Red-tape burden cut for research grant-winners

Councils' plan to cut paperwork raises questions over accountability. Zoe Corbyn reports

March 20, 2008

Academics will no longer be required to spell out exactly how they have spent the money they receive in research council grants.

From 1 April, the final reports that researchers submit to the UK's seven research councils upon completion of funded projects are to be scaled back.

Peer review of the reports will also be scrapped, as will the grading that some councils use to determine the quality of the completed research.

The move has been welcomed by some academics as a helpful reduction in bureaucracy, but it has also led to concerns about how the research councils ensure that taxpayers get value for money for the millions of pounds spent annually on research.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council earlier this month announced the streamlining of the process. Times Higher Education has learnt that other councils are expected to follow suit.

The changes are part of a project led by Research Councils UK to improve the "efficiency and effectiveness" of peer review.

Final reports currently comprise three components: a "narrative report" of three to six pages in which academics set out whether they believe they have met stated objectives; a list of quantitative outputs such as the number of papers or patents that the research has achieved; and a signed budget statement.

It is the narrative report - which is scrutinised and graded by researchers' peers - that is to be scrapped.

"The whole objective here is to reduce the burden on the research community (as a whole, particularly) the academics who write the reports," said Ian Viney, the head of evaluation at the Medical Research Council, who is leading the project on behalf of RCUK.

"We are returning £16.5 million of academic effort over the next three years back to the front line through this, and I think that is quite a significant advantage," he said. The changes are expected to apply to both new and current awards.

Phil Willis, chair of the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, said he was "bothered" that research councils could lose their grip on quality. "We have to be very, very careful before we take this step," he said. "I would ask that the research councils should put in a backstep where they actually sample afterwards to ensure that they are not losing out on quality."

Dr Viney said the process would still sift out bad work because poor research would be reflected in a lack of outputs and the researcher responsible for it would find it hard to get future grants.

He also rejected the argument that checks to ensure proper use of public money were being lost: "We are not weakening the accountability that researchers have."

Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, acknowledged the concerns about accountability but said the narrative reports "have always been an unnecessary bureaucratic burden".

A planned second phase of RCUK's streamlining work will review the quantitative outcomes that councils ask researchers to provide to ensure that the right information is being captured. Changes will be introduced in the next few months.

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