Nerc shrinks pool of PhD partners

Studentships will be restricted to 20 centres as council keeps numbers steady. Paul Jump reports

February 16, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Hothouse: doctoral studentships will be focused in a handful of centres

The Natural Environment Research Council has become the latest UK research council to confine its doctoral studentships to designated centres.

Nerc announced last week that it was to follow the lead of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and introduce up to 20 "doctoral training partnerships" in 2014-15.

The institutions or consortia to be designated doctoral training partnerships will be chosen in a competition that will open in the autumn.

Currently the council divides up doctoral studentships among institutions according to the amount of Nerc grants and fellowships each wins.

The duration of studentships will also be extended from three and a half to four years, but the research council aims to maintain the number available at current levels.

A smaller number of "focused" studentships, for work in Nerc's priority areas, will be distributed by specific competitions. Project studentships will also continue to be available on Nerc grants - at least until the impact of the other changes is assessed.

According to the research council, the changes are "driven by the need to place more emphasis on ensuring that the quality of the training environment delivers Nerc's strategic needs".

Last month Nerc announced a new set of demand-management measures for its responsive-mode grants.

The research council will agree targets with individual universities to reduce their count of uncompetitive applications, defined as those that receive quality ratings of less than six out of 10.

The targets will be agreed during a rolling series of meetings with institutions, which will begin in the autumn. Nerc will first meet with institutions that submit the largest number of proposals and those with the greatest proportion of uncompetitive submissions.

Institutions will be liable to sanctions if they do not meet their targets, but a spokeswoman said no decision had been taken on what these might be.

The overall success rate for grant applications to Nerc has held steady at 24 per cent over the past three years. However, the rate for standard grant applications has fallen to 16 per cent in recent rounds, and has been less than 20 per cent since 2008. The research council hopes to see these figures to begin to improve within two years.

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