Thinking of claiming 40% of your time on a grant?: Some words of advice on costing grants

While I’m on the topic of grants, here is another little piece of advice.

I review grants for RCUK and numerous charities around the world, some of which allow you to budget for staff costs. It is this latter point that I would like to offer a little bit of advice based on my reviewing experience.

If a peer-reviewer has any sense then one of the things they will put quite a lot of weight on when making a decision as to whether to recommend a grant for funding is cost. Obviously, this is a measure that the grant cmt’s also make.

Do not be fooled. Your price tag is very important. The more you ask for the more critical the reviewer will be and will hold you to higher and higher standards. If you are asking for a lot then you are taking a big slice of that round’s funding which means other worthy projects cannot be funded: more smaller grants can be funded with that pot of cash than bigger ones. So, if you’re asking for close to a mill then it better be focused, tightly written, blockbusting material (and on the latter point, you as the PI might not be the best judge of that). So, realise that if you ask for a lot of money you could be pricing yourself out of the market.

Of course, total amount asked for is a blunt instrument: it’s what you plan to do with it that counts.

Firstly, if you have never had a grant before, then ask for a small amount. No-one is going to fund you if you are the only investigator and you want £500k.

Secondly, be reasonable with asking for payment for staff time. RCUK usually work on the principle that anything over 40% is unreasonable. However, the people assessing your grant will have a fair idea of how much time is needed to successfully complete the grant on time and on budget. So, don’t think you can pull a swifty. My rule of thumb is that 20% and higher requires iron tight reasoning.

Following up on the latter point, in RCUK there are sections on Staff Duties and Justification of Resources. These sections allow you to go into great detail as to what everyone who is claiming staff time for will do. Saying that you will supervise the overall project is not sufficient. You need to be really detailed. And, if you are claiming 20%+ in time I expect you to be REALLY detailed about how you will be spending your time. If you claim for 20% and only say you’ll supervise the day to day running of the project then I will not be happy. That is what postdocs do, not PIs.

Thirdly, people like me calculate the proportion of the costs of the grant that is being spent on PI/CI time. If it is top heavy on staff time you could be looking at a reject based on cost effectiveness.

Fourthly, in this climate, you have to have a really good reason to cost for a postdoc. Obviously, postdocs out there don’t want to hear that, but in many cases, where experiments are relatively simple with no specialised techniques or populations or equipment, someone with an MSc could do the job just as well for a snip of the price. So, if you really want a postdoc then you need to go to town on justifying why. At the same time, if you want a postdoc then you are going to have to cut back on claiming PI time, as the postdoc can do much of the day to day running of the grant for you. Otherwise, you’re double dipping, and undermining your claim of needing a postdoc.

If you are PI and have a senior role within your university then you need to be cautious with the amount of time you claim for. If you are Dean and claim for 20% time a reviewer could reasonably query how you will find that time during the week to devote to the grant and juggle other substantial responsibilities. My recommendation is reduce the time requested (and, given that such people will have big salaries, will cut costs), and request an experienced postdoc instead. I think that seems reasonable and practical.

Only under exceptional circumstances will a claim for a full time postdoc plus full time RAs be acceptable. If you really do need this then you need to justify it.

Basically, don’t be cheeky, and don’t expect reviewers or grant panels to accept your view that you need all this money for your time, your CI’s time, or that you need postdocs and RAs. We are not mind readers and without justification it just looks extremely cheeky.


Quick, but incomplete, guide to Psychology publishers

Having flagrantly abused the inspection copy policy of academic publishers over the last year I’ve learned a quick rule of thumb for some publishers when looking for certain types of books.

Sage: If you want an excellent selection of research methods & statistics books this is the house to check out first. They have excellent intro books and ones for more advanced users. A bit US-centric though.

Palgrave McMillan: Apparently known as the “premier” academic publishing house, they do fantastic books for lay audiences, and some wonderful “controversial” mental health books (i.e., they piss all over the biomedical model, so immediately gets an A+ from me). If you are interested in social psychiatry, this is the place to go.

Wiley: Does some wonderful specialist books, especially on forensic psychology, as well as what I call the “belts-and-braces” books (i.e., the massive door stoppers that provide wide coverage of an area; the type of book you buy in first year and does you for your entire degree). However, on the latter point, they tend to dodge controversy or do a poor job of providing alternative theories to mainstream ones, and rather uncritically accept mainline theories (i.e., beware the dogma!), and some of their BPS Blackwell books are shockingly bad (and with errors!).

The above houses also have super friendly sales staff. Obviously, it is in their interest to get you to recommend one of their books, but I have found them to be genuinely helpful in recommending books I’d never heard off, and they don’t pester you to recommend.

