Evaluating proposals for European research

h2020Funding for research is tight and getting tighter, at least if you listen to researchers. Mind you, academics’ complaints are not much of an indicator: many of my colleagues moaned endlessly during the early years of this century, when public funding for academic research reached unprecedented heights.

Budgets have been tightened or cut since then, yet the institutional and sytem wide pressures for external funding are greater than ever. Competition for research funding is particularly fierce at the European level. I’m currently in Brussels, along with a couple of hundred other social scientists who are helping to evaluate proposals under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme.

Overall, the Commission is making €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020), with a strong focus on research that will promote technological, economic or social innovation. Like all EC programmes, the funding is drawn from member states’ budgets, in this case the budgets for publicly funded science and research.

Of the total, just under €10m was set aside for 2015 to support research and innovation on the theme: Young Generation in an Innovative, Inclusive & Sustainable Europe. I’m currently in Brussels helping to evaluate the 145 proposals that were submitted, which it’s likely that five will be selected.

Putting together a proposal is a lengthy and painstaking business. It involves bringing together partners of different kinds and from different European countries, as well as securing the formal commitment of each of the participants, and getting them all agreeing on a detailed plan of work. At the end of all that, the odds of your getting funded are one in thirty.

We’re going to have a tough week making the decisions, but the process is much, much toughter on those who have produced the proposals.

Neuroscience and the impact of adult learning – or why I got it wrong on mindfulness

Meditating_in_Madison_Square_ParkWhile I hope I have always been polite about it, I’ve never had much time for things like mindfulness or meditation. They ring of new age phooey, embraced by enthusiastic zealots who dismiss the very idea of any evidence beyond their own beliefs. Courses in these subjects have always seemed at best harmless, at worst a tax on the gullible.

Well, I got that one wrong. A recent review by a group of neuroscientists from Canada, Germany and the USA brought together the findings of research into the impact of meditation and mindfulness classes on the adult brain, with impressive results. For anyone concerned with lifelong learning, their findings are consistent with the view that our brain is not fully formed at the end of adolescence, followed by a long phase of dreary decline, but continues to change during adult life.

One of the studies reviewed compared people who had taken an eight-week mindfulness stress reduction class with a control group who had applied for the class and gone onto the waiting list. Longitudinal scans of their brains showed that course participation was associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

Other studies reviewed consistently showed that meditation caused changes in the brain regions concerned with memory consolidation, meta-awareness, and self and emotion regulation. While the evidence was less abundant, the researchers concluded that there were gounds for believing that meditation interventions can also offset age-related cognitive decline.

This research is potentially of huge importance for our understanding of lifelong learning. Earlier studies, such as the well-known case of London taxi drivers, have already shown that the adult brain is plastic – that is, it continues to change throughout the life course. The mindfulness research not only confirms this, but shows that what is true for the right hippocampus in taxi drivers is also true for other parts of the brain; and that planned interventions can cause brain change.

While the importance for lifelong learning is clear, what this means in practice is far from simple. There is a good news story here about resilience and the avoidance of cognitive decline, which is of obvious significance for policy-makers and employers, who might otherwise be as sceptical about the value of these interventions as I was. It might also be useful for the public, particularly older adults, to understand why they need to exercise their minds as much as any other muscle. But what none of this tells us, at least so far, is what to teach and how best to teach it.

Learned societies and social media: historians on Twitter

royal hist soc

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ways in which learned societies in education were using social media, and Twitter in particular. Twitter matters because it is a way of engaging with a broad public audience while making often unexpected connections between researchers who have something to say to each other.

Education researchers, I thought, seemed to be finding Twitter a bit of a struggle. Some big societies didn’t have a Twitter account, some accounts were dormant, and none had a particularly impressive number of followers. Some people thought this was a bit unfair, so I decided to look at historians, to see how they compare. I picked historians partly because some of my own interests like in the history of education and training, and partly because they are a small (compared with education) but well organised research community.

learned soc hist I expected that historians would come out of the exercise looking good – or at least better than educationists – and so it seems. The peak societies are well-represented on Twitter, attracting much larger follower numbers than are their equivalents in educational research.

Specialist societies are also generally active, with the rather surprising exception of the Economic History Society. While only one education society had over 2,000 followers, and only two had more than 1,000, the table shows that such levels of support are common for learned societies in history.

So my main finding is that historians seem to be much more successful at network-building through social media than educationists. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that the peak learned societies for historians have been around for much longer than – say – the British Educational Research Association. It’s still interesting, though, that the historians have taken so readily to Twitter to maintain and build their networks.

I am also aware that historians have, over time, developed very close connections with a wider public that is keenly interested in historical issues, and social media are an obvious extension of this. My list reflects this with the example of History West Midlands, a local group with more Twitter followers than any educational society apart from BERA. It seems rather odd that education scholars, with their natural constituencies of teachers and learners, have so far failed to do the same.

