The part that I read captured my interest, and I finished reading it on the way to Sci Foo and shortly after it. I’ve enjoyed reading it, and at many points I stopped to think and absorb the rich information that Mary Ellen provided within it. At the beginning, I was expecting an account of the personal experience of doing citizen science and understanding its place in the world – much like Sharman Apt Russell ‘Diary of a Citizen Scientist’ (a wonderful book which I highly recommend!). However ‘Citizen Scientist’ is a very different type of book, with a much richer internal ‘ecology’.The book is weaving five themes – the impact of the mass extinction that we are experiencing around us; a very personal account of losing a parent; the history and development of ecological knowledge of coastal California; Joseph Campbell’s literary framework of the ‘hero’s journey’, and the way it can be linked to John Steinbeck and Ed Rickets work around Monterey; and the current practice of citizen science, especially around the Bay Area and coastal California. These themes are complex on their own, and Mary Ellen is doing a great job in exploring each one of them and bringing them into interaction with each other. As I went through the book, each of these was explained clearly from a well researched position, with the experiential aspects of citizen science – including the frustration and challenges – beautifully expressed. As you read through the book, you start to see how these themes come together. It most be said that most of these themes are worrying or raise the notion of loss. Against this background, citizen science plays the role of ‘hope’ at the corner of Pandora’s box – offering a way to connect to nature, nurture it and redevelop a sense of stewardship. A way to preserve the cultural practices of the Amah Mutsun tribe, nature, and a sense of connection to place.
I felt very lucky that Mary Ellen got in touch and shared the book with me – it was just the right book for me to read at the time. After the Sci Foo Camp, I have stayed in central California for 4 weeks, touring from Mountain View in the Bay Area, to Ripon in Central Valley, to Oak View in Ojai Valley, near Ventura and Los Angeles. Reading the book while travelling through places that are linked to the book gave the visits deeper and richer context and meaning. Many of the encounters throughout journey were linked to the topics that I mentioned above – you don’t need to be any kind of hero to experience these! Some of these encounters include the following.
First was the fascinating session at Sci Foo Camp, in which Tony Barnosky discussed the issue of global tipping points (which are discussed in the book) and their wider implications, with few days later travelling towards Yosemite and experiencing the change in very large landscapes following fires and thinking ‘is this a local ecological tipping point, and the forest won’t come back?’. Then there was a visit to San Francisco Golden Gate Park, and passing by the California Academy of Sciences (Cal Academy, the San Francisco Natural History Museum), whose story is covered in the book. Another reminder of extinction came while travelling down the famous California State Route 1, which was eerily quite and empty of other cars on a weekend day, because of the Soberanes Fire that was devastating the forest nearby (and has not stopped). Or stopping by the Mission in Santa Barbara and thinking about the human and natural history of the coast, or just looking at the kelp on the beach and appreciating it much more…
I’ll try to write more about citizen science and its hopeful aspects later, but as for the book – even if you don’t travel through coastal California, I am happy with what I’ve said about it: ‘an informative, personal, emotional and fascinating account of a personal journey to ecological citizen science. It shows how our understanding of our environment and the need for urgent action to address the mass extinction that is happening in front of our eyes can be addressed through participatory science activities’.
I was especially looking forward to see how the unconference is organised and run. I’ve experienced unconferences (e.g. WhereCampEU in 2010, parts of State of the Map) and organised the Citizen Cyberscience Summits in 2012 & 2014 where we meshed-up a formal academic conference with unconference. I was intrigued to see how it works when the O’Reilly media team run it, as they popularised the approach.
The event itself run from the evening of Friday to early afternoon on Sunday, with very active 45 hours in between.
The opening of the event included the following information (from Sarah Winge, Cat Allman, Chris DiBona, Daniel Hook, and Tim O’Reilly): The Foo Camp is an opportunity to bunch of really interesting people to get together and tell each other interesting stories – talk about the most interesting story that you’ve got. The main outputs are new connections between people. This as an opportunities to recharge and to get new ideas – helping each person to recharge using someone else battery. The ground rules include: go to sessions outside your field of expertise – an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective; be as extroverted as you can possibly be – don’t sit with people that you know, as you’ll have a better weekend to talk to different people. The aim is to make a conference that is made mostly from breaks – it’s totally OK to spend time not in a session; the law of two feet – it’s OK to leave and come from sessions and coming and going. It’s a DIY event. There are interesting discussions between competitors commercially, or academically – so it is OK to say that part of the conversations will be kept confidential.
