Friday, 26 July 2019

The rather staggeringly obvious face of racism and xenophobia in Edinburgh

I bloody love Edinburgh. It’s why I’ve lived here for 15 years. I fell in love with the city when I visited as a tourist in 2003. I love it when people I follow on social media visit the city for the first time and post photos in awe at the beauty and idiosyncrasies of this wonderful, unique city. It rekindles that love in me.

Over the fifteen years I’ve lived in the city the number of tourists visiting the city has increased dramatically all year round. This has, quite rightly, led to debates about what impact this is having on the city. Tourism was presented solely as an economic benefit to the city, bringing in money and creating jobs and opportunities. Now the costs of tourism are being highlighted and the debate about the Hotel Tax in Edinburgh began to suggest that the industry does not provide sufficient social economic benefit to outweigh its social costs. I support such a levy wholeheartedly and I found the hoteliers’ arguments that it would put off visitors absolutely laughable. This would suggest a truly incredibly elasticity for demand for tourism in the city. And, as I once ruminated on Twitter, the whole reason cities like Edinburgh are tourist hotspots is they have monopolistic qualities – there is only one Edinburgh. I’m not going to visit Birmingham just because Venice has a hotel tax and Birmingham has more canals. And tourists are not going to flock to stay in Stirling instead of Edinburgh, just because it’s got a castle in the middle of it.

The negative impacts of tourism on Edinburgh are becoming a much greater part of public discussion in the city due to the explosive growth of Air BnB, and the number of flats in the city shifting from the private-rented sector to short-term lets. It does seem there is some evidence that this is happening, and anecdotally I know it’s more difficult than ever the get a PRS flat in the city.

In many ways I’m very glad this debate is happening. I’ve recognised for some time that Edinburgh needs a proper tourism strategy that isn’t just about encouraging more tourists, growing the industry, and ensuring tourists have a great time, but is rather about balancing that growth with the sustainability of the wider city and the experience of longer-term residents.

What I don’t like, increasingly, is the way this debate is happening. Basically, this debate is increasingly racist and xenophobic and portrays Edinburgh as being like Royston Vasey – a local city for local people (although in my case, the Royston Vasey slogan of “You’ll Never Leave” does seem to apply). What is most concerning to me, is this racist dog-whistling is increasingly coming from heritage organisations.

The most egregious recent case of this, which caused me to write this blog post, was the reporting of a report carried out by Edinburgh World Heritage on the damage of tourism to the Old Town, in The Scotsman on 25 July 2019. The news article stated: “Surveys of more than 500 visitors found they were far more likely to feel “surrounded by foreigners” than “hear Scottish accents” on the Royal Mile.” The same is repeated in the EWH press release and their report (p.9). I’m sorry, but as an Edinburgher without a Scottish accent, funnily enough I find it deeply offensive that I’m not seen to be an “authentic” part of the Royal Mile by the EWH. The last time I noted that foreign accents were talked about in such a way in the press was when Nigel Farage was lambasted for saying he felt uncomfortable hearing foreign languages.

Edinburgh’s civic association, The Cockburn Association, is also quite bad at broadcasting similar views through its twitter activity. On numerous occasions this year I have sub-tweeted (for fear of a Twitter pile-on) when it has re-Tweeted people who are, in the most thinly veiled way, advocating for an Edinburgh that is only for white people, born here, who speak with a “local” accent (of course, anyone who knows the city knows there’s a BIG difference between the local accents of Leith and Wester Hailes and the local accents of Trinity and Morningside).

This xenophobia becomes even more of a problem for me when it spills over into other development controversies in the city. Here I see, with an alarming increase, a coalition between a xenophobic heritage lobby that wants to preserve everything, and a green/left lobby that believes everything that is local is good. Therefore, a proposed development is opposed, and in the opposition the developers’ nationality becomes a key feature. Why? Do you not want “them” making money in “our” city?

