Leader: The self-censor may not hold

New-found restraint over research council applications should be praised but will it survive further funding cuts?

November 15, 2012

A field guide to vice-chancellors may seem unnecessary given the ubiquity of middle-aged white men in suits (as the illustrations accompanying our cover feature attest). But this week we try to identify new species among the big beasts that you may encounter at the campus watering hole.

No doubt readers will suggest categories of their own but our list, however incomplete, does highlight the way in which leadership in the sector is changing and fragmenting.

Despite the differing features, however, it is also clear that university leaders share many common concerns, and that maximising research income comes near the top of the list. This is a core role of the pro vice-chancellors for research who, in turn, put more pressure on researchers to do all they can to bring in funding.

Too often in the past this amounted to injunctions from on high to increase the number of grant applications (indeed, the grapevine suggests that some departments even imposed targets). This had an inevitable effect on success rates: in recent years, many research councils watched in dismay as the proportion of applications winning funding dipped below 20 per cent.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council was the first to grasp the nettle. It introduced a controversial demand management regime that banned resubmissions and introduced a blacklist of serially unsuccessful applicants restricted to one application a year. The hard line has paid dividends: its success rate soared to 42 per cent this year, compared with 26 per cent in 2008-09 (the system was introduced in 2010).

Other research councils, though, were reluctant to follow suit and merely asked universities to internally review applications before submitting them. This year's success rates suggest that the softly-softly strategy has also worked: at all but one of the research councils that disburse cash to individuals, success rates have risen or held steady despite a 9 per cent drop in the amount of money distributed.

Few universities' grant income has increased and, even for those at the top of the list, total amounts have fallen. The reason is a 9 per cent drop in applications - a figure that would have been much higher if the Arts and Humanities Research Council's partial closure during its move to the Shared Services Centre in 2011 had not skewed the year-on-year comparison.

No doubt the threat of EPSRC-style sanctions if universities did not self-censor has played a part in this apparent change of behaviour. The full and frank exchange of views that some research council heads are said to have had with certain institutions must also have influenced matters.

Nevertheless, universities should be praised for their apparent restraint: whether this trend holds as funding gets tighter remains to be seen.

Those institutions that do not do as well as they hope to in the 2014 research excellence framework may be unable to resist the temptation to pepper the research councils with applications to make up the difference. Introducing shorter, preliminary applications might encourage more submissions and drive down success rates but it would also reduce applicants' and reviewers' workloads, and may be more palatable than widespread adoption of the EPSRC's hardline approach.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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