Grant award? It could be you

Lottery to decide fate of applications better than 'Byzantine' system, scholar says. Paul Jump writes

September 30, 2010

Research council grading schemes for grant applications are "starting to lose all credibility" and should be replaced by a lottery, an academic has suggested.

Jim Tomlinson, Bonar professor of modern history at the University of Dundee, told Times Higher Education that there was "ever- increasing frustration" within the academic community with the grant-application process.

"There are more and more applications following ever more complex rules; more time being spent on reviewing, generating ever more finely graded assessments, but for most people (with) disappointing outcomes," he said.

The latest available research council figures, for 2008-09, show that grant applications are at record levels but success rates are at an all-time low of 23 per cent.

Professor Tomlinson said that one way of relieving some of the "demoralisation" and the resource pressure involved would be to decide between all applications that met a threshold standard of "fundability" on the basis of a lottery.

"Unsuccessful applicants would know that they had been rejected purely by chance, not as a result of a Byzantine decision-making process using grading schemes that are starting to lose all credibility," he said.

He added that there were "quite a lot" of modern political theorists who argued that lotteries were the fairest way to distribute a variety of resources, such as secondary school places. He also thought academics would prefer a lottery to having applications selected on the basis of statements about "pathways to impact", which the councils use as "secondary criteria" for borderline applications.

"This is especially true given the lack of clarity about the meaning of the term," he added.

Professor Tomlinson argued that sufficiently rigorous fundability criteria would ensure such a system would not encourage even more applications than the current one.

"You would still have to commit significant resources to make an application," he said.

Don Braben, honorary professor of earth sciences at University College London, said the current system needed an even more radical reform because it did not make sense for project funding to be decided by "poisonous" peer reviews.

He suggested that each institution centrally mandate some of its experienced researchers to receive a certain amount of funding as a right for a set number of years.

Young researchers with no track record would "tag" themselves on to these senior figures, he added.

A spokeswoman for Research Councils UK said its peer-review system was regarded as "an international benchmark of excellence", which "provides a guarantee of the quality of UK research".

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