The expected scramble to suggest sessions and fill the board led to a very rich programme with huge variety – 110 sessions for a day and a half, ranging from ‘Origami Innovations’, ‘Are there Global Tipping Points?’, to ‘Growth Hacking, Rare disease R&D’, and ‘What we know about the universe? and what we don’t know?’. Multiple sessions explored Open science (open collaborations, reproducibility, open access publication), issues with science protocols, increasing engagement in science, gender, social justice side by side with designer babies, geoengineering, life extension, artificial intelligence and much more.
In addition, several curated sessions of lightning talks (5 minutes rapid presentations by participants), provided a flavour and extent of the areas that participants cover. For example, Carrie Partch talk about understanding how circadian cycles work – including the phenomena of social jet-lag, with people sleeping much more at weekends to compensate for lack of sleep during the weekdays. Or Eleine Chew demonstrated her mathematical analysis of different music performances and work as concert pianist.
I’ve followed the advice from Sarah, and started conversation with different people during meals, or on the bus to and from SciFoo, or while having coffee breaks. Actually everyone around was doing it – it was just wonderful to see all around people introducing themselves, and starting to talk about what they are doing. I found myself learning about research on common drugs that can extend the life of mice, brain research with amputees, and discussing how to move academic publications to open access (but somehow ending with the impact of the cold war on the investment in science).
I have organised a session about citizen science, crowdsourcing and open science, in which the discussion included questions about science with monks in Tibet, and patient active involvement in research about their condition. I’ve joined two other sessions about ‘Making Science Communication Thrilling for the Lay Person‘ with Elodie Chabrol (who run Pint of Science) and Adam Davidson; and ‘Science Communication: What? What? How? Discuss‘ with Suze Kundu, Jen Gupta, Simon Watt & Sophie Meekings. Plenty of ideas (and even a sub-hashtag to get responses for specific questions) came from these sessions, but also realisation of the challenges for early career academics in developing their skills in this area, with discouraging remarks from more senior academics, and potential career risks – so we also dedicated thinking about appropriate mechanisms to support public engagement activity.
Another fantastic discussion was led by Kevin Esvelt about ‘Better than nature: ethics of ecological engineering‘ – when this involve gene editing with techniques such as CRISPR with potential far reaching impact on ecological systems. This session just demonstrated how valuable it is to have interdisciplinary conference where the expertise of the people in the room range from geoengineering to ecology and ethics. It was also a mini-demonstration of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in action, where potential directions of scientific research are discussed with a range of people with different background and knowledge.
The amount of input, encounters and discussion at SciFoo is overwhelming, and the social activities after the sessions (including singing and sitting by the ‘fire’) is part of the fun – though these were very exhausting 40 hours.
Because SciFoo invitees include a whole group of people from science communication, and as SciFoo coincide with Caren Cooper stint of the twitter account @IamSciComm account where she discussed the overlap between citizen science and science communication, I paid attention to the overlap during the meeting. The good news is that many of the scientists had some idea of what citizen science is. I always check that people know the term before explaining my work, so it’s great to see that term is gaining traction. The less good news is that it is still categorised under ‘science communication’ and maybe a useful session would have been ‘What is the problem of scientists with citizen science?’.
For me, SciFoo raised the question about the value of interdisciplinary meetings and how to make them work. With such a list of organisers, location, exclusiveness and the mystery of invitation (several people, including me, wonder ‘It’s great being here, but how did they found out about my work?’) – all make it possible to get such an eclectic collection of researchers. While it’s obvious that the list is well curated with considerations of research areas, expertise, background, academic career stage, and diversity, the end results and the format open up the possibility of creative and unexpected meetings (e.g. during lunch). My own experience is that to achieve something that approach such a mix of disciplines in a common ‘bottom-up’ academic conference is very challenging and need a lot of work. The Citizen Cyberscience summits, ECSA conference, or the coming Citizen Science Association conference are highly interdisciplinary in terms of the traditional academic areas from which participant come – but they require to convince people to submit papers and come to the conference. Usually, the interdisciplinary event is an additional commitment to their disciplinary focus and this creates a special challenge. Maybe it can be possible to achieve similar interdisciplinary meetings by getting endorsements from multiple disciplinary societies, or get support from bodies with wide remit like the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering.
