Hacking, war and the university

In each of the posts in this series about the role of the university in the development of hacker culture, I have indicated that central to a history of hacking should be a greater understanding of the role of military research funding. The role of federal funding from government agencies such as the Dept. of Defence looms so large in the history of hacking that I assumed it would be one of the first posts I wrote but I found that in order to understand funding of this type, I had to explore the history of US higher education, in particular the purpose of the Morrill Act and how it led to the development of universities whose remit was initially ‘applied’ scientific research and vocational training, in contrast to the teaching universities of the mid-nineteenth century, such as Harvard and Columbia. The Land Grant universities’ focus on applied science and a mandated responsibility to the development of their local regions led to research activity that became increasingly entrepreneurial over the decades culminating in the development of the Bayh-Dole Act in the late 1970s during a period of economic decline. Similarly, it was economic conditions during the 1920s that led to the development of a model for handling industrial contracts at MIT which was later used for handling federal funding across several universities during WWII (Etzkowitz, 2002; Lowen, 1997).

The defence-funded ‘AI Lab’ where Richard Stallman worked between 1971 and 1984, must be situated within a complex association of projects, people and funding arrangements at MIT that stretches back to the turn of the nineteenth century. The fact that hacker culture at MIT during the 1960s and 70s was wholly reliant on military funding has been acknowledged but not studied in the existing literature on hacking and the extent to which it was a product of university-military-industrial relations is an area for further study.

Before World War II

Federal funding to US universities was not a significant source of research income until the second World War. Lowen (1997) and Etzkowitz (2002) point to the experience of the First World War and then the Great Depression as stimuli for the closer relationship between universities and federal government. MIT President, Karl Compton, and Vannevar Bush, at that time Dean of MIT’s School of Engineering and former Vice President of MIT, were among a group of academics who “were dissatisfied with the military’s use of academic science during World War I”. (Etzkowitz, 2002, 42) This dissatisfaction should be understood in the context of an eventual shift in science policy leadership from agriculturalists to physicists during the inter-war years (Pielke Jr, 2012). Compton and Bush sought to establish an agency under the control of academics that would liaise with the military and transfer their innovations to a future war effort. Around this time, MIT lost the state funding that had originated with its land grant and entered a financial crisis which almost led MIT to become part of Harvard’s engineering school. To avoid this embarrassment, MIT’s leaders made a conscious effort to develop relations with industry and by the 1930s, the Institute had developed policies for patenting and consulting practices, as well as appealing to alumni networks.

In 1919, MIT implemented a ‘Technology Plan’ in an effort to raise the $8m required to save the Institute. As a beneficiary of many MIT graduates, George Eastman (of Eastman and Kodak) provided half of this sum. Yet despite this support, the Technology Plan was only a partial success with interest from other companies dwindling after the initial contracts expired – after all, MIT were now charging for research services they once provided for free to industry. By 1939, Etzkowitz notes, “it was accepted that the Technology Plan was a failure.” (45). However, the legacy of the plan was much greater as it established an office that negotiated research contracts with industry and this was then used as a model for how government transferred funds to MIT and a few other universities during World War II.

War-time government funding

By the time World War II began, leading academics such as Vannevar Bush, who was by then Head of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, had successfully lobbied government to create a federal agency to co-ordinate military research. In contrast to the relatively low position accorded to academic scientists during the First World War, Bush and others sought to place academics at the heart of government policy-making through the establishment of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) (1940-1). The composition of this ground-breaking committee was revealing: of the eight original members, four were academics, two were from the military, one from business and another the US Commissioner for Patents, underlining the strategic relationship between government, industry and the academy (see LoC records). The most significant achievement of the NDRC’s short history was the formation of the MIT Radiation Lab (‘Rad Lab’), which developed radar technology during the war. The Rad Lab (1940-45) was shut down at the end of the war, but became the model for future ‘labs’ at MIT and elsewhere, such that there is a ‘genealogy’ of labs (such as the AI Lab), projects (e.g. ‘Project MAC’) and people (like Richard Stallman) that can be traced back to the Rad Lab and the NDRC.

