Get more winners in grant lottery 1

July 28, 2006

Tim Birkhead's column "The UK's great £19.5m lottery"

(Working Knowledge, July 21) has implications beyond the dishing out of grant funding. It resonates with recent articles and letters about the high level of insecurity that short-term contracts generate.

The historical requirement for such contracts arises as much from the way that Research Councils UK funds research as from the motivation of universities. Money is a big driver and the logic isn't difficult to see. RCUK funds three-year project grants, so universities fund three-year contracts. We need to change the driver.

Rather than funding multiple project grants, RCUK could fund each academic on a rolling five-year programme (as happens in the Canadian model Birkhead favours). This stability would benefit academics and those on fixed-term contracts.

The former would be freed from the tyranny of writing multiple repeated grant applications with low chance of success and the latter would know that they had real job stability with a relatively secure income stream.

Genuine long-term partnerships and real blue-skies research could develop.

Universities would be able to properly implement the new European Union legislation on permanency for research staff.

The downside would be the demise of the super-large groups with multiple postdocs; as in Canada, research money would have to be more evenly distributed. But, as Birkhead notes, this is not an issue that the research councils can duck any more.

Chris Cooper
Essex University

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