Penguin: Hands out inspection copies like they are made from fairy dust and unicorn horn (i.e., ye cannae get them), so I’m unlikely ever to read one or recommend one! I don’t actually know why an academic would publish with them if they aren’t willing to hand out inspection copies.


There are obviously tonnes of academic publishing houses, but these are the one’s I’ve had sufficient dealing with (or not, in the case of Penguin) to be able to form an opinion on.

Graham Davey talks sense on “biomedical mental health research”

Stumbled upon this post by Prof Graham Davey of Sussex Uni and Chair of Experimental Psychopathology. You go Graham!

Experimental Psychopathology – Is it really necessary to implant an electrode or light up the brain with a scanner to do proper Mental Health Research?

I’ve just spent a very stimulating and enlightening couple of weeks, first at the Rome Workshop in Experimental Psychopathology, and then at the University of Exeter – both times talking about experimental psychopathology. But these talks were not just about how to do experimental psychopathology, they were also about how many other researchers were simply not equipped to do experimental psychopathology, or simply had no idea about what this scientific paradigm was. And that has some very dramatic consequences for mental health funding, as well as our broader understanding of the mechanisms that contribute to mental health funding.

Let’s be quite clear about the main issue here. Most funding for mental health research goes to high profile, expensive, medically oriented research on the biological substrates of mental health problems. Why is that? Well, while psychologists learn about both biological mechanisms and psychological mechanisms, medics simply don’t learn about psychological mechanisms – in fact they tend to have no knowledge whatsoever of the inferential methodologies that allow psychologists to develop models of psychological processes – but rather sadly, there is a majority of those medics on the panels of most funding bodies for mental health research.

Is this important? Yes it is, because, I’m quite happy to assert that most common mental health problems are acquired through perfectly normal psychological mechanisms that involve attention, decision-making, learning, memory and other general cognitive processes – so the mechanisms are not in any way abnormal – only the outcomes of the process are abnormal – so why do we waste research time and taxpayers money trying to look for abnormal neurological mechanisms or medically aberrant signatures of psychopathology when they probably do not exist?

As an experimental psychologist studying learning in nonhuman animals I learnt a lot about inferential experimental methodologies that allowed us to infer cognitive processes in any organism – human or nonhuman. These are the same types of methodologies that are used to understand most human cognitive processes – such as memory, attention, decision-making and learning. What many researchers from a medical background do not grasp is that scientific method allows us to infer the nature and structure of psychological mechanisms without having to know anything about the biological underpinnings of these mechanisms. In fact, whatever medical or biological research does subsequently to psychologists elaborating these mechanisms will merely be to substantiate the infrastructure of these mechanisms – and indeed, as radical as it may seem, it will be very little more than that.

Experimental psychopathologists should have the lead on all research questions to do with the aetiology of mental health problems. Their research is cognitive, experimental, inferential, provides evidence for the causal relationships that underlie the acquisition of mental health problems, and allows the development of testable models of mental health problems – and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than most other medically driven approaches!

I have recently been heard to say that experimental psychopathology needs a manifesto to enable it to compete with other explanatory approaches to mental health problems such as neuroscience and genetics – well, it does. We need this manifesto to prevent other disciplinary lobbies from monopolizing funding and – most importantly – from hijacking the way we explain mental health problems. Most mental health problems develop out of perfectly natural psychological processes – not medical problems. Understanding those processes in the normal, inferential way that psychologists do research will provide the basis for good mental health research.

MSc Research Methods in Psychology….a swiz for some students

In the last couple of years I’ve known some students who’ve been turned down for a place on MSc Research Methods in Psychology courses because they have a 2:2.

This seems to be recent phenomenon. Traditionally, the MSc has been a conversion course for non-psychologists and for students with 2:2’s to bring them “up to standard” for a career in research.

Not anymore, apparently. Who are on these courses now? Students with 2:1’s or 1sts who want to do PhDs.

My issue with this is that if you have a 2:1 or a 1st you don’t need to do an MSc!

I have two reasons for this statement. Firstly, if you want to do a PhD you are more than qualified to go straight onto the PhD programme. Secondly, if you want to do a PhD then you will do these courses in the first year of your PhD anyway. You are being conned! You are paying for something twice!

Now, if you aren’t sure research is your bag, or haven’t made up your mind what you would like your thesis to be on, then they are perfect for you. But, if you have the qualifications and know what you want to do then go straight into the PhD.

And, it is the ESRC we have to thank for this. They started it off about a decade ago with their 1+3 studentships whereby they would pay for the MSc and the PhD. Those wanting to apply for the +3 awards had to already have the MSc. But, back then, if you weren’t going to apply for an ESRC award (and given how few go out to psychology students especially outside the “golden triangle”) you would be very sensible to save your money and apply straight for the PhD.