In 1941, the NRDC was superseded by the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) (1941-7), led by Vannevar Bush. The OSRD was a fully-fledged funding agency for distributing public money to support research at universities. Five universities became the main beneficiaries of this funding during the War: MIT, John Hopkins, Berkeley, Chicago and Columbia, and the OSRD co-ordinated a mass migration of scientists from universities across the country to work at one of these select centres of research.

The increase in research funding during the period of WWII was huge. Mowery et al (2004) show that federal R&D funding went from $784.9m to $12.4bn during the 1940-45 period, more than a fifteen-fold increase (all figures from Mowery et al are in 1996 dollars).  MIT was the largest single recipient ($886m), receiving almost seven times more than Western Electric who were the largest commercial recipient ($130m) (Mowery, 2004, 22). Consequently, the contractual arrangements developed at MIT prior to and during WWII, and the level of funding administered on behalf of the federal government, fundamentally changed the relationship between government and universities. The success of this arrangement led to President Roosevelt requesting Vannevar Bush to draft the famous policy report, Science: The Endless Frontier (1945), where he argued that “basic research” was the basis for economic growth which remains a common though questionable assumption today (Pielke Jr, 2012).

Post-war funding

Despite a brief dip in funding immediately after the war when the OSRD was dissolved and discussions took place over the formation of a new peace-time agency, by 1965 federal funding accounted for 73% of all academic R&D funding to US universities, compared to just 24% in 1935. Post-war funding was dominated by two agencies: defence and health, with military-related funding being split between the Dept. of Defence, NASA and the Dept. of Energy. During the 1960s and 70s “golden age” of hacking at MIT, the overall level of federal funding to universities fluctuated between 73% of all university R&D funding in 1965 to 63% in 1985, by which time a greater percentage of income was being derived from industry, assisted by the Bayh-Dole Act. The Second World War solved MIT’s inter-war financial crisis as Forman has noted:

MIT, on the inside track, emerged from the war with a staff twice as large as it had had before the war, a budget (in current dollars) four times as large, and a research budget ten times as large – 85% from the military services and their nuclear weaponeer, the AEC.

An examination of the funding arrangements for academic R&D during the post-WWI period to the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 reveals dramatic change, not only in the amount of public money being transferred to universities, but also in the way that academic scientists developed much closer relationships with government and re-conceptualised the idea, practice and purpose of science. A new ideology of science was formed, encapsulated by its chief architect, Vannevar Bush in Science: The Endless Frontier, which redefined the “social contract” between scientists and government and argued for the importance of funding for “basic research”. Throughout these developments, dramatic changes were also taking place in the institutional forms of universities and the movement of academic labour from institution to institution and from research project to research project. So-called ‘labs’, like MIT’s Lincoln Lab were large semi-autonomous organisations in themselves, employing thousands of researchers and assistants. They became the model for later ‘science parks’ and spawned projects and research groups which then became independent ‘labs’ with staff of their own, such as the AI Lab. The University of Stanford learned from this model and it arguably led to the creation of Silicone Valley (Etzkowitz, 2002, Gillmor, 2004).

The AI Lab where Richard Stallman worked from 1971-1984, is legendary in the history of hacking (Levy, 1984). Like many MIT labs, it’s origins can be traced back to the Rad Lab through the Lincoln Lab and Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), where some of its personnel formerly worked and developed their thinking around Artificial Intelligence. The AI Lab began as a research group within Project MAC (Multiple Access Computer and Machine-Aided Cognition). Project MAC was set up in 1963 and originally led by Robert Fano, who had worked in the Rad Lab. J.C.R. Licklider, who helped establish the Lincoln Lab and worked at RLE, succeeded Fano as Director of Project MAC in 1968, having worked for DARPA, an agency of the Dept. of Defence, since 1962 and was responsible for the original Project MAC grant. Licklider remained Director of Project MAC until 1971, a year after Marvin Minsky, who worked in Project MAC’s AI research group, led the split to form the AI Lab in 1970, shortly before Stallman arrived as a Research Assistant. In this pre-history of hacker culture, little more needs to be said about the AI Lab as it is well documented in Levy’s book but what I wish to underline is the extent to which the AI Lab and Stallman’s ‘Garden of Eden’ was the strategic outcome of institutional, government and commercial relationships stretching back to the NRDC and the Rad Lab.