Another thought is that the model of reaching out to people and convincing them that it is worth their while to come to such a meeting might also work better in allowing mixing, as open call are impacted by ‘self deselection’ where people decide that the conference is not for them (e.g. getting active participants to a citizen science conference, or ensuring that papers are coming from all flavours of citizen science).
Another delightful aspect is to notice how the unconference format worked with people that (mostly) haven’t experienced it before – the number of slots and opportunities was enough for people to mostly put their sessions forward. Although the call for people to be extroverts, the people with less confident will prepare their ideas more slowly, and can end up outside the grid. It was nice to see how some places in the grid were blocked off during the early stages, and then release to ideas that came during breaks, or for sessions that were proposed more slowly and didn’t secure a spot. There might be also value in restricting people to one session, and then progressing to more? What are the steps that are required to make an unconference format inclusive at the session setting stage?
In contrast to the approach in academic meetings to control the number of parallel sessions (to ensure enough people are showing up to a session), SciFoo is having so many, that most of the sessions are with a small group of about 10 or 20 people. This make it more valuable and suitable for exploratory discussions – which worked well in the sessions that I attended. In a way, at its best, SciFoo is many short brain storming sessions which leave you with a wish to discuss for longer.
If you get an invitation (and being flattered is part of the allure of SciFoo), it is worth going on the Wiki, give a bit of a description of yourself and think about a session that you’d like to propose – +1 can help you to get a feeling that people will be interested in it. Think about a catchy title that includes keywords, and remember that you are talking to intelligent lay people from outside your discipline, so prepare to explain some core principles for the discussion in 5 minutes or so. Don’t dedicate the time to tell people only about your research – think of an issue that bother you to some degree and you want to explore (for me it was the connection between citizen science and open science) and consider that you’ll have one hour to discuss it.
Follow the advice – say hello to everyone and have great conversations during breaks, and don’t go to sessions if the conversation is more interesting. Another take on the meeting is provided by Bjoern Brembs on his blog, with whom I had the open access conversation (and I still unsure how we ended with the Cold War). Also remember to enjoy the experience, sit by the ‘fire’ and talk about things other than science!
The slides below are from my keynote talk at the Esri Education User Conference 2016. The conference focused on creativity and its relevant to education and the utilisation of GIS (especially Esri software) at different levels of education.
My talk explored the area of citizen science and extreme citizen science and the way geographical technologies contribute to creativity and learning. As I continue to assume that many of the audience don’t know about citizen science, I start with a review of the field as a way to contextualise what we, as a group, try to do.
The talk starts with an historical perspective of citizen science, continue with the societal and technical trends that are at the basis of the current growth in citizen science. Having done that, I’m using a typology that looks at domain (academic discipline), technology, and engagement as a way to introduce examples of citizen science activities. I’m using the trailer for the TV series ‘the Crowd & the Cloud’ to recap the discussions on citizen science activities. I also mention the growth of practitioners community through the Citizen Science Associations.
Next, on this basis, I’m covering the concepts and practices of Extreme Citizen Science – what we do and how. I’m using examples from the work on noise, community resource management and earthquake and fire preparedness to demonstrate the concept.
The last part of the talk focuses specifically on creativity and learning from the Citizen Cyberlab project, and I explain the next steps that we will carry out in the Doing It Together Science project. I complete the talk by giving examples for activities that the audience can do by themselves.
Throughout the talk, I’m showing how Esri technologies are being used in citizen science. It wasn’t difficult to find examples – Esri’s GIS is used in BioBlitzes, Globe at Night, links to OpenStreetMap, and support the work that the ExCiteS group is doing. Survey123 and similar tools can be used to create novel projects and experiment with them. ArcGIS Online will be linked to GeoKey, to allow analysis of community mapping efforts. In short, there is plenty of scope for GIS as an integral part of citizen science projects.
At the beginning of the Challenging Risk project, the project team considered that before we go out and develop participatory tools to engage communities in earthquake and fire preparedness, we should check what is available.
To achieve that, we have commissioned Enrica Verrucci to help us with the review, and later on other members of the team updated the information – including Patrick Rickles, David Rush, and Gretchen Fagg. We then thought about the development of a paper from the review, and an interesting interdisciplinary discussion ensue, with different potential emphasis and structures were suggested. It took us several iterations until we’ve agreed that the best way to communicate the purpose of the review is by linking the use of digital technologies to behaviour change, with the guidance of Gabriela Perez-Fuentes and Helene Joffe who are the psychological experts on the team.
