ESRC cuts red tape that deters cross-border collaborations

Talks with overseas agencies about common review criteria could herald borderless funding, reports Zoe Corbyn

February 21, 2008

The Economic and Social Research Council this week announced an initiative to reduce red tape with the aim of making it easier for UK academics to work with overseas counterparts.

The ESRC is also implementing new arrangements that could eventually put overseas research funding agencies in charge of determining whether UK researchers get collaborative grant funding.

"We are aspiring to be a world-leading social science agency and a partner of choice internationally by 2010," explained Ruth Lee, the associate director of international strategy at the council.

"We need to ensure that researchers are able to collaborate with the best people in their field, wherever that may be in the world," Ms Lee said.

Until now, social science researchers in different countries seeking to collaborate have faced bureaucratic hurdles. Each researcher, Ms Lee explained, has had to apply separately to his or her own national funding agency. While agencies do work together, they make their own decisions according to their own criteria.

The result is that while one researcher in one country may get funded, a potential research partner could be rejected - creating the much-dreaded situation of "double jeopardy", which could stop a proposed collaboration dead in its tracks.

Under the new arrangements, however, this is set to change. The ESRC has teamed up with the national funding bodies in both the Netherlands and Germany, and negotiations are also taking place with the French agency, to agree a common set of peer review criteria and processes for international collaborative research proposals.

The result means that social science collaborators in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands seeking funding will get treated more consistently by their respective funders.

"Because we are working to the same set of criteria, we are more likely to come to the same decision - so it is really making inroads into double jeopardy," Ms Lee explained, adding that the hope for the future is to bring other agencies on board.

Yet while this is certainly a simplification, it is only the first piece of a longer-term plan to form partnerships where national funding boundaries can be eliminated. If peer review criteria and processes can be agreed for collaborative research, the argument goes, why not go the whole way and have the final decision on funding carried out by one agency alone?

"Once you have a single set of review criteria, you do not need two sets of decisions to be made in every case," Ms Lee said. "You might, in some cases, simply be able to take the decision in one agency."

Thus far the ESRC is in discussions with the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to pilot the approach - and the NWO has indicated it is keen.

"We have a broadly comparable system, so this is the most obvious partner ... but this is not to say that we would not be keen to see other agencies involved at some point," said Ms Lee, stressing that the advantage to researchers of having a "lead agency" to make a decision is that it eliminates double jeopardy altogether.

Amina Memon from the University of Aberdeen is one researcher who welcomes the simplified procedures. Stressing the benefits of international collaboration, particularly in highly specialised fields, Professor Memon explained that she is currently collaborating with a German researcher on a project to look at how eyewitnesses retell events.

Both academics received grants from their respective research councils following separate applications.

"I think it is an excellent idea to move it forward to one system," Professor Memon said.

The old system had been a "nightmare" for academics to work out what each separate funding council wanted, she said.

"When we get a decision from one country, we are never clear if that is going to hold for the other one."

The ESRC is not the first council to implement the approach - the Arts and Humanities Research Council announced just last month that it had reached an understanding with the German Research Foundation (DFG) to alternate year on year in assessing collaborative proposals.

The ESRC is also removing other barriers that inhibit researchers' collaborations. It will enable UK researchers to add overseas partners as "co-investigators" rather than just "consultants" on their applications, Ms Lee said. This development - initially via a two-year pilot - will provide an incentive for overseas researchers who might otherwise have been discouraged from undertaking UK partnerships because they were not being given appropriate recognition.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

See www.esrc.ac.uk

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