The research councils have clawed back more than £2 million from universities and other institutions in the past five years for failing to submit adequate financial and other reports.
A Freedom of Information request also reveals large variations in the severity of sanctions, with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council issuing fines totalling almost £1.5 million in the period measured, while the Arts and Humanities Research Council issued none.
Sanctions are levied against research institutions that fail to meet the administrative terms and conditions of their funding, such as filing financial expenditure reports. Research Councils UK guidance says councils can recover 20 per cent of their grant expenditure if the reports are late and all of it “if the report or statement is not received within six months of the end of the grant”.
The FoI responses show that at least £2,442,954 has been issued in sanctions over the five-year period, not including fines that were later cleared on appeal.
But there are massive variations between councils. The EPSRC issued £1,420,471 in sanctions, although £704,455 of this could still be subject to appeal. The figures for the Natural Environment Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council are £315,943 and £341,476, respectively. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council fined three universities a total of £315,179 in the past two years.
By contrast, neither the Science and Technology Facilities Council nor the AHRC applied any, while the Medical Research Council reports just one (for £46,985).
A spokeswoman for RCUK said fresh guidance on sanctions was issued in March, adding that previously there had been no “formal harmonised process”. However, she said the guidance required “very few changes” as “most of the councils were operating in similar ways”, albeit on a case-by-case basis.
“There may have been some subtle differences in the ways the councils approached things before: one may have experienced an institution repeatedly submitting its final reports late, so its approach to lifting a sanction for that institution may have been different,” she said.
The triggers for fines had varied: almost two-thirds of Nerc fines were for late “starting certificates”, a Nerc-only sanction that was scrapped as part of the March “harmonisation” process.
The University of Edinburgh (£291,132 by the EPSRC), Goldsmiths, University of London (£114,408 by the ESRC) and the University of Bristol (£193,521 by the BBSRC) are among the institutions hit with the biggest fines.
Bristol said “an administrative oversight” led to part of its reporting being submitted just one week late. It appealed, but unsuccessfully.
Goldsmiths said that “administrative confusion” in two projects led to its fine, although the research “was completed successfully, on schedule and within budget”, with one project receiving “an ‘outstanding’ evaluation from the ESRC”.
An Edinburgh spokesman said it would “take steps” to improve its reporting.
No individual council wished to add to the RCUK statement.