A “triple helix” or an “iron triangle”?

To sketch the intertwining history of such labs and projects at MIT alone is not straightforward, and a preliminary effort to do so shows, as one might expect, a great deal of institutional dynamism over the years. As economics conditions and government funding priorities shifted, institutions responded by re-aligning their focus all the while lobbying government and coaxing industry. Etzkowitz refers to this as the ‘triple helix’ of university-industry-government relations and evidence of a “second academic revolution”. Others have been more critical, referring to the “military-industrial-academic complex” – apparently Eisenhower’s original phrase – (Giroux, 2007), and “the “iron triangle” of self-perpetuating academic, industrial and military collaboration.” (Edwards, 1997, referring to Adams, 1982). From every perspective, there is no doubt that these changes gradually took place, spurred on at times by WWII and the Cold War. US universities (and later other national systems of HE) initially incorporated research as a social function of higher education (revolution #1) and then moved to “making findings from an academic laboratory into a marketable product” (revolution #2).  (e.g. Etzkowitz, 1997, 2001) Today, each university such as my own, has an ‘enterprise strategy’, ‘income generation’ targets and various other instruments, which can be traced back to the model that MIT established in the 1920s.

Although the accounts of Etzkowitz and Mowery et al are compelling, they only provide cursory mention of the struggle that has taken place over the years as the university has increased its ties with the military and industry. In particular, such accounts rarely dwell on the opposition and concern within academia to the receipt of large sums of defence funding and the ways in which academics circumvented and subverted their complicit role in this culture. A number of books have been written which do critically examine this ‘second revolution’ or the “iron triangle” (e.g. Edwards, 1997; Leslie, 1993; Heims, 1991; Chomsky et al, 1997; Giroux, 2007; Simpson et al, 1998; Noble, 1977; Turner, 2006; Mindell, 2002; Wisnioski, 2012).

As these critics’ accounts have shown, there has always been a great deal of unease and at times dissent among students and staff at MIT and other universities which were recipients of large amounts of military funding. Although I do not wish to generalise the MIT hackers of the 1960s and 70s as overtly political, they clearly were acting against the constraints of an intensifying managerialism within institutions across the US and in particular the rationalisation of institutional life pioneered by the Engineering profession and its ties with corporate America (Noble, 1977). Hackers’ attraction to time-sharing systems, the ability to personalise computing, programmatic access to the underlying components of computers and the use of computers for leisure activities is characteristic of a sub-culture within the university (Levy, 1985; Wisnioski, 2012) and to some extent the developing counter-culture of that period (Turner, 2006). Such accounts, I think, are vitally important to understanding the development of hacker culture as are the more moderate accounts of federal funding and the development of the entrepreneurial university.

My final post in this series highlights the relationship between venture capital, the university and hacking.

The cost of developing a good idea

How much does a student hacker need to develop a good idea to the point that it attracts further investment?

I’ve been thinking about this recently for a couple of reasons. I was reading the early Y Combinator site, via the Wayback Machine, about how they reckoned on $6,000 per person for their first Summer Founders Program. Each new startup could expect to receive less than $20K (the average is $17,000 / £10,000), with two or three friends being the ideal number of founders per company. The Summer Founders Program was aimed at undergraduate or graduating students.

I’ve also been looking at JISC’s Elevator funding programme, where people working in UK universities and colleges (with a *.ac.uk email address), are able to pitch an idea to receive up to £10,000 funding from JISC.  That’s the same amount of money Y Combinator seeds their successful applicants with. I think the JISC Elevator is a great idea, but looking at the proposals that have been submitted so far, I’m surprised and disappointed that there aren’t any proposals where the money goes directly to students to develop ideas of their own.  Maybe students haven’t been told? I’ll admit I’ve not publicised it at Lincoln, having been busy bidding for other JISC funds (where graduating 3rd year students are the main contributors to the projects) and awarding funds to projects of our own (where students receive most of the money). Still, I feel bad about not supporting JISC Elevator more. I have voted for one proposal.

