EPSRC grant policy endangers UK science

March 26, 2009

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's recently announced policy change on the submission of research proposals for funding includes the statement: "From 1 June 2009, we will exclude repeatedly unsuccessful applicants from submitting proposals to EPSRC for 12 months and ask them to take part in a mentoring programme" ("Serial failures barred from further bidding for grants", 19 March).

"This will apply to applicants who have: three or more proposals within a two-year period ranked in the bottom half of a funding prioritisation list or rejected before panel; and an overall personal success rate of less than 25 per cent. We expect this to affect about 200-250 people, accounting for 5 per cent of applicants and 10 per cent of applications."

We believe that this policy would fundamentally affect the way chemistry research is funded in the UK, and who receives funding. EPSRC data for the past 12 months show that the success rate for standard responsive-mode proposals funded through its main chemistry panel was 47 out of 377, or an average of 12 per cent.

The 2008 research assessment exercise suggested that in chemistry alone there were some 1,000 researchers at UK universities with research outputs graded 2* or higher - that is, carrying out research of at least national or international importance. Statistically, therefore, at current application and award levels, on average such researchers may each expect to receive an EPSRC responsive-mode grant about once every 20 years.

We accept that the Government has provided more money for science. It is the administration of this money that is undermining the stated intentions. With so few grants awarded, the UK will not be able to maintain its leading position in science and technology. With consequent poor grant-income levels, departments may be threatened with closure.

The EPSRC states it is "reducing the pressure on peer review". We understand the council's concern at unnecessary work caused by peer review of resubmitted proposals that are never going to be funded, but this response is not measured or useful. If the EPSRC is correct that 5 per cent of applicants and 10 per cent of applications will be affected, then the new policy will make little difference. It is a draconian measure to deliver a reduction in load of merely 10 per cent. The current low success rates (12 per cent), however, suggest that a far greater proportion of chemists will be affected; after a short period, almost all of us may soon be banned. Of course, this demand management will produce higher percentage success rates, which is no doubt the intention.

After being barred from applying for 12 months, if over the following 24-month period an applicant again falls foul of the new policy, the bar will be raised to 24 months. This is the thin end of a dangerous wedge.

Let us consider an example. An active researcher submits five grant applications in two years. Three of these fall within the bottom 50 per cent, one is ranked highly but unfunded, one is funded. The overall success rate is 20 per cent. Such a person in chemistry would normally be classed as successful and research active, but would be banned if the rules are applied as written.

The final job of a peer-review panel is to establish a quality cut-off point. Below this line, the panel is of the opinion that the research proposed is not of a standard meriting funding. This distinction should be used to determine whether a resubmission is permitted. If a principal investigator is to be banned, this quality cut-off should be employed, not simply a bottom-half criterion.

Furthermore, if all proposal types count, researchers will be discouraged from applying for funds in initiative areas where it is recognised that more research activity is needed. This practice will stifle creativity and result in the further concentration of funding in fewer and fewer hands. The breadth of UK science will be dramatically reduced.

Professionally it is a nightmare. How will being listed as an unsuccessful researcher affect people's careers and salaries when they are subjected to the 12-month ban? This also raises the issue of employability elsewhere in the UK university system.

Colleagues will be extremely unhappy about penalising people whose proposals fare poorly. Whatever the reason for a poor result, it does not mean that the next proposal from the same applicant will be unworthy. A number of colleagues have indicated that they will refuse to referee EPSRC proposals when the policy is implemented.

Finally, the comment that the EPSRC proposes the establishment of "mentoring programmes" for hundreds of academics is interesting. Who does the council think will organise and run such programmes?

Phil Page, University of East Anglia, Joe Sweeney, University of Reading, Sir Harry Kroto, Florida State University and 113 others writing in a personal capacity

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