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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Users for sale

As everyone knows the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) makes a great thing out of research funding applicants demonstrating "user involvement" and "user benefit". I wonder if they are aware that in doing so they are creating a nice little earner for some folks. Yesterday a colleague told me the following story.
They are currently putting together a grant proposal in a fairly applied area. So, you would think, no problem to find users willing to say they are interested in the work. They approach a contact in a well known (partly publically funded) think-tank to talk about the proposed research, find out if it is the sort of thing the think-tank might find useful etc - basically something that could be done over lunch at my colleague's expense. Imagine their surprise when they got a response along the following lines: "Talking to me for 1 hour will be charged at £70 + VAT".
The justification was that the think-tank get a lot of requests of this sort and therefore need a mechanism to bring demand and supply into equilibrium. I guess from their standpoint the logic is impeccable, but surely this is not the kind of thing ESRC intended when they began to make user involvement one of the criteria to be taken into account in funding decisions. In some circumstances ESRC also demands input from user referees. I wonder if they should start to have a section on their grant application forms where the applicants have to declare the "consultancy" fees they have been obliged to pay to users and user referees have to declare any income they have received from the applicant. Can anyone think of any good reasons why such information should not be in the public domain? After all, if we are going to have a market let's have an efficient mechanism for disseminating the going rate. Anyone got anything to hide?

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