The resulting paper have just been published in Natural Hazards. It is the first paper from the project that covers all the groups that are involved in the project. Here is the abstract:
“Natural or human-made hazards may occur at any time. Although one might assume that individuals plan in advance for such potentially damaging events, the existing literature indicates that most communities remain inadequately prepared. In the past, research in this area has focused on identifying the most effective ways to communicate risk and elicit preparedness by means of public hazard education campaigns and risk communication programmes. Today, web- and mobile-based technologies are offering new and far-reaching means to inform communities on how to prepare for or cope with extreme events, thus significantly contributing to community preparedness. Nonetheless, their practical efficacy in encouraging proactive hazard preparedness behaviours is not yet proven. Building on behaviour change interventions in the health field and looking in particular at earthquakes and fire hazards, the challenging RISK team has reviewed the currently active websites, Web, and mobile applications that provide information about earthquake and home fire preparedness. The review investigates the type of information provided, the modality of delivery, and the presence of behaviour change techniques in their design. The study proves that most of the digital resources focus on a single hazard and fail to provide context-sensitive information that targets specific groups of users. Furthermore, behaviour change techniques are rarely implemented in the design of these applications and their efficacy is rarely systematically evaluated. Recommendations for improving the design of Web- and mobile-based technologies are made so as to increase their effectiveness and uptake for a multi-hazard approach to earthquake and home fire preparedness.”
‘Citizen Science as Participatory Science‘ is one of the most popular posts that I have published here. The post is the core section of a chapter that was published in 2013 (the post itself was written in 2011). For the first European Citizen Science Association conference I was asked to give a keynote on the second day of the conference, which I have titled ‘Participatory Citizen Science‘, to match the overall theme of the conference, which is ‘Citizen Science – Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy’. The abstract of the talk:
In the inaugural ECSA conference, we are exploring the intersection of innovation, open science, policy and society and the ways in which we can established new collaborations for a common good. The terms participation and inclusion are especially important if we want to fulfil the high expectations from citizen science, as a harbinger of open science. In the talk, the conditions for participatory citizen science will be explored – the potential audience of different areas and activities of citizen science, and the theoretical frameworks, methodologies and techniques that can be used to make citizen science more participatory. The challenges of participation include designing projects and activities that fit with participants’ daily life and practices, their interests, skills, as well as the resources that they have, self-believes and more. Using lessons from EU FP7 projects such as EveryAware, Citizen Cyberlab, and UK EPSRC projects Extreme Citizen Science, and Street Mobility, the boundaries of participatory citizen science will be charted.
As always, there is a gap between the abstract and the talk itself – as I started exploring the issues of participatory citizen science, some questions about the nature of participation came up, and I was trying to discuss them. Here are the slides:
After opening with acknowledgement to the people who work with us (and funded us), the talk turn the core issue – the term participation.
Type ‘participation’ into Google Scholar, and the top paper, with over 11,000 citations, is Sherry Rubin Arnstein’s ‘A ladder of citizen participation’. In her ladder, Sherry offered 8 levels of participation – from manipulation to citizen control. Her focus was on political power and the ability of the people who are impacted by the decisions to participate and influence them. Knowingly simplified, the ladder focus on political power relationships, and it might be this simple presentation and structure that explains its lasting influence.
Since its emergence, other researchers developed versions of participation ladders – for example Wiedmann and Femers (1993), here from a talk I gave in 2011:
These ladders come with baggage: a strong value judgement that the top is good, and the bottom is minimal (in the version above) or worse (in Arnstein’s version).The WeGovNow! Projectis part of the range of ongoing activities of using digital tools to increase participation and move between rungs in these concept of participation, with an inherent assumption about the importance of high engagement.
At the beginning of 2011, I found myself creating a ladder of my own. Influenced by the ladders that I learned from, the ‘levels of citizen science’ make an implicit value judgement in which ‘extreme’ at the top is better than crowdsourcing. However, the more I’ve learned about citizen science, and had time to reflect on what participation mean and who should participate and how, I feel that this strong value judgement is wrong and a simple ladder can’t capture the nature of participation in Citizen Science.
There are two characteristics that demonstrate the complexity of participation particularly well: the levels of education of participants in citizen science activities, and the way participation inequality (AKA 90-9-1 rule) shape the time and effort investment of participants in citizen science activities.
We can look at them in turns, by examining citizen science projects against the general population. We start with levels of education – Across the EU28 countries, we are now approaching 27% of the population with tertiary education (university). There is wide variability, with the UK at 37.6%, France at 30.4%, Germany 23.8%, Italy 15.5%, and Romania 15%. This is part of a global trend – with about 200 million students studying in tertiary education across the world, of which about 2.5 million (about 1.25%) studying to a doctoral level.
However, if we look at citizen science project, we see a different picture: in OpenStreetMap, 78% of participants hold tertiary education, with 8% holding doctoral level degrees. In Galaxy Zoo, 65% of participants with tertiary education and 10% with doctoral level degrees. In Transcribe Bentham (TB), 97% of participants have tertiary education and 24% hold doctoral level degrees. What we see here is much more participation with people with higher degrees – well above their expected rate in the general population.
The second aspect, Participation inequality, have been observed in OpenStreetMap volunteer mapping activities, iSpot – in both the community of those who capture information and those that help classify the species, and even in an offline conservation volunteering activities of the Trust for Conservation Volunteers. In short, it is very persistent aspect of citizen science activities.
For the sake of the analysis, lets think of look at citizen science projects that require high skills from participants and significant engagement (like TB), those that require high skills but not necessarily a demanding participation (as many Zooniverse project do), and then the low skills/high engagement project (e.g. our work with non-literate groups), and finally low skills/low engagement projects. There are clear benefits for participation in each and every block of this classification:
high skills/high engagement: These provide provide a way to include highly valuable effort with the participants acting as virtual research assistants. There is a significant time investment by them, and opportunities for deeper engagement (writing papers, analysis)
high skills/low engagement: The high skills might contribute to data quality, and allow the use of disciplinary jargon, with opportunities for lighter or deeper engagement to match time/effort constraints
low skills/high engagement: Such activities are providing an opportunity for education, awareness raising, increased science capital, and other skills. They require support and facilitation but can show high potential for inclusiveness.
low skills/low engagement: Here we have an opportunity for active engagement with science with limited effort, there is also a potential for family/Cross-generational activities, and outreach to marginalised groups (as OPen Air Laboratories done)
In short – in each type of project, there are important societal benefits for participation, and it’s not only the ‘full inclusion at the deep level’ that we should focus on.
Interestingly, across these projects and levels, people are motivated by science as a joint human activity of creating knowledge that is shared.
So what can we say about participation in citizen science – well, it’s complex. There are cases where the effort is exploited, and we should guard against that, but outside these cases, the rest is much more complex picture.
The talk move on to suggest a model of allowing people to adjust their participation in citizen science through an ‘escalator’ that we are aiming to conceptually develop in DITOs.
Finally, with this understanding of participation, we can understand better the link to open science, open access and the need of participants to potentially analyse the information.
Thanks to an invitation from John Hammersley of OverLeaf I gave a talk at #FuturePub 7 event, which was dedicated to “New Developments in Scientific Collaboration Tech”.
The evening was structured around 7 very short talks (about 5 minutes) so my slides are a very short introduction to citizen science (in this event, I would say that about 10 or the 60 people that participated said that they haven’t heard the term), a note to the societal and technical aspects of the field, few examples that might be of interest to the audience, and finally pointers to why there are links between open science and citizen science, as well as the relationships between field and the current state of scientific publication.
Some of the relevant tweets from the event about this talk:
The last 3 months were a gradual sigh of relief for the Extreme Citizen Science group (ExCites), Mapping for Change (MfC), and for me. As the UCL engineering website announced, the ExCiteS group, which I co-direct, secured funding through 3 research grants from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme (H2020), with enough funding to continue our work for the next 3 years, which is excellent. As usual in publicity, UCL celebrates successes, not the work that led to it. However, there are implications for the effort of securing funding and it is worth reflecting on them – despite the fact that we are in the success camp. While the criticism of the application process to European projects on the ROARS website is a bit exaggerated, it does give a good context for this post. In what follows I cover the context for the need to apply for funding, look at the efforts, successes and failures from mid 2014 to early 2016 (mostly failures), and then look at the implications.
This is not a piece to boast about success or moan about failure, but I find writing as a useful way to reflect, and I wanted to take stock of the research application process. I hope that it will help in communicating what is the process of securing funding for an interdisciplinary, research intensive group.
