BBSRC to limit studentships to a score of partners

Move to concentrate doctoral funding comes as post-92 objections rumble on, writes Paul Jump

March 24, 2011

Another research council has announced plans to concentrate its funding for doctoral training as controversy lingers on the adoption of the strategy by an earlier council.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council said last week it would confine studentships to 20 "doctoral training partnerships" from October 2012 and abolish its existing Quota Doctoral Training Grant scheme, which awards studentship funding to 89 departments or faculties at 45 universities.

But it is "strongly" encouraging universities to bid for partnership status in consortia to encourage the sharing of good practice, and is stipulating that applicants must have a combined income of £5 million in BBSRC competitive funding.

Partnerships, which will have to reapply for funding every three years, will be expected to align their training with the BBSRC's "strategic priorities" in food security, industrial biotechnology and the bioscience underpinning health.

They will also be expected to develop students' broader scientific and professional skills, with each PhD candidate completing a three-month external internship.

Funded studentships will drop from the current 337 a year to around 225, but funding for students' experimental costs will rise from £1,000 to £5,000 a year. There will be increased investment in the BBSRC's separate Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering studentships, for PhDs carried out in collaboration with industry.

The council says on its website that the move has been informed by the views of more than 1,000 students, supervisors and grant-holders and is necessary to allow it to work more closely with funded institutions to maximise PhD training quality.

The move also reflects the council's commitment to protect investment in "major centres of bioscience research training" even as its budget declines by around 12 per cent in real terms over the next spending period.

Celia Caulcott, the BBSRC's director of innovation and skills, said: "We have a serious responsibility to ensure we are supporting training that produces bioscientists with the specific research expertise industry and academia require, but we also must make sure that students are getting the best broad-based training possible."

Meanwhile, a group of post-1992 universities has failed in its appeal against the Economic and Social Research Council's refusal to accredit it as a "doctoral training unit".

The council's peer review panels recommended funding about 20 such units, as well as 25 larger "doctoral training centres" similar in nature to the BBSRC's partnerships.

But the council said none of the units met the tightened quality criteria imposed after funding was squeezed in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Funding for just 21 centres, made up of 45 pre-1992 universities, was announced in January.

The "New London Graduate School", consisting of East London, Greenwich, Middlesex, London Metropolitan and London South Bank universities wanted the council to accredit it, even without access to studentships.

The ESRC refused the appeal on the grounds that no new selection criteria had been employed in tightening the quality criteria.

Other rejected would-be units are believed to be considering their options.

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