With four universities in Edinburgh, this xenophobia also emerges in debates about the development of student accommodation. Again, Edinburgh is seeing a massive expansion of private sector student accommodation. This has problems that could be better managed, in particular the poor quality of much of the building which means it cannot be used for anything else if the market for international study collapses. The biggest issue for me is I see it as a way developers can bring sites to the market which are economically viable and side-step requirements to build affordable housing, which they’d have to do if it was a residential development. International students are also brilliant for the city – they bring their expertise and skills to the city. If they could, I’m sure many would stay after they’d completed their studies, boosting the economy further. They help fund our universities.

Yet in the opposition to student development we see people explicitly saying that their issue is that this is accommodation for wealthy international students. We wouldn’t mind if it was accommodation for local students.

So, I ask you, please do keep debating the impact of tourists and other transient visitors on our city. But please don’t make these debates racist and xenophobic. Do not “other” these people, and recognise the massive diversity of the long-term residents of the city. The problems Edinburgh is facing due to these transient visitors are the root of global and national issues that the city can respond to the best it can. It needs to respond better and we need citizens to engage in the debate about what this response looks like. But we cannot continue blaming the “other” for this. Edinburgh is, and should be, an international city for everyone.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Collaborative studentships

This is a blog-post to help advertise a couple of doctoral studentships I have been awarded through the ESRC funded Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences (SGSSS). As funded studentships, they are open to UK/EU applicants and you will be given a monthly stipend and, if required, you’ll be funded to do our MRes in Applied Social Research. This blog post is just to give some more general background – please do follow the links below for the SGSSS website and the formal rules and regulations that we will be following in completing the studentships.

The first one is on Using administrative data to improve neighbourhood environmental services and outcomes and is a collaboration with The Improvement Service for local authorities in Scotland. A short summary of the project is: you will work with some case study local authorities to map the administrative data they have got from the information they record when citizens contact them with everyday problems – potholes, fly-tipped waste etc. Once this stage has been completed, the maps will be discussed with the councils and local citizens to understand if the mapped data is of use in understanding the challenges faced by councils in delivering these services in a period of austerity. This project builds on my long-term interest in middle-class community activism and the risk that in empowering citizens we might exacerbate existing socio-economic inequalities.

The successful candidate will work quite closely with the Improvement Service and the case study local authorities. The required skillset is therefore quite broad – an ability to spatially analyse statistics (or a willingness to develop these skills) alongside the soft skills in engaging with organisations and communities.

The second one is on Understanding student homelessness in higher education in Scotland and is with Shelter Scotland. It actually emerged from an almost throw-away finding from my research on LGBT+ homelessness – that a couple of participants in that study were students while they were homeless and their university accommodation services supported them in being housed. We know surprisingly little about homelessness among students in higher education. Given Shelter’s policy focus, and the small n of higher education in Scotland, this project will seek information from all universities on the extent of homelessness they encounter and their organisational and policy response to these incidents of vulnerability among students.

Predominantly this will be a qualitative research project, but an interest in homelessness and policy is useful. Again, the successful candidate will have to be prepared to work with Shelter Scotland to provide policy and practice relevant findings.

Potential applicants might be put off that these are projects that are already developed with partners. However, the studentships will still very much be that of the successful candidate – it will be up to you to synthesise the literature and develop the initial proposal further into a research strategy that can be implemented successfully to deliver the intended outputs for the partner organisations, as well as produce a thesis of doctoral quality. You will also develop invaluable skills at working across boundaries with organisations outside academia.

Why would you want to be supervised by me? Well, I generally get excellent feedback from my doctoral supervisees; it’s the bit of my job I enjoy the most. I am absolutely committed to the long-term development of doctoral researchers and will support you in your ambitions the best I can. I take a strong mentoring/coaching approach to supervision and aim to support my doctoral supervisees to become confident, independent researchers at the end of their projects. I know this is an approach shared by my co-supervisors on these projects.

One of my more controversial commitments is to support students to complete on time. This is a very personal commitment – doctorates in the UK are only funded for three years, and when I did my own PhD I had to finish on time otherwise I would have been plunged into poverty and/or forced to move back into my mum’s home. This doesn’t mean I will drive you to despair trying to finish on time, but I will work supportively with you to ensure the project is realistic and broken down into steps that can be achieved within the timescale. In particular, I will not expect you to overwork, work long hours and weekends, just to complete the PhD and get a good CV.