Background & context
The background is that the ExCiteS group started at the end of 2011, with a large group of PhD students – as common to early stage research groups. With the support of the UK Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) award, which is about to end soon, it was possible to start a group. With additional funding from the European Union (EU) and EPSRC projects, including EveryAware (2011-2014), Citizen Cyberlab (2012-2015), Challenging Risk (2013-2018), and Cap4Access (2014-2016), it was possible to develop the activities of ExCiteS & MfC. This is evident in the software packages that are emerging from our work: Sapelli, GeoKey, and a new version of Community Maps, methodologies for using these tools within participatory processes. the academic and non-academic outputs, and the fact that people know about our work.
However, what was clear since 2011 was that 2015 will be a crunch point, when we will need funding to allow members of the group to move from PhD students to post-doctoral researchers (postdocs). The financial implication of funding a postdoc is about three-times the funding for a PhD student. In addition, while at earlier years members of the group (regardless of their career stage) participated in writing research proposals – and helped winning them (e.g. Citizen Cyberlab), when people write-up their PhD theses it is inappropriate to expect them to invest significant amount of time in research applications. Finally, all our funding come through research projects – we don’t have other sources of income.
Research Applications – effort, successes, failures
So it was very clear that 2015 is going to be full of research applications. To give an idea of how many and the work that was involved, I’m listing them here – more or less in order of effort. I’m providing more details on successful applications but only partial on the failed ones – mostly because I didn’t check with the coordinators or the partners to see if they allow me to do so.
We started in mid 2014, when we started working on the first version of what is now DITOs. Coordinating an EU H2020 project proposal with 11 partners mean that between May and September 2014 we’ve invested an estimated 6 or 7 person months within the group in preparing it. We’ve submitted it early October, only to be disappointed in early March 2015 when we heard that although we scored high (13/15), we won’t be funded – only 1 project out of 19 that applied was funded. We then resurrected the proposal in July 2015, dedicated further 5 person months, resubmitted it and won funding after competition with 56 other proposals – of which only 2 were funded.
The next major investment was into a first stage proposal to the Citizen Observatories call of H2020. ExCiteS coordinated one proposal, and MfC participated in another. The process required an outline submission and then a full proposal. We worked on the proposal from December 2014 to April 2015, and it wasn’t a huge surprise to discover that 47 proposals were submitted to the first stage, of which 11 progressed to the second. The one coordinated by ExCiteS, with an investment of about 5 person months, scored 7/10, so didn’t progressed to the second stage. MfC also invested 2.5 person months in another proposal, as a partner. This proposal passed the first stage, but failed in the second.
The proposal for the European Research Council (ERC) was developed between May and June 2015, with about 3 person months – and luckily was successful. It competed with 1953 applications in total (423 in the social sciences), of which 277 (59) were successful – about 14% success rate.
Another fellowship proposal in response to an EPSRC call passed the first round, and failed at the interview stage (where 2 out of 5 candidates were selected). This one was developed from May 2015 and failed in February 2016, after an effort of about 2.5 person months.
We also developed the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) responsive mode proposal, which mean that we’ve applied to the general funds, and not to a specific call. We collaborated with colleagues at the Institute of Education from January 2015 to July 2015 , with an effort of about 2.5 person months, but we learned that it was unsuccessful in March 2016.
Another 2 person months were dedicated to an ESRC call for methodological research, for which 65 applications were submitted out of which 6 were funded, with our proposal ranking 22 out of about 65. In parallel, I had a small part in another proposal for the same call, which was ranked 56.
We’ve invested a month in an unsuccessful application to Wellcome Trust Science Learning + call in July 2014.
Less time was spent on proposals where we had a smaller role – a failed H2020 ICT proposal in April 2015, or another H2020 about Integrating Society in Science and Innovation September 2015. This also include a successful proposal to the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN). Because of all the other proposals, information such as the description of our activities, CVs and other bits were ready and adjusted quite easily.
ExCiteS and MfC also participated in an EU LIFE proposal – this was for funding for applied activities, with very low level of funding of only 50%, so there was a need to think carefully about which add-on activities can be used for it. However, as the proposal failed, it wasn’t an issue.
Along the way, there were also small parts in an application to the Wellcome trust in early 2015 (failed), in an EPSRC programme grant (a large grant with many partners) that was organised at UCL and on which we dedicated time from June 2014 to February 2015 (ditto), an outline for Leverhulme trust (ditto), an ERC research proposal (ditto), and finally a COST Action application for a research network on Citizen Science(which was successful!)
So let’s summarise all these proposals, success, failure, effort in one table. Lines where the funder marked in bold mean that we’ve coordinated the proposal:
We’ve applied to lots of funders and mechanisms – fellowships, calls for proposals, and open calls for research ideas. We applied to UK funders and EU. As we are working in an interdisciplinary area, we have applied to social science as well as engineering, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and in between these areas. In third of the case we led the proposal, but in the rest we joined in to proposals that were set by others. So the first point to notice is that we didn’t fixate on one source, mechanism or role.
As the table shows, we’re not doing badly. Out of the 7 proposals that we’ve led, 2 succeeded (30%). Also among the 14 that we’ve participated in 3 succeeded (20%). The overall success is about quarter. Over about 18 months a group of about 10 people invested circa 40 person months in securing future funding (about 20% of the time) for the next 3 years, which doesn’t sound excessive.
However, the load was not spread equally, so some people spent a very significant amount of their time on proposals. I was involved in almost all of these 21 proposals during this period, much more in those that we led, and in some of those that we participated as partner, I was the only person in the group that worked on the proposal. It was increasingly challenging to keep submitting and working on proposals with so much uncertainty and the very long gap between submission and results (look above, and you’ll see that it can be up to 9 months). Because of the uncertainty about success, and an assumption that only 20% will be successful at best (that’s 4 wasted proposals for every successful one), I felt that I need to keep on going, but there were moment when I thought that it’s a doomed effort.
There is also the issue of morale – as should be obvious from the fact that we’ve announced the successes recently, as the failures mounted up during the second part of 2015, it was harder to be cheerful. Because of the long gap between proposal submission and result that I mentioned, the future of the group is unknown for a significant period, and that influences decisions by people about staying or leaving, or how to use the funds that we do have.
Leaving aside that by early 2016 it became hard to find the energy to be involved in more proposal writing, there is an issue about how interdisciplinary research groups are funded. While we can apply to more funding opportunities, the responses from the failures indicated that it’s tough to convince disciplinary evaluators that the work that is being done is important. This mean that we knew all along that we need to apply more. Maybe it was a coincident, but the EU funding evaluations seem more open to these ideas than UK funders.
Second, such a high number of applications take time from other research activities (e.g. check my publications in 2014-2015). Applications, with all the efforts that is associated with them, are not seen as an academic output, so all the effort of writing the text, proofing it and revising it are frequently wasted when a proposal fail.
Third, all these proposals burn social capital, ‘business capital’, and cash reserves – e.g. having a consultant to help with H2020 project or covering the costs of meetings, asking for letter of support from business partners, raising hopes and making links with partners only to write at the end that we won’t be working together beyond the proposal. There are also negotiations with the Head of Department on the level of support from the university, requests for help from research facilitators, financial administrators and other people at the university.
Fourth, considering how much effort, experience, support – and luck – is needed to secure research funding, I’m not surprise that some people are so despondent about their chances to do so, but all the above is the result of a large team and I would argue that the clue to the ability to keeping the stamina is team spirit and having a clear goal on why the hell you want the funding in the first place (in our case, we want to materialise Extreme Citizen Science).
Finally, looking at the number of the submissions, the ranking and the general success rate of applications in the areas that we’ve applied to (about 15% or less), I have concerns that under such conditions there is a ‘crowding out’ situation, in which groups that got better resources around them (e.g. the institutional infrastructure at UCL, our internal experience) make it harder for new entrants or smaller groups. At a higher funding rate, we could have secured the funding in less proposals, at which point we wouldn’t continue to apply, and therefore allow others to secure funding.
I have no plans for another period like the one that led to the current results. I am incredibly grateful to have such a level of success, which is about the institution that I’m in, the hard work and the evolving experience in preparing proposals and, always, luck. It is very possible that this post would have counted 19 failures, so we’re very grateful to all the people who evaluated out proposals positively and gave us the funding.
Back to the funding, with all the successes, in people terms, we’ve secured funding for the 10 people that I’ve mentioned for 3 years, with further 6 PhD students joining us over that period. There are still other people in the group that will need funding soon, so probably we will put the accumulated knowledge and experience to use soon.