What I haven’t done, of course, is look here at the ways in which different societies use Twitter. That would be an interesting exercise, and of course the simple numbers can only be a rough guide to the level of engagement that is involved. And the table also suggests that while historians as a group punch above their weight on Twitter, there are also gaps and unmet potential; some of the smaller accounts seem to be dormant. Scholarly engagement through social media remains in its early days.

How healthy is UK research on higher, adult, further and vocational education?

You’d have to be a hermit not to have heard about the recent assessment of research in UK universities. The results were reported, and discussed, well beyond the shores of these islands. Overall, the panel for Education decided that 96% of the research submitted was of international quality, with 30% of the total being ranked as 4-star, or at the very highest level of quality.

These published results are for the discipline as a whole; we don’t know exactly how the panel rated research into adult learning or other forms of non-school education. But we can get a broad impression of how different sub-areas were viewed, as the panels have now published ‘overview reports’ for their discipline.

The overview report for Education devoted one paragraph to its views on research in higher education and one on further, adult and vocational education. Both were largely positive about the quality of what the panel saw, but the overview also notes a clear decline in the volume of research that universities submitted in further,adult and vocational education.

ref higher ed

REF adult ed

Are these generally positive judgements reasonable ones? I suspect that, bearing mind that universities are very selective in what they submit for assessment, it is hard to disagree with them. It is also clear that a lot of research capacity in adult, further and vocational education has been lost in the UK, and replacing it in future will be extremely challenging.

Some may think this is because the sub-area is always treated in educational studies as smething of an after-thought. And if you are in the mood for a good conspiracy theory, then notice that while the sub-header of the second paragraph refers to ‘adult’ education, the text mistakenly refers to ‘higher’ education, which hardly suggests that the panel paid close attention to the content of this paragraph.

Breastfeeding vouchers and the public misunderstanding of science

I planned to blog about Keir Hardie’s views on labour colonies today. But I was so taken aback by public reactions to a new research project that I decided to leave the old Labour leader for tomorrow.

The project in question is one of a set of trials, which will explore the use of vouchers as a way of improving public health. One, for example, is examining the effect of healthy food incentives on obesity. The study which hit the headlines is testing whether vouchers will raise levels of breastfeeding among women who belong to groups where breastfeeding levels are low.

This story could also have been designed to investigate how the public misunderstand research. It has nearly everything that tabloids love – breasts, social class, irresponsible mothers, moral decline, Northern England, and easy jokes about the ‘nanny state’. All that us missing from the mix – so far – is a crazed terrorist asylum seeker.

So out poured the hostility. Predictably, the tabloids were quick off the mark, while the instantly enraged took to Twitter to attack the researchers’ motives and lament the declining standards of British motherhood. In all the fuss, the original story – that this is a trial – got lost. And I assume it got lost because it stood in the way of a flood of emoting opinion.

It occurs to me that something very basic is missing from the way we discuss science – and research in general. The point of a trial is to find out what the effects are of a particular intervention. You can then discuss the findings, work out whether the intervention should be tried in other contexts, and eventually decide what the practical implications are.

The nature of trials is that sometimes you test an intervention that does not have the effects policy makers would like. At least, not with that population at that time. This is, of course, a cue for the tabloids and emoters to shout about a waste of public money. But that’s trials for you: they produce evidence, and you can then apply logic to analysing that evidence.

In this case, the purpose of the study is to improve babies’ health and raise their life chances as adults. If vouchers have that effect, then they might be worth pursuing further. If not, then the researchers from Sheffield and Dundee will have learned something, which may or may not help lead us to other studies of other possibilities.

This isn’t very glamorous, and some of my fellow researchers will think it is “positivist”. And they don’t mean this as praise. But I prefer collecting and analysing evidence to relying on emotion and opinion.

I wish the medical researchers in this project well, and I also look forward to seeing the results. As I do with another set of studies, which NIACE is supporting, which is using trials to examine pedagogic approaches to literacy and numeracy teaching.

Disability and research in adult learning

How do adult learning researchers treat the question of disability? Based on a keyword search, I estimnate that between 2003 and 2012, the International Journal of Lifelong Education published four papers on disability, Adult Education Quarterly published three and Studies in the Education of Adults published none.

Moreover, two of the papers in IJLE focused on the experiences of practitioners, and one in AEQ reported on a study of disability activists as activists. Admittedly, some authors will cover disability as one of several forms of exclusion or sources of identity, and I have not tried to count those.

This leaves a total of four papers which focused on the experiences of disabled learners, in three eminent journals in the course of a decade. For a research community that prides itself on its interest in equity and justice, we clearly have a long way to go.