I am also committed to diversity in the academy as well, so if you’re a woman who loves stats, apply! If you’re a man who is interested in qualitative research with vulnerable populations, apply! If you’re disabled, we will provide reasonable adaptations, so apply! We’re an increasingly international and diverse Faculty, so if you a from a BAME background you will find a welcoming home and apply! If you identify as LGBT+ I’m as woke as can be, so apply!

If you are interested in applying, do feel free to get in touch directly with me with any questions pertinent to project design etc. or click on the links above to access the SGSSS website and start the application process. I look forward to receiving your applications.

Friday, 21 December 2018

PhD Supervision by Instagram

I’ve blogged quite a bit on here about using social media in my teaching – YikYak for anonymous questions when it was still a thing; and making a complete balls-up shaming my class on Twitter. But I don’t actually use social media much in my teaching. My Facebook profile is a very private place, so it’s quite locked down (I generally avoid being Facebook friends with colleagues). I use Twitter to get stuff out to students, but I don’t expect them to rely on it. It is completely unethical to expect students to use a commercial service external to the University for their learning.

One social media I’ve only got into using over the past year is Instagram. My use of it changed quite a lot when they started Instagram stories. I don’t use them very much, but on most days I’ll post something banal to my story. I quite like catching up with the stories of the people I follow too. It’s fun watching what people are up to and I occasionally chat to them. And as the everyday functions of Instagram have grown I find I use the messaging function quite a bit. I can have simultaneous conversations with the same person on Instagram, WhatsApp and email about different topics.

One of the people I follow on Instagram is one of my PhD students. I started following her after she suggested she might use Instagram to collect data for her fieldwork. I’ve followed PhD students on Twitter before, but most of the interactions there had been quite banal and work-like – just congratulating them on achievements and that sort of stuff. Like most doctoral supervisors I talk to, I find it is the most rewarding part of my job – I learn so much from my students and watching them flourish as scholars and rounded-individuals just gives me the greatest pleasure. Part of this is building up a trusting relationship, but I’m always wary to keep it professional. I don’t feel I should be the researcher’s friend, particularly when I’m in that supervisory relationship. We never know how a PhD is going to go, and I don’t want to be the friend who has to have an awkward conversation with a researcher telling them exactly what they’re doing wrong and that they have to buck-up their ideas and work harder if they’re going to finish this PhD.

Pretty early when Instagram stories started, I realised that following my PhD student was going to blur this line between a professional and a personal relationship. I was seeing everything that my student was up to across their life in a way I had not done before. It did dawn on me to stop following them, or just skip through their story. But I did them interesting – she’s a fun person with a rich life, and also seeing how she fitted the PhD into her life was interesting. I would respond to her stories and we’d message each other in the way friends day (we’re both gay, so this was common ground). However, that I was blurring the professional and personal did dwell in my mind and a few months ago I did say that their might be a point in future where I might politely end the supervisory relationship if mixing the personal and professional was getting difficult. I’d become friends, in a way, over Instagram stories.

But recently things have changed again with our supervisory relationship and Instagram. It all began when the student had a block on submitting a journal article that was just about written. I’m currently doing a coaching course, so I suggested we have a coaching conversation to work out what was going on and get her in a place to submit the article to her chosen journal. The conversation worked a treat and we set some pretty tight deadlines. And then it appeared on her Instagram story! I felt so pleased that she had got there that I had to engage with it positively – it’s what I would do as a coach and a friend. She didn’t quite make the deadline, but the paper was submitted and we celebrated through her Instagram story together.

She then went for a period of travel away through her research. And our Instagram story engagement, to me, took another little turn into a deeper relationship. Being away from our home and comforts pushes us into uncomfortable areas and we end up doing a lot of things that are socially brave, but doing so also brings out all the anxieties that hold us all back. I knew this as I’d done it a year before. So just occasionally I’d check in with her through the Instagram story, showing empathy, but also celebrating the many successes that have happened during this trip.