I asked Alex, an undergrad and co-worker, how much a student who is hacking on an idea all day, every day, needs to live on in Lincoln, and he reckons about £600/month. That sounds harsh to me, so let’s assume they need £800/month and that there are three of them, because after all, if you can’t persuade a couple of friends that an idea is worth working on, then it probably isn’t a very good idea (or so says Y Combinator). On a related note, Google’s Summer of Code provides students with a $5000/£3000 stipend for the summer.

When I first heard about the JISC Elevator, my immediate thought was that the £10K maximum per project isn’t very much to attract FEC costed projects involving staff, but is perfect for offering to students as bursaries. A bursary, as I understand it, is supposed to cover the costs of living, rather than being seen as a wage, so they’re similar in purpose to the GSoC and Y Combinator funds. On our DIVERSE project, almost all of the money received went to paying the fees and bursaries of two MRes students. We are also prepared to contribute a larger percentage of the overall cost. Our recently funded beBOP project is an example of this, with a recent graduate being employed on grade 4, and the funding from JISC covering only 65% of the overall cost, compared to the maximum 80%.

I’ll admit, I don’t really understand how FEC works and where a lot of the money actually goes, but for the kinds of projects that the JISC Elevator is trying to attract, as well as JISC’s Rapid Innovation calls, I do wonder whether the GSoc or Y Combinator model of funding is a more cost-effective one. Pay students to hack over the summer, with a member of staff overseeing their work and call that the institutional contribution. £10K will pay for three students to hack over the summer, travel to a conference to talk about their work and pay for some servers on Rackspace for a few months. The tools to develop software in the early stages are cheap (a basic Linux stack on Rackspace is £7/month and there are enough open source tools available to explore ideas and develop prototypes, even if the ideal tool happens to be a proprietary one.

At Lincoln, we recognise that, given the opportunity and mentorship, undergraduate students have much to contribute. They’re not simply consumers of education. Like other universities, we’ve been running funding programmes each year that fund students to work on a research project with a member of staff over the summer. At Lincoln, it’s called UROS, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Scheme. The Student as Producer UROS call was announced a few days ago. The LNCD group, which I co-ordinate awarded five projects £1000 each last week, which focus on the use of technology for education (more info on those projects soon). For the UROS and LNCD funded projects, almost all of the £1000 goes on undergraduate student bursaries. In my experience, undergraduate hackers can produce good work. Work that’s worth funding. Y Combinator thought so, too, and they’re now the most admired angel fund among young hackers. Each Y Combinator funded start-up is now guaranteed $150,000 as follow on funding by another investor. If you go Wayback to the first Summer Founders Program FAQ, you’ll see this:

Why are you doing this?

Partly because we feel guilty that we all got rich almost seven years ago, and still haven’t yet given seed money to new startups; partly because we think it is an interesting hack; and partly because we think it may actually make money.

We suspect that students, and particularly undergrads, are undervalued. Twenty years ago the idea of grad students starting companies would have seemed odd. Not after Yahoo and Google. And if grad students can do it, why not undergrads too?

I agree. Undergraduates can do it and I think institutions, together with JISC, should be thinking about our own Hatchery for Hackers.

LNCD, DevXS and Orbital

It’s been a busy summer, to say the least.

The DIVERSE project is up and running and the Linking You and Jerome projects came to a successful end. We were joined by Jamie Mahoney, a new full-time Web Developer Intern and established a new group (LNCD). We’re co-organising a national student developer conference (DevXS) and have just been awarded a £241,500 grant for Orbital, an 18 month project to develop and pilot a new research infrastructure for the School of Engineering. Orbital is a great opportunity to build on some of our earlier work and get stuck into the challenges of managing raw research data. Which reminds me: data.lincoln.ac.uk is live, too :-)

Please do tell your students about DevXS.

    Open Data at Lincoln: What have we got?

    Tony Hirst recently blogged about the Open Data scene in UK HE, mentioning Lincoln as one of the few universities that are currently contributing HEI-related #opendata to the web. Sooner or later, I’ll write a more reflective post, but here I just wanted to document the current situation (that I’m aware of) at Lincoln. There are two groups that take an interest in furthering open data at Lincoln: LiSC, led by Prof. Shaun Lawson, and LNCD, the new cross-university group I co-ordinate which consolidates a lot of the previous and current work listed below. (For a broader overview of recent work, see this post).

