Chemists up in arms over EPSRC's exclusion policy

Rules could see mass blacklisting, says letter with more than 100 signatories. Zoë Corbyn reports

March 26, 2009

"Draconian" new rules that will ban applicants who have made a number of unsuccessful funding applications from bidding for further grants could lead to "almost all" chemistry researchers being blacklisted, more than 100 leading chemists have warned.

In a letter to Times Higher Education, the chemistry academics, including nine fellows of the Royal Society, criticise the measures, which were announced by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council earlier this month. The letter follows an online petition demanding that the EPSRC rethink its plan "to introduce scientific blacklisting", which has so far been signed by more than 1,200 people.

As reported last week by Times Higher Education, from 1 June, academics will be barred from applying for EPSRC research grants for 12 months if three or more of their proposals have ranked in the bottom half of the council's funding prioritisation list in the previous two years and their overall success rate has been less than 25 per cent.

Universities will be told who is excluded, and researchers who ignore the ban will be asked to take part in a mentoring programme to improve their future submissions.

The slate will be wiped clean after a year of exclusion, but applicants will be banned for two years if they fall foul of the rules again.

The EPSRC said the changes were designed to reduce the pressure on its peer-review system by cutting applications by 10 per cent and applicant numbers by 5 per cent. The move would affect up to 250 people, it added.

But the signatories to the letter claim that the ban will "stifle creativity" in chemistry research, concentrate funding into "fewer and fewer hands" and dramatically reduce the breadth of UK science.

They write: "We believe that this policy would fundamentally affect the way chemistry research (is) funded in the UK."

The letter adds that the low success rates of blue-skies chemistry proposals, with 12 per cent of them receiving EPSRC cash, suggest that a far greater proportion of chemists than those in other disciplines will be affected. "After a short period, almost all of us may soon be banned," it says.

Phil Page, professor of organic chemistry at the University of East Anglia, who wrote and drummed up support for the letter, said chemists felt unfairly targeted.

But the EPSRC said the policy was "far from" draconian and was supported by universities and academics across the UK. The council added that it was a "practical step" to improve peer review and tackle the problem of falling success rates.

It denied that chemistry academics were being "singled out", but noted that the subject accounted for a "disproportionately large number of proposals received by the EPSRC".

• In our news story "Serial failures barred from further bidding for grants" (19 March), we incorrectly said that the EPSRC's exclusion policy applied to applicants with a success rate below 25 per cent or those who had repeatedly submitted low-ranked proposals.

The year-long ban applies to applicants with three or more proposals ranked in the bottom half of a funding prioritisation list or rejected before panel in a two-year period and an overall personal success rate of less than 25 per cent.

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