A partial new begining!

This October, I will start a new chapter in my academic career. After 25 years at UCL, starting as a PhD student in September 1997 and then as an academic since 2001, I will reduce my time at UCL to 60% and start working on the European Citizen Science (ECS) project at the Learning Planet Institute (LPI) which is part of the Université Paris Cité for the next four years. This move wouldn’t happen without Brexit, so I thought it’s worth reflecting on, and this is what this blogpost is about.

Bikes near the Seine at sunset

I’ve been in touch with the LPI for over a decade, collaborating happily on different European projects – from Citizen Cyberlab (2012-2015), to Doing It Together Science (2015-2018), and other projects. I also spent a very productive sabbatical there in the second part of 2019, just before Covid-19 hit, as a short-term fellow and the result is the paper “Contours of Citizen Science“. I really love their approach and work, and the current transition make them a great partner for the new project. I am excited to have the opportunity to work with colleagues there again. However, at my career stage, moving between institutions is not something that you do lightly. Especially when research funding is vital for the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) research group at UCL that I have worked on developing over the past 15 years. As with such things, I have mixed feelings: excitement, trepidation, hopes, sadness, expectations…

UCL’s Portico

So why and how? Over the past 15 years, I have been lucky in securing multiple projects from the EU funding programme that supports research and innovation. It is officially known as the European Union’s Framework Programmes: FP7 (2002-2013), Horizon 2020 (2014-2020), and now Horizon Europe (2021-2027). The first project that I joined was EveryAware (2011-2014), and I feel privileged to secure the European Research Council (ERC) funding for ECSAnVis (2015-2022). I have also secured UK funding, but the research funders in the UK are not supportive of my specific area (citizen science) in the way that The European Commission was and is. To give an idea of the scale, while it was possible through Horizon 2020 to secure nearly €900,000 for a three years project of citizen science activities (in the DITOs project), the UK leading funder (UKRI) proudly announced that a multi-partner project of three years is expected to run on £350,000. A current call from UKRI about engaging communities in research is similarly limited in terms of funding. So as a result, I have relied on securing funding from the framework programmes.

While the source of funding for a specific academic is something that is not discussed a lot, it can be easily spotted in academic CVs. Within a research career, once you get used to the processes for application and management of funding from a specific funder, there are very high “transaction costs” to switch to another source. It takes time and effort to figure out what is needed to create a successful research application. To provide an idea of the level of investment, here are some numbers. Since 2009 I have participated in 36 applications to the framework programmes, and was part of 8 successful projects, of which I led two. That’s about a 22% success rate, which is good considering that the average success rate is 12% across the Horizon 2020 programme. It is much lower in some of the calls that I applied for. By “transaction costs” I mean that I know what is needed to work collaboratively to develop a proposal, write my part, called in the jargon “work package”, in a way that it will be easy for reviewers to approve, manage the budget, and produce the results in such a way that the project is successful. The resources that I have secured over the years allowed for some spare capacity to develop new ideas and ensure that the team of early career researchers that I work with are not overworked -although across these projects that I’ve done, people have put in more than the minimum and I’m grateful for their efforts. It is also important to note that part of the practice of ExCiteS is to make proposal development a collaborative effort which provides a learning opportunity for early career researchers, but in many of these 36 proposals, I was writing them myself, simply because I’m so used to write them that I could spend a relatively little time in providing my part efficiently, which justified the effort/return ratio.

An interesting aspect is the built-in support for citizen science within the current programme, “Horizon Europe”. The effort on the ECSA characteristics of citizen science was done to support the European Commission to integrate citizen science into many of the research projects that will be funded by the programme. In other words, the demand for the expertise that I developed will be part of the current funding period.

The TL;DR – it’s complex to switch funders, and the Horizon Europe programme supported my area (more on this below).

Designing the DITOs proposal (2014)

The lack of clarity about the UK association and participation in Horizon Europe played a part. When the European Citizen Science Association developed the ECS project, it was safer to submit it through the LPI than through UCL. Now that the project is funded, and with the continued lack of participation of the UK in Horizon Europe and other impacts of Brexit, I am temporarily reducing my time at UCL to run it from the LPI. On the face of it, the UKRI Horizon Europe Guarantee Scheme seem appropriate, but this is true only if you think about the money that comes with the project as if the part that can run at UCL can be isolated. Here are some of the reasons why, in this case, it was unrealistic to try and run the project from the UK:

First, recruitment – the position that can be created with the funding for the project is a 60% role for four years. A quick calculation shows that it falls below the threshold set by the UK government for a work permit, which means that getting an EU national to work on the project is going to be either complex or impossible.

