Busy times

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Amazingly we are almost at the end of January and the Christmas holidays are just a dim memory. After a slow opening week everything has just exploded and I feel as though I haven’t had a moment to myself. I have spent a lot of time contemplating our REF result and now that HEFCE have released all of the submissions for our competitors, I am giving some thought to what they did and how we might have improved our own return. Although it’s all over, I remain a REF nerd and have given presentations on the outcome to both the School of Biosciences and the Vet School staff. On top of that I have been writing like a demon- a BBSRC grant was submitted just before Christmas and now I am juggling 3 other proposals with deadlines that are just a few weeks away (or less) and a major proposal that will go to the British Heart Foundation once it is finished. Add to that some acts of good citizenship (reviewing grant applications and course accreditation activities), my administrative duties and getting ready for teaching, and there isn’t much time left in the day.

Teaching begins here on Monday and I start my busiest teaching semester of the year. There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth in a month or two, when the colossal pile of marking starts to land on my desk. I am trying some new Problem-Based Learning approaches this year with our MSc students. Slightly trembly at the thought but hopefully it will be fun and successful. My fate lies in their hands. This will be the final run of my modules which are supported by the first edition of my book as the new version should be published in the summer. The cover design is finalised (I bothered almost everyone I met over a couple of days with options to choose from and the chosen version is shown at the top of this blog) and I await the typeset proofs for approval. Once those are done I would imagine the book will be available for pre-order from all good book shops.

So what’s going on elsewhere in the Langley-Evans lab? Not all of the action is based at my desk. Our activities in Africa are now at their peak as Muniirah has gone out to Uganda and will begin work on the maternal and infant nutrition study early next week. Paphani has been in Botswana for several months now and has recruited over 250 mother/child pairs so far for his study. He returns in around a month and seems on track to have recruited his whole sample, so then the data analysis will begin. We are also working hard to firm up our plans for further investigation of the Bumps and Beyond intervention in Lincoln and Sarah Ellis will be finalising her protocol for data collection very shortly. We hope to start work in the spring. MAGIC is also at a critical point as most of our data is now collected and the final stages of spreadsheet entry and checking are upon us. The first papers should be written soon.

In the laboratory itself (where the wet work goes on) it is a hive of activity as Alice, Bethan and Grace are all working on their quantitative PCR for their various gene expression measurements. I am promised data is imminent, so hopefully there will be some exciting results to report in the near future. Lujain has some interesting data on the effects of varying magnesium concentration on the growth of human vascular endothelial cells in culture and her project is beginning to take shape.

These are exciting times, as the broad portfolio of research that we are currently operating looks poised to deliver a wealth of results. As anyone who knows me will testify, I LOVE DATA! I can’t wait to get my hands on some numbers, do some stats and some thinking and then generate some more papers and grants. Yes I am busy, but I actually thrive on it. I should stop procrastinating now, post this blog and get back to something else.

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REF- what happened in the end?

If you have been following this blog for a while you will be aware that I acted as the coordinator for the University’s REF submission for Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science. This ate up around 3 years of my life and involved a level of administrative work that I have never previously had to juggle. Well, the results were announced in December and the verdict is out…

Overall I would say that the outcome represents a quiet triumph for our unit and for everyone here who was involved in putting the submission together. For those of you who are not REF-savvy, the results are put together as follows. First of all, the each research unit is assessed against three different areas:

Outputs (worth 65% of overall assessment)- an assessment of the quality of the work published over 6 years

Impact (worth 20% of overall assessment)- an assessment of how the research of the unit affects the real world outside academia

Environment (worth 15% of the overall assessment)- an assessment of the quality of the unit’s infrastructure, research strategy and planning, external collaboration and esteem, research income, postgraduate completions and staffing policies

For each of these areas work is scored as 4*, 3*, 2*, 1* or unclassified (UC). 4* represents world-class and the 4-2* range indicates work of international quality. Our unit at Nottingham, comprising the Schools of Biosciences and Veterinary Medicine and Science, scored well with 97% of our work in the international quality range. The full results are below:

–                                 Percentage of work assessed as:
–                             4*             3*           2*          1*         UC

Outputs                19.8         53.9        23.6      2.2       0.5
Impact                  47            37          10          0         6.7
Environment         100          0             0           0         0
Overall                  37           43           17         1          2

This was very pleasing for several reasons. Firstly, my predictions of the outcome were generally accurate (amazingly) and where I was out in my crystal-ball gazing, the outcome was generally better than expected. The Environment result was great- the best within our unit of assessment nationally- and a particular source of personal pride as the 15 page Environment statement was the main block of writing that I had to deliver for the submission. In the text above I did mention ‘quiet triumph’ and the reason for this lies in the way in which REF outcomes are sorted into league tables and used (hopefully) to set budgets for Universities for the next five years or so.

REF league tables can be compiled in two ways. The first ranks institutions by GPA (Grade Point Average). This is essentially the average star rating for all elements of work within the unit. Our GPA increased from 2.7 to 3.12 between the last Research Assessment Exercise in 2008 and REF 2014. However, so did everybody else’s. This gives us a mid-table position in the GPA league table. This is a result of tactical decisions made by our competitors. They appear to have opted to make small, highly selective returns to REF. In fact very few institutions in our subject area returned more than 40 staff to REF, In contrast we returned 111 fte and included the vast majority of our staff.

REF Unit of Assessment 6 ranked by overall GPA.
REF Unit of Assessment 6 ranked by overall GPA. Click on image to get a clearer picture.

This is not the reason for the feelings of quiet triumph. There is a second way of ranking institutions in terms of REF results, and that involves a measure called Research Power (RP). RP is the product of GPA and the size of the return and is the more important measure as it is the basis of the calculation of the market share of the funding available for the Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science area. RP is the preferred measure of the University of Nottingham. For RP our unit was second placed, narrowly beaten by the University of Edinburgh.

Ranking of institutions in REF 2014 UoA6 by Research Power.
Ranking of institutions in REF 2014 UoA6 by Research Power. Click on image to get a clearer picture.