Drive for efficiency in review process

March 10, 2006

The system by which academics review the grant applications of their colleagues is to be put under the spotlight by the research councils, it emerged last week.

The eight research councils want to make the peer-review system more efficient as part of their bid for funds in the Government's next Comprehensive Spending Review.

Ian Diamond, chair of Research Councils UK, said: "Peer review is an important part of what we do. We are looking very carefully at making it as efficient and as effective as possible. We want to maximise the research volume (the amount of research done) but minimise the cost of funding it."

Julia Goodfellow, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said: "If you have a scheme where one in ten grant applications succeeds, there are nine disgruntled academics and a lot of wasted work."

It is increasingly costly and time-consuming for academics to apply for and to help evaluate research council grants.

University researchers can face success rates as low as 10 per cent when applying for project grants. And hundreds are members of the research council peer-review colleges that are responsible for scrutinising the academic strength of grant proposals. Other academics sit on the research council peer-review panels that make the final decisions on which applications will receive funding.

Research council officials said it was too early to say which reforms might be considered to streamline the system. But among a number of changes likely to be considered are limiting the number of applications considered by academics and urging universities to manage the number of applications submitted by their academic staff.

A group of research council officials is also looking into streamlining the research councils' corporate services - information technology, finance, human resources and procurement - as part of the review.

One possibility is to centralise several research councils' back-office work with the Medical Research Council's new support services centre in Swindon. The councils need to prove they are as efficient as possible to retain current funding levels.

Professor Diamond said: "There's no evidence that the Government is not committed to the ten-year science framework. That's really good news, and our job is to make sure we're as effective and efficient as possible."

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