    Derek Foster in LiSC recently released energy data from our main campus buildings, updated every 2hrs on Pachube. I was just speaking to Nick and Alex and I think they plan to pull this data into our nucleus datastore, combine it with the campus location-based work we’ve done and generate dynamic heat maps (assuming Derek isn’t already working on something similar??)

    LiSC are also mashing open data from the UK Police Crime Statistics database to create a social application called FearSquare and last week put together MashMyGov, a site that randomly suggests mashups using data sourced from Data.Gov.UK.

    In the past couple of years, LNCD have worked on:

    JISCPress, a 2009/10 project we worked on that didn’t release any data but developed a prototype WordPress platform that atomises documents for publication and comment on the web and spits out lots of data in open formats. It also uses OpenCalais, Triplify and can push RDF Linked Data to the Talis Platform. JISC now use it to publish documents for comment.

    Total Recal, a JISC-funded project we completed recently and will roll out across the university this September. As well as providing a fairly comprehensive and flexible calendaring service at the university, it allowed us to work on our space-time data and develop a number of APIs on top of…

    Nucleus, the epicentre of our open data efforts. This is a data store, using MongoDB, which aggregates data from a number of disparate university databases and makes that data available over secure APIs. Through a lot of hard work over the last year, Alex and Nick have compiled the single largest data store that we have at the university. Currently, it offers APIs to university events, calendars, locations and people. We’ll also be adding APIs to over 250,000 CC0 licensed bibliographic records held in Nucleus, too (see Jerome below). It also uses the OAuth-based authentication that Alex has developed.

    Linking You, is a JISC-funded project we delivered last week to JISC, which looked at our use of URIs, undertook a comparative study of 40 HEI websites (more to come), proposed a high-level data model for use by the HEI sector and made some recommendations for further work. What we’ve learned on this project will have a lasting effect on the way we present our data and on our wider advocacy of open data to the university sector. I really hope that our recommendations will lead us to more discussion and collaboration with people interested in opening university data.

    lncn.eu, a URL shortener that Alex and Nick developed in their spare time for a while and has since been formally adopted by the university. Naturally, lncn.eu has an API and can be used (e.g. Jerome) as a proxy for other services, collecting real-time analytics.

    Jerome, is a current JISC-funded project that will release over 250,000 bibliographic records under a CC0 license. The data is stored in Nucleus and documented APIs will be available by the end of July. This is a very cool project managed by Paul Stainthorp in the Library (who’s also a member of LNCD).

    We’re currently using data.online.lincoln.ac.uk to document the data that is accessible over our APIs. At some point, I can see us moving to data.lincoln.ac.uk – we just need to find time to discuss this with the right people. So far, we haven’t really gone down the RDF/Linked Data route, preferring to offer data that is linked (e.g. locations and events data are linked) and publicly accessible over APIs that are authenticated where necessary and open whenever possible. We are keen to engage in the RDF/Linked Data discussion – it’s just a matter of finding time. Please invite us to your discussions, if you think we might have something to contribute!

    Two new JISC-funded projects

    Just a short note to record that in the last week, I’ve been informed that both our recent bids to JISC will be funded. The projects start on February 1st, just as Total ReCal is formally closing. As you can imagine, we’re all extremely pleased to be able to undertake this work over the next few months and are grateful for the backing that the funding provides.

    Here are summaries of the project bids. You can read the full bid documents by clicking on the links.

    Linking You << get it? ‘Lincoln U’ :-) (Google doc) (blog)

    Like most other HEIs, Lincoln’s web presence has grown ‘organically’ over the years, utilising a range of authoring and content management technologies to satisfy long-term business requirements while meeting the short-term demands of staff and students. We recognise the value of our .ac.uk domain as an integral part of our ‘Learning Landscape’ and, building on recent innovations in our Online Services Team, intend to re-evaluate the overall underlying architecture of our websites with a range of stakeholders and engage with others in the sector around the structure, persistence and use of the open data we publish on the web. Some preliminary work has already been undertaken in this area and we wish to use this opportunity to consolidate what we have learned as well as inform our own work through a series of wider consultations and engagement with the JISC community.

