Thursday, 16 March 2017

Wellcome Trust visit - Life Sciences

The Wellcome Trust visited the University of Kent in March 2017. As ever, it was a wonderfully open and honest day with tips aplenty for potential applicants.  Please see Phil Ward's Blog post for notes on the morning session, which covered an introduction to the Trust and talks from Kent awardees and committee members.  Here is a summary of the afternoon life sciences session, presented by Roger Blake, External liaison manager and Alexina Weekes, Grants advisor Infection and Immuno-biology team.

The assessment process

It's impossible to write a great research application if you're unaware of how it will be assessed.  Proposals need to communicate to two audiences: Generalists and specialists, the balance of which, depends on the assessment process.  By generalist assume intelligence but don't assume knowledge.

  1. Preliminary stage (fellowships only): Track record checked by a grants advisor.
  2. Expert review group: All applications are assessed by one of the 9 life sciences expert review groups (see panel membership). Have you written your application so it can be understood by this group?  Only 30-40% of proposals proceed to the next stage.
  3. External peer review: Only proposals that have made it through step 2 ever go out for external peer review, which means that 60-70% of full submissions are never read by a specialist. Wellcome has a bank of 3500 expert reviewers, from all across the world covering academia, industry and non-for-profit organisations. Reviewers may have no knowledge of your host institution.
  4. Interview: All applicants that proceed past stage 2, regardless of the peer review comments, are interviewed. The interview panel are generalists (see panel membership). About half of interviewed applicants are successful (15-20% of the initial submission cohort).

Success rates

In general, a third of all applications make it to interview and a half of those are successful (1:5 chance of getting funded). Success rates by scheme are as follows:
  • Seed awards: 10-15%
  • Fellowships: 20-25% (after preliminary stage)
  • Investigator: 10-25%
  • Collaborative: <20%
  • Vacation studentships ~50%
  • PhD institutional awards: ~5%

General tips

  • About a third of all applicants speak to Wellcome before applying. You are missing a trick if you don't.
  • Track record essentials: Regular, recent and relevant publications and networks.
  • A luke warm institutional letter of support can sink a grant. Letters should reference the applicants not just the environment.
  • Letters of support are not generally required (apart from institutional ones).
  • RA's with 'fees for a PhD' are an eligible cost.
  • Costs are not hugely important, as long as they are reasonable.
  • Practice, practice and practice again for the interview - leave no stone unturned. The competition will have prepared meticulously, so you'd be crazy not to.


  • Independence: It's critical that the applicant shows independence from their supervisor - change of group, department or institution is necessary.
  • Publications: A first author Nature paper is NOT a prerequisite for a postdoc fellowship (Sir Henry Wellcome and Sir Henry Dale).  The regularity with which you publish is important though.
  • Building networks is hugely important in developing a competitive track record. Call/email and offer to give a talk at key groups/institutions.  What's the worst that can happen? How would you react if an Early Career researcher from another institution wanted to give a talk?
  • Highlight career breaks, if appropriate.
  • Gaining skills training abroad is not a mandatory part of an application, but the majority of awardees do this.
  • Showcase all activities that demonstrate your research independence and potential, i.e. Publications (key), conference talks, prizes, funding, mentoring of students and where the students have gone on to, career breaks, public engagement, outreach, networks and collaborators.

Seed Awards

  • Applicants must NOT be in receipt of substantial funding.
  • For academics (any stage as long as the above point is valid) and fellows who are in receipt of a salary (Leverhulme, Research Councils, Royal Society). 
  • Ideal for new lecturers, or those wanting to re-activate their research.
  • Idea is everything.
  • Must NOT be a stand-alone project.  It should be a stepping stone for the applicants career and the research - a seed for a future grant.
  • Networks are key.

Institutional PhD

The next call will be in about 4 years time.  It is one of the most difficult calls to succeed with.  Essential to speak to Wellcome before applying.

Innovator awards

This scheme has just been launched. Up to £0.5 million per project for responsive mode awards.
Initially there will be three areas: a) Mental health, b) Neurological disorders and c) Neglected tropical diseases.

Who to contact

Contact for general enquiries, or Alexina Weekes would be happy to put you in contact with the relevant advisor. At Kent, please contact myself, Carolyn Barker

Thursday, 2 March 2017

EPSRC Balancing Capability

EPSRC, the UK Research Council for physical sciences, engineering and mathematics have just announced the results of their strategic review Balancing Capability

Balancing Capability was a major review conducted by the EPSRC to assess whether their research portfolio is in line or balanced to deliver the UK's strategic research objectives. The review took two years (2015-2016) and considered over 1000 pieces of evidence from across the science community. It follows on from a similar exercise in 2011, called Shaping Capability. The review will directly affect those applying for fellowships or strategic grants as well as influencing how responsive mode proposals are pitched.  All 'EPSRC academics' should be aware of the findings, outlined below.