And I realised I’m sort of supervising by Instagram. What makes me a good supervisor, I think, is that I build a good, trusting relationship with my students. I support them to achieve what they want to achieve. And I’ve now just moved this onto Instagram stories. Hopefully it won’t all go horribly wrong…

Friday, 9 November 2018

The three per cent

It’s beginning to look an awful lot like three per cent of population are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Governments are now beginning to ask standardised clunky questions to capture sexual identity in population surveys – this is a case where Scottish exceptionalism is true, as the then Scottish Executive pioneered this with the Scottish Health Survey in 200#. As the number of surveys that include such a question spread, the finding ends up being that around three per cent of people say they are not solely heterosexual. Reassuringly, an analysis of Google search data (looking at what porn people search for) finds that around three per cent of people are solely homosexual, with another two per cent on top of that “curious” (of course I can’t find the link to that article now).

There are all sorts of well-rehearsed issues with this statistic, many of which boil down the basic issue of what are we actually measuring? We’re conflating identity, attraction and sexual behaviour into a category on a form. You don’t have to be a queer activist to quickly become uncomfortable with that – the data on sexual behaviour from NATSAL should be enough to get you questioning simple categorisations. But I very much fall into the camp (pun intended) that those categories of “gay”, “lesbian” and “bisexual” or “pansexual” are empowering. In a heteronormative world they allow you to label your difference and be with others that are similarly different. So, in a patriarchal, heteronormative culture like the UK three per cent of people will call themselves not-heterosexual; they will have sexual and romantic relationships with people of the same gender as themselves.

I’ve ended up thinking about the three per cent quite a bit recently. It’s been lurking in the back of my mind and keeps popping-up unexpectedly. This is mainly because when we consider the position of a structurally marginalised group in society, the focus tends to end up on representativeness. We are now, rightly, called-out for creating, or taking part in manels; the utterly shocking lack of ethnic diversity in many areas of public life is highlighted as an example of the outcome of structural racism; the disabling effects of our society are reflected in the marginalisation of disabled people in major institutions.

Representation is also said to matter because of the visibility of the group. Non-members of a group continue to have negative views of group members because they do not see them in everyday life in positive roles. Similarly, group members might not think that opportunities are open or appropriate for them as they do not see people like themselves in such roles. Achieving levels of representation when groups are quite large is difficult, but obvious – in a world where over half the population are women, manels are just inexcusable. But, what about when it’s three per cent?

Only gay in the village

I wonder about this in terms of my own life. I grew up in the homophobic 1990s. About the only stat on non-heterosexuals that was muttered then was the Kinsey one-in-ten. This statistic has now been roundly debunked.

I sort of came out as gay at secondary school when I was 15. I felt very, very alone. I did wonder where all the other gay men were. I was the only gay in the village. Now I know that in my school of 1,000 pupils, there were probably another 14 gay men. Probably another three in my year group. If I’d know that at the time, would it have made me feel any better about myself? What if I knew these other gay men and I didn’t like them?

When I went to university and started dating the feeling of being alone didn’t really go away – if anything it got worse. A lot of this was entirely down to how I was feeling about myself. But I can’t help but think what I would have thought about the 3% stat then. There weren’t many out gay people in my college – definitely not 3% – but ironically enough of my peers have come out since we graduated that I now realise there were more than 3% of us. Even in a very large university like the one I attended, 3% is not very many people.

From what data we have there are also a couple of other things I can’t help but consider. Firstly, in the UK, non-straight people are evenly distributed across the country. Us gays, and particularly gay men, have a tendency to congregate in London and the south-east. We’re better educated and less likely to be unemployed than heterosexuals, so we go there to get better paid jobs. This means, if you’re living in a small, northern town, the chances are there’ll be slightly less than that 3%. Alas, it also looks like they’ll be a “selected sample” who are different to those super-gays in That London. How would that make you feel if you were in one of those places?