    Jerome (Google doc) (blog)

    Jerome began in the summer of 2010, as an informal ‘un-project’, with the aim of radically integrating data available to the University of Lincoln’s library services and offering a uniquely personalised service to staff and students through the use of new APIs, open data and machine learning. Jerome addresses many of the challenges highlighted in the Resource Discovery Taskforce report, including the need to develop scale at the data and user levels, the use of third-party data and services and a better understanding of ‘user journeys’. Here, we propose to formalise Jerome as a project, consolidating the lessons we have learned over the last few months by developing a sustainable, institutional service for open bibliographic metadata, complemented with well documented APIs and an ‘intelligent’, personalised interface for library users.

    Writing JISC bids

    Last night, I submitted two bids to JISC’s Infrastructure for Education and Research programme and, having submitted a few bids to JISC over the last year or so, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about my experience bidding for funding. Maybe it mirrors your experience, too. I’d be interested to know. Like every other bid I’ve written, you can read them online if you like:

    JISCPress (Google doc) – Awarded £26K

    JISCPress Benefits & Realisation Tender (Google doc) – Awarded £10K

    ChemistryFM (PDF) – Awarded £18K

    Powering Down? – Not funded. Read the judges positive comments in the postscript of this blog post.

    Total ReCal (Google doc) – Awarded £28K

    I might also add our Talis bid, which could just as easily have been a JISC bid. It was not funded but the judges liked it.

    And the latest two:

    Linking You << get it? ‘Lincoln U’ :-) (Google doc) UPDATE: Awarded £14K

    Like most other HEIs, Lincoln’s web presence has grown ‘organically’ over the years, utilising a range of authoring and content management technologies to satisfy long-term business requirements while meeting the short-term demands of staff and students. We recognise the value of our .ac.uk domain as an integral part of our ‘Learning Landscape’ and, building on recent innovations in our Online Services Team, intend to re-evaluate the overall underlying architecture of our websites with a range of stakeholders and engage with others in the sector around the structure, persistence and use of the open data we publish on the web. Some preliminary work has already been undertaken in this area and we wish to use this opportunity to consolidate what we have learned as well as inform our own work through a series of wider consultations and engagement with the JISC community.

    Jerome (Google doc) UPDATE: Awarded £36K

    Jerome began in the summer of 2010, as an informal ‘un-project’, with the aim of radically integrating data available to the University of Lincoln’s library services and offering a uniquely personalised service to staff and students through the use of new APIs, open data and machine learning. Jerome addresses many of the challenges highlighted in the Resource Discovery Taskforce report, including the need to develop scale at the data and user levels, the use of third-party data and services and a better understanding of ‘user journeys’. Here, we propose to formalise Jerome as a project, consolidating the lessons we have learned over the last few months by developing a sustainable, institutional service for open bibliographic metadata, complemented with well documented APIs and an ‘intelligent’, personalised interface for library users.

    At this point, I should give a few words of appreciation to Paul Stainthorp, Alex Bilbie, Nick Jackson, Chris Goddard and David Young, who helped me put these recent bids together. In particular, Paul worked with me on and off over the weekend to finish off the Jerome bid and it is all the better for it. And that brings me on to the first point I want to make about working with people.

    Open bid writing

    I don’t have that much experience raising funds. I wrote my first bid (JISCPress) in April last year with Tony Hirst, at the Open University, who I didn’t really know at the time but has since become a friend and I am now Co-Director of a not-for-profit company with him. The JISCPress project was based on some fun we were having outside of work to try to open up the way that the government consulted with the public. As you can see from the bid, we simply wrote up the ideas we were having based on our trials and errors with WriteToReply. Because of the nature of the project, we wrote the bid in public, inviting anyone to contribute or simply observe. We told lots (hundreds? thousands?) of people we were doing this through our online networks. It was liberating to write it in this way and we’ve since been commended by staff at JISC for taking this approach. Some seasoned bid writers were quite surprised that we would do such a thing, but Tony and I wanted to make a point that bid writing could be an inclusive and collaborative endeavour, rather than a secretive and competitive exercise. Neither of us felt like we had anything to lose by working in this way. It was my first bid and raising funds was not something expected of me at the time (hang on?! it’s still not in my job description! ;-) )

    Anyway, we got the funding and then some more funding and the award winning outcomes of the project are now in use by JISC and hundreds of other people. I continue to work on it with the original team, despite the period of funding being over.

