Judging by my recent blog posts, the last couple of months seem to have been focused on professional development and networking activities to the exclusion of everything else. This isn’t entirely true as there’s an obvious selection bias at work in what I am writing about. These events have been interesting asides to the daily life of junior faculty (the staff meetings, teaching, people management, outreach, and the fleeting moments I actually get to spend in the lab doing science), which isn’t hugely interesting stuff to blog about.
Last week I participated in a pilot Sandpit event organised on by the College of Science and Engineering in the grand setting of St Leonard’s Hall on the Pollock Halls site in the shadow of the Salisbury Crags. The event followed the format of the EPSRC Sandpits, where researchers try to come up with some new collaborative research to address one of the EPSRC challenge areas. In contrast to the research council organised events, it was not being held over five days for big money, but over single day for seed corn funding.
The idea of the day was to give a taste of how the EPSRC Sandpit events run, with the themes for the day being Living With Environmental Change and Healthcare Technologies. The format followed the familiar facilitated rhythms of introductions, warm up exercises, ideas generation, team building, idea development and presentation in front of a panel of ‘Dragons’.
The majority of the participants were drawn from the recent intake of Chancellor’s Fellows and junior faculty, with many familiar faces. This helped, as it was easy to make connections with those people I already vaguely knew. There were enough new faces to make it a more dynamic event than it would have been if we just split into groups of pre-formed collaborations competing for the funding.
The initial research ideas were generated in two facilitated groups and going through this process it became clear that a few of the participants were pushing their own research agendas very forcefully. The Sandpits are supposed to encourage the participants to think out side of their narrow specialisms, but it was obvious that a few people were not playing in the full spirit of the event.
After the ideas were sketched out we broke for a more esoteric activity where we were asked to consider three things/ideas we couldn’t live without in our research and to discard all but one of these to a group pool. We split into groups and were given a selection of the discard pool to consider with our single card. We were asked to develop one more idea based on a selection of the concepts/themes on the cards. I think my group spent most of the time of the exercise discussing the singularity and open data, so on reflection this appeared to be about really pushing us out of our research niches and to help us think creatively. My primary criticism of this was that the Dragons were meant to be offering some input on this session, but didn’t seem to engage well with us.
With the outline proposals laid out in front of the whole group after coffee, we split into teams based on interest in particular ideas. This led to some interesting groupings, with some people expressing interest in ideas, but not able to offer any useful skills, or insight into their development. I actually abandoned a couple of interesting projects I had discussed because I felt that I had nothing useful to contribute. A few of the teams found themselves in very heated discussions because of this feeling that some people had of ownership of projects and their role in the development of the ideas into a presentation and full proposal.
The team I favoured had a really interesting idea and had engaged in the spirit of the day and none of us were pushing our personal research agendas, while all of us had something useful to contribute in terms of skills and knowledge. The presentations were fine, with the Dragons criticising in a much more constructive spirit than at the Crucible.
Post-event we had the opportunity to develop our ideas into proposals for access to some seed funding, this was a small task compared to writing a full EPSRC proposal. I contributed to a couple of proposals, which were written on the train on the way to and from Crucible last week.
Sandpits seem like a good mechanism for stimulating interesting ideas and new research groupings. Maybe they will turn out to be an unproductive fad, but I think they have potential to be a more dynamic compliment to the standard calls from the research funders. I’ll write more if any of my two proposals are funded, and the teams I am part of can generate enough momentum to produce some interesting preliminary data.