genome sequencing to decipher a range of diseases
  • Advances in sensors & miniaturised devices for increased home rehabilitation
  • Developing personal healthcare approaches based on genetic profiles

Drug Discovery

  • 'In silico' prediction of drug effects
  • 3D bioprinting of human tissue for screening drugs
  • Environmentally friendly chemistry and the synthesis of bi-functional molecules
  • High resolution molecular imaging of drugs in the body

Physical devices and surgery

  • Robotics, micro-processing, computer technology, miniaturisation and sensors for interation with humans

Sustainable Food Production

  • Catalyst technology for safe herbicides and insecticides
  • Sensor technology to improve crop take-up of nitrogen & phosphates
  • Improving water recycling with informatics and sensor technology

Anything else?

Importance of the research environment

  • Small Universities can often be more successful in achieving interdisciplinary success than the big bruisers.
  • Inspirational leadership, a clear vision and flexible funding are essential ingredients for success.
  • Researchers trained in an interdisciplinary environment 'grow-up to be multilingual'... expect more cross-RCUK Doctoral Training Centres?
  • Increase the physical science/engineering research undertaken within the NHS

MIT and Harvard know what they're taking about

The Broad Institute (right), a collaboration between MIT and Harvard is an example of a centre that encourages blue-skies research and has a clear direction. One of it's many goals is to:
"Unearth all the mutations that underlie different cancer types"

Maybe UK Universities and research councils should increasingly set out this kind of specific challenge to researchers here?  For me, this has a greater sense of urgency and direction than priority areas.

Assessing interdisciplinarity

  • A measure of interdisciplinarity could be introduced to University league tables
  • Funding panels need to review and represent interdiscplinarity better

And finally...

Dr Alex Hulkes, ICT Portfolio Manager from EPSRC will be visiting the University of Kent on 2nd July for lively discussion and questions. Contact for further details.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

University of Kent Sciences Research Festival

Brian Cox be afraid, there is new talent in town... at the University of Kent Faculty of Sciences Research Festival, held yesterday.  The annual event, held in Canterbury, showcased amazing research, massive potential impact and all explained in a thoroughly engaging way.  The academic staff, postdocs and PhD students of the Faculty of Sciences did the University of Kent proud.

The new five-minute talk format was an absolute winner, skipping between Sellotape light shows, the biology of King George and scorpions on sticks without pause for breath. Dr Caroline Li, in her lecture on brain connectivity, noted:
"all of your brains are changing whilst listening to this talk". 
She wasn't wrong, it felt like my brain had gone on an SAS style workout,  200mph down the German Autobahn.  But boy was it good!

So for anyone who missed it, here's what happened:

The VC, Prof. Dame Julia Goodfellow hot footed it from the Universities budget meeting (put in a good word for Science Research, VC) to explain how pleased she was with the return of the Chemistry degree programme and increasing student numbers.  She also praised the increase in research funding in a difficult climate. 

David Blaine
Prof Paul Strange from SPS totally amazed the audience with quantum mechanics and a piece of Sellotape.  David Blaine would have given his eye teeth to get the reaction Paul did.  Dr Marieke Haberichter from SMSAS showed that Skyrmions adopt a doughnut or dice configuration and Dr Scott Wildman from the Medway School of Pharmacy had everyone crossing their legs with photos of bladders and diseased kidneys.  Prof Colin Johnson from Computing enthused about computer programs as a thermodynamic process... clever stuff. .  Dr Meryem Erbilek from EDA showed how she can analyse handwriting and tell what mood the writer is in, whilst Dr James Hopker from SSES explained how exercise can greatly increase the chance of surviving an operation. 

The Madness of King George III
Moving on, Prof Martin Warren completely wowed the audience with 'minor' discoveries such as how to make the Heme and vitamin B12, the biology of King George III and more.  Blimey!  Dr Emma McCabe mixed up anions to make the next superconductors and Benjamin Pageaux from Sports Science showcased their super research and facilities on muscle fatigue, especially in cycling.

The fun continued with Dr Dirk Froebrich's (SPS) stunning pictures of molecular hydrogen spurting out of distant stars, Dr Tara Ghafourian's (Pharmacy) computer models on drug absorption and Prof Jim Griffin from SMSAS showcasing Bayesian analysis of enormous datasets... to the power of 22,000!  (I didn't know Excel had that many rows..).

The first half was topped off with an update on the Eastern Arc (Kent, UEA and Essex) by Research Services Phil Ward, followed by a fascinating talk on the role of metalloproteases in Cancer, by Prof Dylan Edwards from the University of East Anglia.

Everyone rushed to the toilet, grabbed a coffee (or vice versa if you were being tactical) and hurried back in for part 2.

Next the keynote, by Prof Ofer Lahav, Perren Chair of Astronomy, UCL.  With it being an hour lecture, it felt like we had pulled off the motorway into a 20mph zone.  However, this reduction in pace, didn't mean any less excitement.  On the contrary, it allowed the audience to contemplate what dark energy is and how on earth do you transport an enormous, finely tuned telescope through a small German town (see picture).

A caffeine fuelled (for the study) Prof Sam Marcora, SSES, rode to Beijing on a motorbike to observe riding fatigue whilst Dr Caroline Li from computing elegantly explained the importance of brain connectivity and how to model such processes.  Steve Moser from EDA reeled everyone in with fascinating insights into the imaging of single cellular layers whilst Dr Scott Owens spoke superbly about 'What a Computer Program really does". We are not worthy, Scott. Dr Steffi Frank has been cooking up alcoholic bugs over in the Biosciences Tavern whilst Dr Pradip Tapadar from SMSAS gave George Osbourne a run for his money with a knowledgeable tour of UK pension's and risk. 

And finally, Dr Mark Shepherd from Biosciences explained how he could use biological processes to make biofuels for cars.  Lynsey Atkinson from Pharmacy engaged the audience with her research into body clocks and Dr Christos Efstratiou from EDA used mobile phones to better understand social behaviour.

Prof Phillippe de Wilde (right), new PVC for Research and Innovation, wrapped up proceedings by praising
the speakers and the impact and breadth of research on show.  He highlighted 3 things that he would be focussing on.. helping Kent academics to 1) Increase their Science Social network, 2) Publish in high impact, highly-cited journals and 3) Win more research funding.  Phillippe stressed that he was more interested in the researchers and the research than metrics and looks forwarding to getting to know the Faculty.  He also encouraged all researchers to take away the new Research Services pack, circulated at the festival.  If anyone would like this pack, who couldn't attend the event, please email

A final huge thanks to Prof Richard Jones, Faculty Director of Research and Enterprise, for organising this excellent event.