We also know that there is a generational divide. Younger people are more likely to identify as non-heterosexual than older people; obviously this is linked to the declining significance of homophobia in society. Indeed, a colleague recently told me how her 11-year-old daughter is being pressured at school to identify as bi/pan – what a refreshing change from the homophobic bullying so many of us older people experienced! It’s great that young people have this openness to explore, but as I explained to my colleague, I’ll be intrigued how many people who have had sex with people of the same sex do end up settling on an identity as “not-heterosexual”.


The other issue with the three per cent I think needs to be discussed among the LGBT+ community is over-representation – where do LGB people make up more than three per cent of a group and is this ok? This came to my mind during the period that of the five political parties who had representatives in the Scottish Parliament, three out of the six leaders (or convenors) were openly LGB. This was celebrated, and incredibly rightly so. Even a decade ago, a politician would remain closeted for fear of the reputational damage it may do, so that we had so many openly LGB leaders was absolutely fantastic.

However, I think questions need to asked about this level of over-representation. Not necessarily to challenge, and end in a conclusion of “this is wrong”, but to understand what drives it, do we need to ask what barriers heterosexual people (particularly women) might face in getting to similar positions of power and responsibility. I would also be interested if this over-representation existed at other levels as well in terms of political-party staffers and other roles (I suspect it does). The question then might be what attracts LGB people to such roles?

If we accept, from political theory, that we need groups engaged in political processes to ensure policy reflects their needs and views, then perhaps we do need to question that it is good that LGB people are over-represented in particular roles? As with any example of over-representation, this also means that LGB people are under-represented elsewhere. 

Thursday, 25 October 2018

What do we know about LGBT+ homelessness

Not a lot, is the answer. We know a little bit more thanks to a project I’ve been leading on that finished last year and that is now being published in academic journals. You can read my blog posts about the project as it ran on here – it led me to quite a discovery of my own sexual identity.

Anyway, the first paper from the project is now out in the International Journal of Housing Policy and, if I say so myself, it has an ABSOLUTELY CRACKING title: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer experiences of homelessness and identity: insecurity and home(o)normativity. Of course, this means it will never be cited, but hey-ho.

Blogging about your paper is supposed to increase its citations, although with my “Pink Pound in the Gaybourhood” paper it helped it garner one citation after three years. So, here is my blog summary of the paper.

In writing-up this project, I’m drawing on my positionality as a public policy and housing scholar who has recently branched out into research issues around sexual and gender identity. The mainstream literature in public policy and housing is staggeringly silent on issues of sexual and gender identity. Through this research I discovered the rich work in disciplines like human geography (queer geographies); sociology and cultural studies. In writing up the research I therefore wanted to do an activist project into public policy and housing research by bringing the lives of non-heterosexuals, and how we understand them from varying theoretical perspectives, into heteronormative/heterosexist disciplines. It’s, therefore, reasonably good public policy scholarship, and pretty shoddy queer studies scholarship, but it is trying to bring the literatures together.

In the case of homelessness among LGBT+ populations the literature is, let’s say, difficult. There’s some dated stuff that comes from an era of less socially liberal attitudes that suggests that it is caused by family rejection. But even a quite old study by Prendergast questions this simplicity. There’s also the “pop” social science of things like the “a quarter of all young homeless people are LGBT” which I rail against for their lack of evidential basis. I also get annoyed at that stat, and it’s presentation, because of the simplistic way in which it is assumed sexual or gender identity is a variable in homeless; i.e. it is a direct cause.

There’s also US and North American research. However, this is of limited applicability. Firstly, a lot of it is written from a public health/social work perspective so it is mainly focused on the risks of harm to health caused by rough sleeping, rather than detailed exposition of causes, experiences and routes out of homelessness. Secondly, the situation in the UK regarding homelessness and rough sleeping, although bad, is no way near as horrific as it is in the US. Particularly in Scotland, a lot of the people captured by US research would have a right to housing which would reduce their risks.
In terms of the homelessness literature, I was pointed towards the work of Carol McNaughton-Nicholls. She used the concepts of “edgework” and “thin rationality” to explore the agency of the participants in her research on homelessness in Glasgow. Thin rationality especially, really resonated through our data – how these LGBT people had to make difficult decisions at points of their housing pathways that resulted in them experiencing homelessness and then experiencing a feeling of being-at-home.

