Being a member of the college video

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Iain and Peter talk about their experience of being College members. Find out how panels reach their decisions and the importance of referees comments. They discuss the kind of support they have had from EPSRC and offer their advice to new college members.

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Peter Ward [PW]

My name’s Peter Ward, I come from an industrial background, I’ve been in the semi-conductor industry for 30 years, worked several international companies, and at the moment I’m independent consulting engineer.

[PW]

I’ve been involved with the college for many years actually, I suppose the last stint is about six or seven years, but it’s been off and on as I’ve been available in the UK.

Professor Iain Thayne [IT]

My name is Professor Iain Thayne. I’m from the University of Glasgow and I lead the Ultra-fast Systems Group in the Electronics Department. I’ve been associated with the College for the last six years.

[PW]

Well I’m not what you might call a conventional college member, because the majority of them are academics, but for me, I enjoy being a member of the college because it gives me an insight into the academic community, and perhaps gives me a chance to put something into the academic community, which they wouldn’t otherwise, inputs that they wouldn’t otherwise receive.

[IT]

I think there’s definitely a policy for devolving some of the decision-making processes to the community for EPSRC, so it’s very important to be involved in that decision-making process and so as a consequence of that to be a member of the College gives you that opportunity, partly in reviewing proposals when you see them and secondly to actually be part of the decision-making process in panel meetings.

[PW]

The referees’ reports are fundamental to the panel because that’s the starting point and the fundamental inputs to the panel, without good referees reports the panel simply can’t function. Apart from anything else, the panel itself can’t hope to cover the huge breadth of subjects which come up in front of it, so we have to rely on the expertise of the referees.

[IT]

The panel decision making process is quite an interesting one, basically when a proposal is submitted to EPSRC, the first thing that happens is that it goes out to external reviewers for assessment. And then providing that those reviews are sufficiently positive then those proposals are combined and a panel’s formed. In the panel process itself you’re not in a situation where you’re actually re-refereeing the proposal, you’re directed not to do that but rather to take on board the views of the reviewers comments and then to try to make a value judgement on the quality of the proposal based on those assessments. The interesting aspects come when you’re trying to rank the various proposals, because often there are a very, very large number of very, very high quality and fundable applications and the issue is then how you actually go about doing that.

[PW]

The single biggest problem with the referees’ reports is when they don’t actually write anything, they just tick the boxes, the key thing in referees’ reports is they really need to explain why they think a proposal is good, or why they think it’s bad. It’s really not just good enough to say excellent, excellent, excellent, outstanding, outstanding, and sign your name at the bottom, because that doesn’t give the panel anything to work with.

[IT]

The job of the panel is to take often disparate proposals from different subject areas and try to come to some ranked conclusion on which areas should be, which projects should be funded and regrettably there’s never enough money to support everything. But you’re working very, very strongly on the comments from the external reviewers in this process. The panel is not at liberty to re-referee the proposal and the key things, the pieces of information that you’re using to make the decision are the reviewers comments, plus the responses of the investigators to the reviewers comments. So actually the responses that you make as a PI, having got your referees comments back is actually very, very important, because it can make a huge difference to whether the proposal ultimately is ranked highly or not.

[PW]

The EPSRC website is very helpful, very useful, you can find all the information you need, what I tend to do is ring people up, and generally EPSRC people are extremely helpful, extremely obliging, and they help you out if you have a problem with something. So I would advise people just talk to the guys here in Swindon, because they’re very knowledgeable and very helpful.

[IT]

The key thing for referees is that they put a lot of narrative into their reports. It’s no good to just tick the boxes, we need to have lots of words there, so you can actually make a value judgement on what this person really believes, because having a digital response on something being good, adequate, outstanding or whatever, really doesn’t give full justice to the scope of the proposal, so we need very, very strong narrative.

[IT]

Managing the college work, it’s part of the job, so it just has to be done. You can go through a number of months where you don’t receive any proposals to review, and then suddenly a number will arrive on your desk at the same time, and often, it can be challenging to find the time to give due opportunity to do justice to various proposals. I would say you probably need between one to two hours to look at each proposal properly to give it a rigorous scrutiny. And then for panel meetings themselves, well you get a lot of documentation, maybe two weeks before the proposal, before the panel review meeting, and I would say on average probably require between 12 to 15 hours of preparation work, plus the day at Swindon to actually go through the whole process. So in some regards it’s fairly arduous, but as I said at the outset, it’s very, very important that the whole process is properly dealt with, and people do allocate enough time to ensure that fairness is achieved.

[IT]

I think the support and the administrative aspects that EPSRC provide are very, very strong. So the documentation is usually very full and we’re given good steer and good guidance and so on, so I think actually they have to be complemented on that.

[PW]

I think the single piece of advice I’d give to anybody that was thinking of joining the college or is approached to join the college, is enjoy it, because it is a very interesting, challenging and fun thing to do, because you see stuff that you would never normally look at in a month of Sundays and it really does open your eyes to what’s going on around you, and sometimes can be quite intellectually challenging to actually have to read up on something that is a million miles away from your speciality.

[IT]

I think for new college members the key aspect is that you should be aware that although you’re having to devote some time and effort to this you do actually benefit from it in many ways. It gives you better insight into the way in which you should be writing proposals if you want to be successful. And at the end of the day maybe having that inside track if you like, is a very useful thing for your own activities.