Also connected to the recruitment is the attractiveness of the UK for academic positions. As it happen, luck provided the opportunity to compare. In the past few months, I’ve been involved in advertising two quite similar positions in the field of citizen science. Both are advertised as 60%, with an option of increasing the role, and I promoted both on the same channels. One was in the UK and one in France. The process produced 3.5 more applicants in France (!).

In addition to the recruitment, the ECS project will involve organising training schools and other training sessiond with people from across the EU. This will create employment issues for visitors who are paid teachers – even if we just pay them a small amount.

There is also the issue of the administrative burden. For those organisations who will take the UKRI Guarantee Scheme, my experience tell me that they will find themselves reporting twice (to UKRI and whoever manage the scheme, and to the EU). I have worked with Swiss colleagues on a previous project where they worked under a similar programme during a period when Switzerland was excluded (as it is also now) and there was a whole extra administrative layer.

At the end of the day, as a researcher, I don’t want to have all these layers of extra work, I just want to focus on the project. So the conclusion was that it is more realistic to do the project from within the core countries of the EU.

So does it matter? I would argue that it does. The tangible bit of this is that (1) an early career researcher position that could have been in London, is now in Paris. and (2) a lot of training activities that would have raised the profile of the UK in training in citizen science, will now happen in France. Also (3) a network of citizen science educators will be running from Paris, and not from London. All these are small things, and maybe not important in the scheme of things, but like everything else, it’s the thousands of small cuts that matter.

I’m making this move from a privileged position – I’m an experienced researcher, and I can raise the funding to cover my cost. There are, of course, different types of transaction costs that I’m all too familiar with. It is odd to find myself back in a similar situation to the one 25 years ago: learning a language, getting a work permit, place to live, all that. However, these will be sorted out eventually, and at the end of them, there are opportunities to participate in and lead projects. They are concerning me, but it’s also an adventure…

Finally, to the broader point: one of the aspects of having access to European funding at the same time as UK funding is that it allowed researchers like me to develop and maintain areas of excellence that UK funding bodies do not prioritise. A very clear example is the ERC. As a British Academy report identified in 2018: there is nothing similar to this programme in the UK. With the current budget allocation of UKRI, there are no five years, £2.5m grants that are offered to UK researchers in the social sciences and humanities. It is no surprise that there are many UK applicants for this programme. But it is also relevant in sub areas. The UK has a long history of research on science and society issues – for example, through research in Science and Technology Studies departments. It is no surprise that in many of the Horizon 2020 “Science with and for Society” projects, there was a high number of UK institutions. The scale of the funding was such that it allow the development of expertise and excellence in different places, regardless of the UK funding. New areas and expertise developed.

Citizen science is such an area – it actually got on the radar of the European Commission at the beginning of the last decade. Many people put a lot of effort into integrating it within the research agenda, making it a pillar of the European definition of open science and subsequently part of the UNESCO framing. Because research funding specifically for this area only started in the middle of the decade, as the UK was getting into the turmoil of Brexit, it was probably not noticed in the UK. To demonstrate the difference, consider that my first project, EveryAware, was part of the cutting edge “Future and Emerging Technologies” part of the programme, while the job of the ECS project is to mainstream citizen science. Maybe even the fact that there was a European focus meant that it was not welcomed in the UK. I really can’t tell. What I do know is that world-class programme such as “Open Air Laboratories (OPAL)” was left to collapse and that no serious funding was coming from UK funders. While the European funding was open, it didn’t matter too much, as there was a source nearby. Moreover, that allowed for all sorts of side activities – such as publishing a widely read book about the field in a way that highlights UCL Press commitment to Open Science or launching a successful online and offline course on citizen science at UCL. There are plenty of other examples in the participation in citizen science projects in other institutions.

The UK has such a history and knowledge in citizen science that it won’t be destroyed by being cut off from Horizon Europe, but I do wonder what will be the long-term impacts. I am sure that this is not the only area where such a difference exists, and I didn’t see any explicit effort in mapping these areas and then considering if they are worth protecting.


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