And I use the term being-at-home on purpose here (it’s not in the paper, but this is the argument we make). This is because, what we actually uncovered was not that sexual or gender identity was a direct cause of homelessness – indeed many of our participants would have experienced homelessness whatever their sexual or gender identity – but that sexual and gender identity was wrapped up in experiences of homelessness in complex ways. Importantly, it seemed that for our participants, being-at-home (as opposed to just being housed) was associated with a deeper sense of security in their own identity as queer people. This meant that being-at-home could be felt at stages of their housing pathway where, in legal terms, they would technically be homeless or at least inappropriately housed.

Thus the paper begins to “queer” the homelessness/housed binary to the extent that I have a fun opening conversation gambit now of “I don’t actually think homelessness exists”. This is a theoretical route I want to explore further – Dr Lindsey McCarthy’s recent paper in Housing Studies was interesting in this regard. I am reassured that two recent pieces of doctoral research on the topic of LGBT+ homelessness by Carin Tunaker who was at Kent, and Philip Mullen at Newcastle, found similar results. And I cannot thank both of them enough for their time in sending me stuff to read and talking to me about their research (which is a lot better than mine!).

This finding also led me to my policy recommendations – which are that homelessness service providers need to be less reticent about opening-up conversations with young people about their sexual and gender identity. I was quite shocked about how worried people were about doing this; yes straight people, it is difficult to talk about your sexuality, but us gays have to do it all the bloody time, thanks, because we live in a heteronormative world. Anyway, it is only by opening-up such conversations that the complexities can be understood. I would add, that in my opinion based on this research, that it is mainstream services that should be doing this for two reasons. Firstly, practically because arithmetically, in a country as small as Scotland, with a population group that is three per cent of the whole population, it is going to be difficult to deliver specialist services for LGBT+ across a wide area. Secondly, and normatively, be because mainstream homelessness services should be welcoming, supportive and tailored to all people, no matter who they are.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Is public administration and public policy education in Scotland threatened?

I recently learnt from a colleague that the Master of Public Administration programme at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh is threatened with closure. This leaves Scotland with one MPA and three postgraduate programmes in public policy. Therefore the closure of this programme brings into question the entire existence of public administration as a scholarly subject in our country. Yet in practice public administration is booming – there is more that we need skilled public servants to deliver: the Scottish Parliament is gaining more powers; Scottish communities are being asked to take a greater role in the design and delivery of public services; and the demand on our public services has never been greater. Yet many public service organisations, such as community councils, charities and local authorities do not have (individually) the budgets to support Masters level professional development.

In other parts of the UK public administration scholarship is seen as vital to the economy and to civic society and so is financially supported by Government’s, For example, the Northern Ireland Executive fund civil servants to complete the first level of the MPA at Ulster University; the Welsh Government have funded an ‘All Wales Public Services Graduate Programme‘ with University of South Wales and the Welsh Centre for Public Policy at Cardiff University; and in England there are major developments taking place at many universities including Manchester Metropolitan University, Northumbria University, Nottingham Trent University, University of Birmingham and University of Exeter.

Scotland risks being perceived in this context as being hostile to public administration research and teaching. This runs counter to the ambitions of the Christie Commission, to the ethos of our Scottish Government and to the nature of the Scottish Approach to public services. Yet currently we face the very real prospect that public administration and public policy scholarship becomes restricted to the rest of the UK. We can only hope that our elected representatives will take notice and act soon before this becomes the case.

Friday, 11 May 2018

My Big Idea by Peter Matthews aged 35-and-three-quarters

I’ve been in marking hell since the end of the period of strike action which I’ve just emerged from. I can’t read anything without correcting the grammar.