    I still write most of my bids online and in public, but I don’t shout about it these days. After I was funded once, the pressure to repeat the process has, alas, made me more cautious and frankly I hate this. I still publish and blog about the bids I’ve made shortly after they’ve been submitted, but I’ve not quite repeated the openness and transparency that Tony and I attempted with JISCPress. Shaun Lawson, a Reader in Computer Science, and I replied to the Times Higher about this subject last week suggesting that there is much to be gained from open bid writing.1 I recall, also, that in a podcast interview, Ed Smith, the Deputy Chairman of HEFCE warned that competition in the bidding process might better be replaced with more collaborative submissions in the future as funding gets tighter.

    I know there are staff in JISC that really do favour this approach, too, and I wonder whether JISC, advocates of innovation in other institutions, might attempt to innovate the bid writing process by requiring that all bids received must demonstrate that they have been written openly, in public and genuinely solicited collaboration in the writing process. We are all used to submitting bids with partners and collaborative bid writing is quite the norm behind closed doors, but why not require that the bid writing is collaborative and open, too? JISC could at least try this with one of their funding calls and measure the response.

    From ‘un-projects’ to projects

    The other point I want to make is the value of being able to write bids that are simply a formalisation of work we’ve already started. There must be few things more soul destroying that being asked to look at the latest funding programme and conjure up a project to fit the call (I don’t do it). Like JISCPress, all the other bids that I’ve been successful in receiving funds for were based on work (actually, better described as ‘fun’) that we’d been doing in our ‘spare time’, evenings and weekends. We were, in effect, already doing the projects and when the right funding call came up, we applied to it, demonstrating to JISC that we were committed to the project and offering a clear sense of the benefits to the wider community. JISCPress was based on WriteToReply, ChemistryFM was based on my work on the Lincoln Academic Commons, Total ReCal, Jerome and Linking You are all based on a variety2 of work that Alex, Nick, Paul and, to a lesser extent I, have been doing in between other work. What’s worth underlining here is that we’re fortunate to have Snr. Managers at the University of Lincoln, who support us and encourage a ‘labs’ approach to incubate ideas. Inevitably, it means that we end up working outside of our normal hours but that because we’re interested in the work we’re doing and when a funding call comes up and it aligns with our work, we apply for it. As you know, to ‘win’ project funding is an endorsement of your work and ideas and it confirms to us and, importantly, to Snr. Management, that working relatively autonomously in a labs environment can pay off.

    A supportive environment

    Up to now, I’ve tried to make the point that when I write a bid, it is a somewhat open, collaborative process that proposes to formalise and build on work that we’re already doing and what we already know. I know that this is not uncommon and is not a guaranteed ‘secret to success’, but it is worth underlining. Finally, I want to acknowledge the wider support I receive from colleagues at the university, in particular from David Young and Annalisa Jones in the Research Office. I know from talking with people in other institutions that often, the bid writers remain responsible for putting the budget together (no simple task) and have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to even get the go ahead for the bid and then find a senior member of staff who will sign the letter of support. Fortunately, in my experience at Lincoln it is quite the opposite. I have very little to do with pinning down the budget. I go to the Research Office for 30 mins, explain the nature of the project, the amount we can bid for and the kind of resources we will need and a day or so later, I am provided with the budget  formatted in JISC’s template. Likewise, the letters of support are turned around in a matter of hours, too, leaving me to focus on the bid writing. There is never any question of whether I should submit a bid or not as I’m trusted to be able to manage my own time and likewise, the other people involved in the projects are trusted too. Of course, we discuss the bids with our managers while writing them and if they are concerned with the objectives or the amount of time we might be committing to the project, they are able to say so, but because we write bids that are based on work we’re already doing, it’s much easier to know whether a bid is viable.

