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Funding: Life after Je-S

Image: Grace Gay for Research Professional News

UKRI’s replacement for its creaking grant application system should be “like when iPhones came out”

In the year that the UK research councils unveiled their Joint Electronic Submission system for those making funding bids, Tony Blair was prime minister, Concord flew its last flight and Beyoncé released her first solo song. 

A full two decades have elapsed since that 2003 launch, and the UK’s research community has developed a complex relationship with
Je-S. A strange mixture of nostalgia and frustration with the ageing system has recently been spotted among researchers, who have been reminiscing at universities and over social media about the idiosyncrasies of the platform, ahead of its impending retirement.

Adam Golberg, a research development manager at the University of Nottingham, pointed out that Je-S “is older than MySpace”, the early 2000s precursor to Facebook.

Cardiff University astronomer Paul Roche summed up the horror that the system’s complex processes evinced in some grant applicants, saying it is “the only thing on Earth that scares Chuck Norris”.

In 2003, Je-S was designed to provide a single platform for making applications to different research councils, 15 years before UK Research and Innovation brought the seven councils together. But the old system is showing its age, and is widely considered to be complicated and difficult to use. UKRI chief executive Ottoline Leyser recently told MPs that Je-S is “an incredibly clunky, incredibly inflexible, incredibly out-of-date system”, and that she was “astonished” to discover that it is impossible to run a UKRI-wide call using Je-S. That poses a problem for a funding agency that was partly created to encourage interdisciplinarity.

Sense of urgency

Now, after some false starts, a replacement for Je-S is in sight. UKRI is aiming to have its new system—simply called the Funding Service—up and running by the end of the year before the back-office system that research council staff use to operate Je-S runs out of license support and the platform winds down for good.

Plans to build a replacement for Je-S have been around for some time. Back in 2016, a project was underway to create a system through the research councils and the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, with the aim of shutting Je-S down in 2018. The creation of UKRI that year saw the plan put on the back burner, but solving the IT troubles has remained a focus for the national funder. Its Simpler and Better Funding programme has overseen the development of a new system that aims to offer “a single, consistent, user-centred service” that “reduces the burden of finding, applying for and managing research funding”.

This year, the Funding Service is running in parallel with Je-S during the switchover before all council opportunities are launched and managed in the new system from January 2024. Anne Sofield, UKRI’s director of the £47 million replacement programme, says the project to build a Je-S replacement really kicked into gear after she took up her role in 2020.

“I’ve been really taking a very different approach,” she tells Research Fortnight, adding that “previous iterations of this programme have looked at it as an IT solution, first and foremost”, meaning the project was unable to gain much traction because it lacked the authority to look at policy and practice. 

One of the things that changed was “a recognition that you cannot separate policy, process and digital”, Sofield says. 

UKRI also contracted the digital transformation consultancy Public Digital to review the project in 2020 over concerns that it would miss its 2023 launch deadline, although the project has since got back on track.

Bureaucracy buster 

Sofield says that when Je-S was created, it catered for each independent research council using the system differently, but that now UKRI needs a unified service. “There’s a collective agreement that we are one UKRI—we all have to band together and run a single service on behalf of our constituency,” she says, which has “really given us some velocity” in efforts to replace Je-S.

In line with a wider push to reduce bureaucracy across UKRI, Sofield says users should not “have to spend a lot more of their cerebral time on navigating a process, as opposed to putting their best idea forward”. 

Therefore, the new service “has to be consistent, has to be predictable, there has to be a single front door”, she explains. 

To date, UKRI has trialled 35 funding opportunities on the Funding Service, but numbers are set to increase rapidly. “This is now a really exciting moment because we have built the end-to-end product,” Sofield says.

One of the key milestones to get right is the transfer of responsive-mode funding opportunities for research grants from the various research councils. Some councils have already closed their responsive-mode calls on Je-S, with new calls expected to launch on the Funding Service in May and June.  

Part of Sofield’s job has been deconstructing the complexity of Je-S, in which she says there are about 200 different types of funding scheme. Instead, the Funding Service is expected to have no more than 10 funding types. Once research grants have been cracked, UKRI will tackle other funding types, such as research grants for teams, individual fellowships and block grants for studentships, building the extra features needed to support them. 

Lingering concerns

Sofield is upbeat about the feedback UKRI has received so far from the funding opportunities it has trialled, and she says users have been “generally positive”. But some have asked for better functionality, which is “particularly true of research offices”.

She admits that “research offices haven’t had a lot of attention”. Tools have just been launched to help research offices find and sort applications, and Sofield says that further enhancements can be expected. 

“They can’t run at scale if we don’t give them some enhancements—that’s a major blocker and we know that,” she says. “They want to be able to have more nuance in how they organise their work inside the service, so that’s going to be our next major upgrade for them.” 

So far, over 2,000 applications have gone through the Funding Service, and over 1,500 peer reviews. 

Some applicants have expressed concern about some of the features. Alex Webb, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Cambridge, says that while there is an improvement in usability compared with Je-S, the requirement that applications have to be formatted within the Funding Service is problematic. “This seems an extra layer of work for applicants,” Webb says. “Systems that allow upload of a formatted PDF of the case for support are much less time-intensive and more user-friendly.” 

But Sofield says there are strong arguments for moving away from PDFs. As well as making the reviewing process harder, PDFs are not easily machine-readable, she says. This poses problems when UKRI needs to analyse its portfolio, such as when making the case to the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology for future funding. 

Smarter system

Those who need to use the new service will undoubtedly be hoping for some handholding. As Golberg wrote on Twitter: “However intuitive [the Funding Service] turns out to be, researchers will still complain about it and appreciate and need support with it”.

Improving the experience of the grant-making process for different users has been a balancing act for Sofield and her colleagues, but she is confident that most people will find it easy to use. “I keep saying this, and I hope it’s true: the Funding Service is a little bit like when the iPhone first came out­—it doesn’t require a manual, you just say ‘I want that’ and, boom, it works.” 

The first iPhone, of course, is significantly younger than Je-S, which was released the same year as the decidedly less advanced and unsmart Nokia 3200. 

Innovation integration? 

National funder UK Research and Innovation’s current focus is to get all the calls from its research councils running on the Funding Service. But Sofield says that discussions are taking place about how to integrate Innovate UK calls, which currently run on a separate system: the Innovation Funding Service. 

“We would like it very much more to feel like a single entity,” Sofield says. “Internally within UKRI there’s a question on how we integrate our two systems so they feel like one thing.” 

But Sofield says that because the Innovation Funding Service does not require external service support, there is less urgency to make changes. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” she says. 

UKRI also says that Research England’s funding processes will be integrated into the Funding Service. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight