Research intelligence - Banking on intellectual futures

Paul Jump on the Birmingham Fellows programme drawing 50 rising stars into the university's orbit

March 8, 2012

Credit: Getty
Massive interest rate: Birmingham has been swamped by applications from scholars all over the globe who wish to join its fellowship scheme

Most early career academics who are struggling to build up research records between long stints of teaching and administration would give their eye teeth for a research fellowship.

But a fellowship that comes with a virtual guarantee of a permanent job at the end of it would be beyond the wildest dreams of most anxious thirtysomethings grinding their molars over their academic futures.

It is hardly surprising, then, that when the University of Birmingham advertised 50 such positions last year, it was inundated with interest. Yet even the architect of the Birmingham Fellows scheme, Adam Tickell, admitted that it was a "huge surprise" to receive nearly 1,400 applications.

"I thought there would be around 500 or 600," Professor Tickell, Birmingham's pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer, told Times Higher Education.

"But we had hits on the microsite from two-thirds of the countries in the world; it completely blew us away."

He said the volume of applications was partly a result of the harsh economic climate, which has forced many universities around the world to retrench.

Birmingham, in contrast, saw recruitment as the best way to address the concern that "for some time we have been underperforming as a research university and slowly slipping behind some of the universities we compare ourselves to", Professor Tickell said.

Previous efforts to recruit "outstanding" researchers at chair level - which pre-date Professor Tickell's arrival at the institution in 2011 - had been hampered by the fact that older academics were often "stuck" in their current posts because of family commitments. Nor was their recruitment made any easier by the counter-offers they typically received from their own institutions.

In contrast, younger researchers with world-leading potential are much more mobile and "probably at their most intellectually creative and ambitious", he said. He also noted that many recipients of the (now discontinued) "Roberts fellowships" offered by Research Councils UK - on which Birmingham's scheme is modelled - were now "very much the leading people of their generation".

Birmingham's finances are also relatively healthy and the institution felt it was important to invest in its "intellectual future" rather than have surpluses sitting around in the bank, he added. It intends to invest up to £4 million in the scheme over the next five years.

Although priority areas for recruitment have been identified, Professor Tickell said, he was open to applications in other areas.

Swift process

One successful applicant, French chemist Etienne Baranoff, admitted feeling somewhat intimidated by all the talk of world-leading research in Birmingham's advertisement. But a friend at the university persuaded him to submit the short research outline and CV required of initial applicants, and he was impressed by the speed at which the subsequent stages unfolded.

Within three months, Birmingham had set up three panels - in life sciences, physical sciences and arts and social sciences - that selected about 180 people to submit longer proposals. From those, it drew up a shortlist of about 100 who were invited for interview. Within another two months, Dr Baranoff was offered a position, which he readily accepted, seeing in Birmingham's streamlined process "a will to do things and not to lose time".

Despite the initial plan being to appoint about 25 researchers in the first round and another 25 in a second round this summer, the quality of applications was such that Birmingham has already made 41 offers and has so far received 32 confirmations from applicants spanning the sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Professor Tickell described the cohort as "genuinely among the best I have ever seen" and felt sure that many of the fellows would be leading their disciplines within a decade - "at least within Birmingham".

He described as "soul-destroying" the number of applicants who were not longlisted but who "in easier years would certainly have been interviewed for a lectureship". But he took that as further evidence that Birmingham's offer was compelling and "as good as you will find anywhere in the world at the moment".

Virtually all the appointees were either living in Europe already or had European citizenship, with nearly three in five coming directly from other UK institutions.

But Professor Tickell was not concerned by the lack of strong applicants from the "intellectual powerhouse" of the US, noting that starting academic salaries there are currently about double those Birmingham is offering - which, according to Professor Tickell, reflect fellows' "experience and discipline".

Quid pro quo

Lorraine Ryan, who has been appointed in Hispanic studies, praised the continuity promised by a post that will be confirmed as permanent after just two years - subject to fellows building up, in Professor Tickell's words, "a track record of research that would warrant our continuing to employ them". Nor would she have settled for less - despite coming straight from doctoral research at the University of Limerick.

She also agreed with Professor Tickell's assessment that the chance of the fellows not being awarded permanent contracts was very low.

"I am prepared to invest the time and I have been given optimum conditions. So - although this may be overconfidence - I don't see why [developing into a world-leading researcher] wouldn't happen. I see Birmingham's targets as a challenge that hopefully I will fulfil," she said.

Dr Baranoff also said his confidence had been boosted by his success, and he was sure that he would go on to fulfil Birmingham's expectations, "unless I really do nothing - and knowing myself, that won't happen".

As well as the opportunity to concentrate on research in the early stages of their careers, Dr Baranoff and Dr Ryan also welcomed the offer of start-up research funds and extensive mentoring and networking opportunities as a cohort.

Professor Tickell said this latter factor would prevent them from becoming "too narrow in their disciplines". But he also hoped it would demonstrate Birmingham's commitment to the fellows and reinforce their own commitment to the university, minimising the risk of their being poached by other institutions at the end of their fellowships.

"I will be emphasising that we are giving them a lot and they are giving us a lot, so it is mutually advantageous," he said.

Professor Tickell hopes the fellowship programme will soon become part of the university's normal business. But even if he is successful in attracting sponsorship, which he is pursuing, it would not be possible for Birmingham to absorb 50 new fellows every year, although he said the annual number recruited would be "much larger than 10".

As well as directly boosting Birmingham's research income and performance in the 2014 research excellence framework, the appointments have already shown signs of putting pressure on other Birmingham academics to "step up to the plate", he said.

"It is really encouraging that rather than feeling jealous of the fellows, people in the departments they are going to are really enthusiastic about getting such an injection of talent and [are more motivated to] get that research grant or submit their paper to Nature in order to keep up with them. That is a very encouraging thought for us."

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