“Hasty” grant calls demanding tight deadlines for research proposals are discriminatory against women and those with caring responsibilities, academics have warned.
A funding call announced this month by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council sparked warnings that average call turnaround times are becoming shorter, making applications all but impossible for those who are not “plugged into” the right networks. The ESRC invited proposals for research projects on management practices and employee engagement on 6 August, with a closing date of 18 September, giving academics 31 working days to apply.
Adam Golberg, research development manager at the University of Nottingham, said that such a prize – up to £900,000 per group across a maximum of three years – was “substantial, for social sciences” but suggested that the time frame was impractical given that only one bid was allowed from each eligible institution, “so likely requiring an internal sift” of proposals.
An ESRC spokeswoman said that the body had no choice but to adhere to a “very tight spending time frame” in order to access the funds. “We know this is a challenge, but it was a now-or-never funding opportunity for us,” she said.
The case is by no means unique. A joint call from UK Research and Innovation and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Sciences was announced by UKRI on 28 June this year with a deadline of 14 August – a timescale of 34 working days for proposals requiring collaboration between colleagues across an eight-hour time difference.
Another call from the Alan Turing Institute opened on 13 August with a deadline of 27 August, leaving applicants just 10 working days to apply. A spokeswoman said that the call “was advertised to the Turing university network” in advance of the public announcement online.
Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, said that “hasty” calls led to poorer quality proposals, piled stress academic staff and pointed to “equity issues” in the industry.
Unusually tight deadlines could trigger suspicions that calls were being “strategically written” for contacts of project directors to win them, she warned.
“There’s a particular concern if the academic community starts to think that the system is corrupt and has been set up to make funding options available only to the favoured few,” she told Times Higher Education. “I don’t think we can rule that out in some cases.”
Other circumstances that may have led to reduced application windows overall are likely to include government budgeting upheavals such as the creation of UKRI this year, Professor Bishop pointed out. “I suspect, too, that there may be just a lack of awareness of the stresses caused by short timelines – and it seems that few funders have considered this from the equity standpoint,” she added.
A solution, Professor Bishop suggested, would be to enforce a three-month minimum call time wherever possible.
Melissa Terras, professor of digital cultural heritage at the University of Edinburgh, agreed that a three-month window should be “the minimum that funders should be asking for proposals, given the associated hoops that need to be jumped through to deliver the required paperwork on time”.
“Short grant calls, particularly those that expect applicants to work over traditional holiday periods, are prejudiced against those with care-giving responsibilities, given other support structures are usually reduced over national holidays,” she added. “In my experience, funding opportunities with a short turnaround are becoming more common.”
Zara Bergström, senior lecturer in cognitive psychology and deputy director of research and enterprise at the University of Kent’s School of Psychology, said that she personally had found it “impossible to respond to grant calls with short turnaround times” since having a child. “I can’t be as flexible as I was before becoming a parent,” she explained.
Dame Athene Donald, master of Churchill College, Cambridge, said that short timescales, particularly over holiday seasons, “will undoubtedly make it easier for certain demographics to submit an application than others”.
“If someone is not well plugged into the networks that manage to have advance warning of a call, they will be further disadvantaged,” she warned.
A UKRI spokesman said that the body would “think carefully” about these concerns when planning for future programmes.
“We recognise that we are asking the community to move at pace to respond to the opportunities presented by the government’s record uplift to research and development funding,” he said. “The time frames for funding programmes can be affected by a range of factors, which can include the need to ensure the correct processes, safeguards and compliances are in place, a requirement to spend funds within the financial year and, in the case of international programmes, alignment with funding bodies from other nations.”