And, of course, universities got in on this game, and re-jigged their programmes so that they encouraged students to chase after elusive ESRC awards that they were highly unlikely to get, and the whole admissions process for the MSc seems to have been corrupted. Even departments not part of doctoral training centres appear to have taken on this admissions model.

Who loses out? The very students that those MScs are there to benefit.

Anyone who has had a PhD student knows that academic qualifications are a terrible indicator on suitability for studying for a PhD. Some of the best students got a 2:2 but got a 1st in their undergraduate project. It is the latter which is the better yard stick.

For any of you finding yourself in this boat with a 2:2, no place on an MSc, but you know that research is what you want to do, then there is one option. It won’t be easy. But, find someone to mentor you. You’ll probably end up working voluntarily but offer your services to run some experiments. Encourage your mentor to help you with stats training, introduce you to philosophy of science, critically analyse papers, help write up data or analyse an outstanding data set (if you have a good mentor they probably have years worth of data waiting to be analysed and written up). You don’t need to be there everyday so you could work it around a part-time job (which will help pay for the holy MSc the following year).

Don’t be disheartened and don’t give up! If research is what you want to do realise that the 2:2 is no indicator of your likely success in research.

Wouldn’t life be so much better if we used the rule of parsimony? Maybe not, but students would get better exam marks

Oh, I do love parsimony (specifically, the one related to Occum’s razor).

If there is anything that you take away from a psychology degree be it the rule of parsimony.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone ever mentions it in undergraduate degrees these days. Probably because if they did then students would realise that biological psychology is unfit for purpose.

Friends and family arguing some bullshit theory? Take a pair of parsimony scissors to it.

And, if you really want a first class mark in your exam, evaluate theories using parsimony. Just mentioning parsimony these days will probably get you a first.

I’m not going to actually define the rule here because someone will inevitably complain about the latin translation that I use. But, if you can’t be arsed to google it, and want a crash course in it and an entertaining story, go watch Carl Sagan’s “Contact” with Jodie Foster. After you’ve seen that, I guarantee you’ll want to google it.

Those who ignore their past are doomed to repeat it, especially in neuroscience

While I was trying to get off to sleep on Monday night, I had Start the Week on, which happened to be about “The Mind”.

I put “The Mind” in inverted commas and capitals because it was the typical modern view by journalists of what they think it is. “The Mind” = “Neuroscience”.

I had to listen to neuroscientists waxing lyrical with one of the big myths of neuroscience….that it will provide clinical interventions.

Apparently, although we’ve studied brain plasticity for several decades and it has failed to produce any decent interventions, for example for stroke, we can look forward in the future to it doing so.

We just need to continue re-focusing all the grant money away from basic behavioural psychological work onto this mythical area that eats through money and machinery and never produces anything of any significance.

But, don’t worry readers, if we continue to do the latter, those interventions will eventually come. Ignore the last 100 years of research’s failures. The past is no measure of what is to come.

I’ve heard this argument before in psychiatry over the so-called magic pills for mental distress.

Listen up guys. Several tens of billions of dollars invested in psychopharmacology has yet to provide an effective treatment for any form of mental distress better than placebo and which doesn’t come with life changing side effects.

Exactly the same can be said about neuroscience.

You’re all suppose to be scientists. You’re all tackling these issues with exactly the same mindset as everyone who came before you.

Why do you think that either of these things are going to change?

You both need a paradigm shift. Otherwise, it is pouring money down the plug hole and warping science.

What exactly is a psychology degree worth?

I know that you will be about to think that I have a personal vendetta against Sian Williams. I’ll admit I don’t like her. I find her a lightweight “journalist” only interested in false declarations of emotion, sensational headlines, and with a penchant for crocodile tears.

But, given that she seems to drop this almost mythical “MSc in Psychology” into every interview of late, I thought I would actually visit the university webpage and find out exactly what it is as I am not familiar with such an MSc. I’d also read articles implying that she is looking to move into a career in psychology, which I thought was odd, as most MSc’s in Psychology do not give you GBR.

Anyways, this one does! But, this is what a few years ago we would have called a “conversion course” or “GBR course” and it would certainly not be considered an MSc.

But, it got me thinking. Why would anyone spend £27k on tuition fees for a Psychology undergraduate degree over three years in England when you can do an MSc postgraduate degree for £6k in one year?

And, what worries me more is, how can a one year postgraduate degree, of which I assume only 9 months is actually teaching based, equal a three year undergraduate degree? If you really genuinely can do an accredited degree in 9 months why are we encouraging students to plow tens of thousands of pounds and three to four years of their lives into something that they can get for a fraction of the price in a fraction of the time?

Put it this way, would you want someone with 9 months training offering expert psychological advice to your child?