Nerc: no clouds on blue-skies horizons

Council defends decision to withdraw a third of its PhD project studentships. Paul Jump reports

August 9, 2012

The Natural Environment Research Council has denied that a decision to end funding for a third of its doctoral project studentships will damage blue-skies research.

Nerc confirmed last week that no studentships would be funded on responsive-mode standard grants in future funding calls. However, studentships on large grants and programme grants will still be financed.

Nerc announced in February its decision to follow the lead of several research councils and confine the majority of its PhD funding to up to 20 "doctoral training partnerships" from 2014-15. Such moves have proved controversial: for example, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has been criticised in some quarters for its decision, taken in 2010, to end project studentships, with critics claiming that blue-skies research would suffer.

But Kirsty Grainger, head of skills and careers at Nerc, dismissed any suggestion that its move would have a similar effect. She said funding for students in its doctoral training partnerships - whose research will not be directed by Nerc - will be increased from current spending levels on its "algorithm" studentships, which are divided among institutions according to their success in grants and fellowship applications.

She also emphasised that Nerc currently funds only about 12 studentships a year on responsive-mode standard grants out of a total of some 36 project studentships. This compares with the 240 doctoral positions that will be supported through doctoral training partnerships.

The changes to Nerc's doctoral provision follow a review carried out last year by about a dozen sector representatives. It concluded that there were "better ways" of supporting PhD training than through responsive-mode project studentships, Ms Grainger said, adding: "Highly skilled people are so vital to our sciences and the wider economy that we should be investing in the best possible training we can."

Under the changes, a smaller number of "focused" PhD studentships in Nerc's priority areas will also be distributed by specific competitions.

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