Is Our Grant Culture Good Enough?

One of the things I consider myself paid to do is worry about my department’s grant figures. They’re not too bad really, but not on a par with our performance on outputs, and competition is getting tougher while the resources available aren’t getting any greater.

So it was nice to be invited this past week, along with Jon Mee (York) and Michael Green (Northumbria), to visit another English department to advise them on how to improve their grant culture. I won’t name the university, simply on grounds of confidentiality; in fact, it was a department full of good people doing interesting things, and their review seemed smart and timely. For once, though, I had a chance to reflect on what we might be doing right at Exeter, as well as what we might improve.

Looking at Exeter, then, I’d identify four general causes of success.

  1. An expectation of grant activity

Our probation criteria (for early-career academics) and performance framework (for everyone) have been controversial. But one thing they’ve done is embedded an expectation that grant applications are a basic part of our jobs. That’s not to say that the targets are necessarily right, nor that many of us seem to get by just fine without meeting them. But what we don’t get (or not much, anyway) are perceptions that grant activity is somehow an add-on to a normal academic workload. In our host department there was an expectation that colleagues would receive workload relief for preparing grants: a practice that may be unavoidable in order to generate activity from a low base, but that might easily descend into petty haggling, and that surely prioritizes the wrong thing. We expect everyone to apply, and recognize appropriately the workloads of those who get the grants. That makes sense to me.

We also have fairly widespread acceptance of the premise that academic projects – and outputs – can take different forms. My quote of the week was from Jon: ‘there’s nothing natural about the monograph’. In other words, if we don’t fetishize the monograph we might be able to imagine more creative approaches to project grants. Monographs still matter for the REF (though maybe not as much as we think), but on the whole we get this point.

  1. A culture of success

Do we have a culture of success? It hasn’t always felt that way, and my biggest concern in recent years has been our reliance on c.5-10% of strong performers; however, we’re seen by others as successful, and there’s someting to that. If you don’t have a culture of success, it becomes necessary to import expertise: this week’s events were the start of that process for our hosts, and they’re thinking about further approaches to bridging that gap. Success, though, brings expertise: an appreciation of how projects work, of what kinds of projects fit which funders, and of how to speak the language of grant forms. Whether we deploy that store of expertise as well as we might is another matter: I often think we put too much weight on a final ‘internal peer-review’ process, by which time projects are highly (though not always well) developed, and too little emphasis on mentoring through the developmental phases. But we have, I think, a basically supportive culture.

  1. Engagement with funders

One interesting exchange. I explained how, when the AHRC last called for applications for the Peer Review College, we mobilized ourselves to get as many people as possible onto it. One response: ‘Oh yes, we know Exeter does that.’ But why not? It works. If we have plenty of peer reviewers, a member of the advisory board, and a member of council, we’re likely to understand the AHRC about as well as anyone. The value of that understanding can be overstated, but it must help. Recently, also, our department has also started to look towards the Wellcome Trust, with which our History department has such strong links.

  1. Our size

I wrote last month about size, and in the present context I think that bigness brings benefits. We have a breadth of expertise and experience, and we can perhaps afford to acknowledge appropriately the need for good timing in grant applications. In a smaller department, I fear I would feel pressure – especially as a professor – to make grant applications and make them soon. I’m not sure that’s helpful; it can take years to get one’s ducks properly aligned.

  1. We’ve grown our own

There’s nothing wrong with buying senior researchers; in some cases it’s going to be the best way of taking a department forward. But that’s not what we’ve done. Our best grant-earner started on a three-year lectureship twelve years ago, and we’ve been committed ever since to developing young researchers. Did any other department in the country win two AHRC Early Career Leadership Fellowships last year? Our approach seems to me more sustainable than others, and perhaps also more ethical.

I can see two contradictory forces in research funding for the humanities. On the one hand, although funders remain in principle open to applications from all universities, there are tendencies towards concentration. Universities like us have concentrations of quality staff and expertise; we’re also likely to have good institutional support systems. So there are some universities from which – and the figures bear this out – it will be easier to develop a successful bid. On the other hand, while we at Exeter oriented ourselves towards all this relatively early, others are determined to catch up. I heard some interesting stories this week from a couple of ambitious post-1992 universities, investing heavily in ultra-professional grant support structures. So while it was nice – uncommonly nice (thank you!) – to be taken so seriously this week, I certainly wouldn’t argue that we’re getting everything right, just as I wouldn’t want to face the VC and argue that our figures are exemplary. So I’d be very happy, as always, to hear some fresh ideas and arguments.

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