Anyway, during the strike, among all the amazing USS Strikes Tweets I saw one from the Times Higher about research that had shown that European universities spend more on getting European Research Council funding than they receive in grants awarded. This led to the usual moaning about the ridiculousness of the situation, and also the suggestion that grants should be replaced by a research basic income.

This got me thinking more about an idea I’ve had which I’ve discussed with a few people now and I now have time to tell the entire world about…
To start with, why do we have research grants? Basically they emerged (as I understand it) as there was an awareness that some research required levels of investment in people and infrastructure that were beyond the capacity of all but the largest universities. Over time, in the UK, as the other elements of state funding to universities have been reduced, they now have to account for the vast amount of research funding for universities. There are two problems (I see) with replacing grants with a fixed sum to each researcher. Firstly, is the ability to fund large-scale research particularly that which requires investment in non-staff capital resources. Secondly, it adds an odd perverse incentive for universities to just keep appointing staff even though they might struggle to cover the rest of their salary with teaching income, as you know you’ll get some money for the post.

This leaves us with a distributional problem – the pot of money to distribute for grants must always be limited. As a result complex mechanisms of measuring the quality of proposals to target funding at those which academic peers believe will be most important, have grown over time. At the same time demand for research income has grown as more researchers want to do more research; as the funding landscape for HEIs has changed; and as pressure is put on staff through HEI’s expansive strategies to bid for more funding. As a result, success rates for UK research council grants are now hovering around the 10% mark.

There are obvious massive sunk costs here. I’ve heard quite a number of people who have had “outstanding” scores across the board on research proposals which have not been funded because there’s just not enough money. The system also has massive in-built biases. At the most basic level, grants beget grants – as this recent paper shows. More problematic are the massive gender and race biases in who gets funded – what Deb Verhoeven hilariously calls the “Daversity” problem.

So, what’s my big idea? A lottery. Or actually something a bit like Premium Bonds.

How it would work is when a research-active member of staff joined a UK university you would be given a unique identifier – your research premium bond number. Every year there would be a draw for “winners”. If your number was called out you would then get £1 million to spend on research over the next few years. Within six months you would have to submit a short proposal as to what you will spend the money on. You would have to report every year on your progress and at the end of five years you would have to return any unused funds.

You could spend the money as you can spend research council grants now – employ staff, buy-out your own time, buy equipment, and share it between institutions. So, if you didn’t win, but your colleague who you had been working with on a research idea did win, you could work together using their winnings.

The advantages of a lottery for me are:

You remove most of the sunk costs in unsuccessful bids. There would be a shifting of resources to actually supporting good quality research to be developed and go ahead, and good reporting so the outcomes can be adequately captured and disseminated.

I think you would actually get a lot more innovative research funded. I imagine there’s researchers in UK HEIs who never have the time to even think about what they might do with £1 million of research money, but if they got it would probably do something really quite exciting. You would probably end up with a lovely mix of utter blue-skies, ivory-tower research and some really applied stuff from all kinds of disciplines.

It would reduce the inherent biases in a system of quality-assessed research applications. I don’t know what the research councils’ annual budget is – I’m guessing billions – divided by a million will mean enough prizes that all researchers would be equally likely to win. Also, institutions, and academic disciplines, would be equally likely to win, no matter what their level of research infrastructure.

Given the above, I reckon everyone would win at least once in their career and have a chance to do some amazing research. You might even win twice. It would be up to the random number generator.

You might say that people might just waste the money. This would be a small risk I reckon. I think the need to submit a research proposal and annual updates would negate this. Some of the current sunk costs in developing and assessing applications would have to be shifted to post-award audit. I also think if you were not a very good researcher you would also have trouble spending £1 million over five years and you would end up giving a lot of it back. Also, I don’t think you can say that our current system ensures that poor quality research doesn’t get funded – it just has well written research proposals to support it.

I think there would have to be a residual pot for the absolutely massive research projects (the big STEM infrastructure investments; humanities investments in new collections; social science longitudinal surveys etc.) and you would need a competitive funding system for that, but it would be a small part of the overall budget.

So, that’s my big idea. UKRI – hit me up.