New UCL grants omit peer review

December 11, 2008

For academics anxiously awaiting the results of next week's research assessment exercise, it may sound almost too good to be true.

But University College London this week launched a scheme to give its staff research grants without subjecting their proposals to peer review, without setting any deadlines or quotas and without expecting them to gain approval for their plans from their line manager.

Indeed, the only significant criterion for the funding scheme described as the "antidote to the RAE" is that academics should have a truly "paradigm-shifting" idea.

Malcolm Grant, UCL provost, said that peer review was "excellent at what it does" but that it necessarily judged people by "established paradigms and the habits and customs of the peers".

"What we are trying to do is simply break through that," he said.

The university is reluctant to specify the amounts available under its new Venture Research Prize, but it intends to spend about £100,000 a year for a minimum of three years on the winners.

The idea was conceived by Don Braben, UCL visiting professor. His book Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization argued that research funding based on peer review made it "nearly impossible" for researchers to make unpredictable discoveries.

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