    So that’s how it’s worked for me so far. I sent off two bids last night and I felt they were the strongest I’ve submitted so far, not least because of all the work that Paul, Alex and Nick have been doing. Frankly, neither of these bids would have been written were it not for their good work so far and their energy and enthusiasm for ‘getting stuff done’. Of course it will be nice if one or both bids are funded but the process of writing formally about the work we are doing is a worthwhile process in itself, as it helps to situate it in the wider context of work at the university and elsewhere. Now, the bids are in it’s time to relax a bit and get on with something else.

    1. “We read with interest the suggestion by Trevor Harley (“Astuteness of crowds”; 4th November 2010) that the peer review of grant applications could be replaced by crowdsourcing. We suggest going even further in this venture of harnessing the potentially limitless cognitive surplus of the academy (apologies to John Duffy “Academy Untoward” also 4th November 2010) and crowdsourcing the process of authoring the grant proposal itself. Our reasoning is that, given enough wisdom from the idling academic crowd, an individual proposal could be ironed completely free of half-baked rationales, methodological flaws, over-budgeted conference travel and nebulous impact statements and would, therefore, be guaranteed a place near the top of any ranking panel. On a serious note, we do believe there is much to be gained by both applicants and funders adopting a more transparent, collaborative and open grant bidding process, in which researchers author a funding proposal collectively and in public view using, for instance, wikis or Google docs. Indeed, we have ourselves successfully piloted such an approach (http://lncn.eu/r23), which mirrors the more positive aspects of the ‘sandpit’ experience, and unreservedly recommend it to other researchers.” []
    2. Jerome has its own blog, and we all blog regularly about work we’re doing. []

    Total ReCal (or Calendar Combiner C^2). A proposed JISC Rapid Innovation project

    I’ve just submitted this funding proposal to JISC, under their Flexible Service Delivery programme call. As usual, I’m keen to share bids sooner rather than later, whether they are successful or not. Go here for the full bid or just read the summary below. Comments always welcome. Thanks.

    Building on a university-wide initiative to improve collaborative, undergraduate research, this student-driven project will discuss, document and develop API plugins for a number of common corporate applications in the HE sector. The plugins will expose space-time data in an open, standardised format that can then be queried and aggregated by a student-centred calendaring service, which will also be developed during the course of the project.

    The work undertaken by the project will improve the student experience by providing end-users with a cutting-edge, centrally supported calendaring service driven by existing aggregate services at the University of Lincoln. The plugins, full documentation and further libraries and code examples for the service will be offered to the JISC community for use by their own institutions.

    UPDATE: I’m pleased to say that this funding application was successful. :-)

    OPACPress: Our Talis Incubator proposal

    Yesterday, I submitted a proposal to Talis under their Incubator fund. If successful, I would have the pleasure of working with Paul Stainthorp, E-Resources Librarian at the University of Lincoln, and Casey Bisson,  Information Architect at Plymouth State University. The bid is to develop an idea which I’ve posted about before, based on Casey’s work on Scriblio and our adventures with WordPress MU, in particular, JISCPress.

    Anyway, rather than re-iterating the bid here. You can read it in full by clicking here.

    Comments are very welcome. Thanks.

    UPDATE: We made it into the second round of judging but were unsuccessful in the end. Here’s the useful and fair feedback we received.

    • like the idea and how, like the Moodle repository, it can help open up existing content through data sharing. The same question as for others remains of how and why institutions would subscribe to the service.
    • I like this but I think it significantly underestimates the IP issues around library catalogue records which has been a major stumbling block for other activities in this area. That said, I think it is worth taking forward at this stage. The team looks very strong.
    • Ambitious in scope and technology, but /feels/ right for the innovative approach of this fund.
    • “Imagine that a significant number of UK universities and colleges… chose to make use of such a platform.” This type of language frightens me, indicating that they have no partnerships established, where other proposals already do. The point on issues with catalog records (above) should not be overlooked.
    • The use cases won me over. Not without risks ( as they say) and some major challenges
    • this one strikes me as particularly promising, because it has such strong ties to UK institutions and could connect to things Talis does