Research Areas

Balancing Capability review assessed all 111 of EPSRC's research areas. Of the 111 subjects, 12 (11%) are to 'grow' (green) and 9 (9%) are to 'reduce' (mauve):
EPSRC's 111 research areas

As a quick aside, all 111 research areas have a dedicated webpage full of links to governmental reports and funded projects that are ideal to reference in the National Importance section of a grant proposal  The interactive version of the above picture is here.

Funding calls?

Grow areas will see more strategic calls, fellowships and 'centres' funding, to increase the UK research base. Accordingly a new set of strategic funding calls for 2017-2018 has already been published.

Reduce areas will see little or no directed calls or fellowship funding. Application will still be able to submit responsive mode proposals.  Reduce areas are only predicted to 'shrink' by 2-3% compared to EPSRC's current portfolio, so there's no need to panic. Academics in these areas should still apply but are also encouraged to look at neighboring disciplines. 

Fellowship changes

EPSRC offer fellowships for three career stage: Posdoctoral, Early and Established career.  The awards are for 3-5 years depending on career stage and are appropriate for individuals with an ambitious research vision.  Fellowships are only offered in certain research areas only, which are refreshed typically twice a year. 

Based on the balancing capability exercise, a number of changes to fellowship areas have been introduced:
  • 13 new fellowship areas in the ICT, Digital Economy, Manufacturing the Future, Healthcare technology and Energy themes, largely for the Early and established career stages.
  • Closure of 11 fellowship areas on 14 August 2017.  In the ICT, Digital Economy, Manufacturing the Future and Energy themes.
Please do take a look at the link above for full details on the fellowship changes.

First Grants

The EPSRC is considering changes to it's First Grant scheme - a funding stream for new lectures, who were appointed <3 years ago and who's PhD was <10 years ago.  At present the funding is capped at £125,000 and has been since 2011. However, this means that in real-terms, applicants can now only afford 11 months of a postdoctoral research assistant at best. Not only a difficult hire but hardly optimal for the RA's career and impact to the project.  Changes to the scheme would be welcomed by many sectors, although as yet there has been non announcement.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Horizon2020: A look at the 2018 funding calls

Horizon2020, the European Commission's research funding program will publish its final block of funding opportunities, for the 2018-2020 period, later this year. Scoping papers for 2018-2020 work programme. It is a chance for the Commission to address any funding gaps and tweak schemes.

Since 2014, the Commission has reviewed 110,000 applications and awarded €29 billion to 10,000 successful projects. resulting in an average spend of €2.9 million per project and an eye-wateringly low success rate of 9%FET open, is the most oversubscribed scheme, with a 4% success rate.

The final three years of the program will continue with challenge-led calls, where the applicants decide how to tackle a particular problem, but with the research questions set by the Commission. A budget of €30 billion will be on offer, the largest of any period of Horizon2020.  The Commission will seek to tackle low success rates with not just more funding, but clearer documentation and more two-stage calls. "Applicants must have a reasonable chance of success". Here are some of the planned changes:

Open science

  • Open access publishing, social media and embedding the public in research design, will have a greater emphasis in all calls.

Marie Curie 

  • "Any topic" PhD training (ITN), post-doc fellowships (IF) and more
  • All schemes will remain (ITN, IF, RISE, COFUND and NIGHT) with annual calls.
  • More family friendly features are likely to be introduced: More, and longer duration, "career restart" fellowships (IF), more part-time fellowships and changes to the family allowance.
  • A disability allowance should be introduced.
  • 'Open science' training will be a more important review criteria for all schemes: Open access publishing, social media and public engagement embedded in research.

FET open

  • Doubling of budget for FET open - to increase the 4% success rate.
  • The scheme will remain single-stage, light-touch (15 page application form)


  • Number of topics reduced
  • Specific calls on software not proposed
  • Key areas to be expanded or explored will be:
    • Internet of Things
    • Artificial Intelligence (utilizing recent advances)
    • Cyber security (as part of the new Public-Private-Partnership).  Cyber security is one of the political priorities of the EU
    • Big data will focus on the creative industries and languages
    • European cloud initiative, launched in 2016

Nanotechnology, Advanced Materials, Biotechnology and Manufacturing

  • Calls will be centred around two themes:
    • 'Fourth Industrial Revolution'. Developing smart materials, devices and biotechnology into new innovative products and delivering them to the customer.
    • Energy
  • New calls to explore nano(bio)informatics are planned
  • Research and innovation calls can be expected for medical technologies
  • Electric Green Vehicles will be a highlight, in particular electrochemical storage 

What about Brexit?

The UK Government will underwrite all Horizon2020 awards, submitted by UK applicants whilst we are still in the EU.  Therefore as long as applications are submitted before March 2019, funding is guaranteed, if awarded (assuming Article 50 is triggered in March 2017).  The UK Science base is lobbying hard to ensure researchers will have access to Horizon2020 beyond that time but this is by no means certain.

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.