ESRC: fine-tuning is nothing for fledgling scholars to fear

Research council chief insists the benefits of narrowing funding range for grants scheme outweigh risks

March 19, 2015

Source: Getty

Fast track: raising the lower threshold may disadvantage early career researchers

The Economic and Social Research Council has pledged to ensure that increasing the minimum amount that can be applied for through its standard grants scheme will not disadvantage early career researchers.

The ESRC announced earlier this month that, from July, the programme’s lower funding threshold would be raised from £200,000 to £350,000, while the upper threshold would be lowered from £2 million to £1 million.

The funder said that the change was partly a response to grant assessment panels’ difficulties in gauging the relative merits of applications for such a wide range of funding.

Adrian Alsop, director of research, partnerships and international at the ESRC, told Times Higher Education that this issue had become particularly acute because of a recent increase in applications for large amounts, pushing the average sum applied for up to £446,000. Narrowing the range would allow panels to compare “apples with apples”.

The ESRC also hopes that the move will stem declining success rates that, according to Mr Alsop, were just over 10 per cent in the most recent standard grant round after a 60 per cent increase in applications between 2012 and 2014. But some observers fear that raising the lower threshold will have a disproportionate impact on early career researchers.

Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, said: “It is essential in a society to allow young researchers to begin their careers with a grant of under £100,000. Once they prove they can drive a Ford without crashing, maybe we can let them have a Porsche, but surely not before.”

Mr Alsop said that the ESRC was conscious of the risk. He noted that its Future Research Leaders funding stream had no lower funding limit, and pledged that the scheme would be reviewed ahead of another call later in the year.

Meera Sabaratnam, a lecturer in international relations at Soas, University of London, was concerned about the move to longer, larger grants by the ESRC – which closed its small grant scheme in 2011. She said: “Both studies and the everyday experience of researchers show that a greater spread of funding is better for research overall.”

But Mr Alsop said that analysis by the ESRC’s evaluation committee suggested that its largest investments have “the greatest impacts” on social science – such as crossdisciplinary work.

He dismissed fears that larger grants would be more conservative and focused on ESRC priorities, noting that a separate responsive mode scheme will be set up for applications for between £1 million and £2.5 million. He also pointed out that the ESRC still provides small grants “where it is appropriate”, such as for secondary data analysis.

Speaking about demand management, he said that the ESRC reserved the right to impose application quotas on institutions that fail to effectively police the quality of their applications.

He acknowledged the risk, raised by Dr Sabaratnam, that the changes would simply result in researchers submitting “more inflated and wasteful claims”.

“But our funding is, frankly, so competitive that that kind of strategic behaviour is not likely to impress the panels,” he said. “They will be focusing on the absolute best value we can provide [for the funding available].”

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