REF may lead to restrictions on grant applications

Metrics-based system will require more selectivity, say sector's senior figures. Zoe Corbyn reports

March 13, 2008

UK academics may face restrictions in applying for research grants.

Restrictions could include caps on the number of proposals that universities allow their academics to submit to research councils, and unsuccessful academics could be barred from reapplying.

The scenarios emerged this week as leading figures in the sector met at a seminar to discuss the future structure of institutions after the research assessment exercise ends this year.

Under the forthcoming research excellence framework, research funding in science subjects will be distributed from 2010 on the basis of metrics - measurements of research output, including the volume of research grant income a department brings in.

It is anticipated that this change could spark an increase in grant applications to the research councils, potentially increasing failure rates and wasting many hours of academics' time. The seven research councils have warned that this risk must be given "careful attention" as the Higher Education Funding Council for England finalises its REF proposals.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in advance of the seminar, run by the Missenden Centre, John Rogers, director of research at the University of Stirling, said universities must think about how they "manage the pre-selection of funding proposals more effectively" to counter this behavioural effect.

"It is an issue for institutions because if we don't get it right, the sponsors (funding bodies such as the research councils) may have little choice but to start imposing caps ... and that is what we don't want," Dr Rogers said.

"My preference is for institutions to think more about how we can become more selective about what we put forward," he said. He urged institutions to hone internal review systems and to ensure that support staff are in place to help academics submit robust proposals.

Dr Rogers said the REF could lead to what "in effect" would be a cap on proposals that institutions were prepared to submit. He also mooted the idea of preventing researchers who had been unsuccessful in their applications from reapplying, thereby improving success rates.

Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and chairman of the 1994 Group of smaller research-led universities, said he expected universities to ensure that their academics were "in the research grant culture" and that internal vetting procedures for grant applications were improved.

"Institutions might informally have caps ... but it would be wrong to use the word 'cap'," said Professor Smith. "Rather, what we might see is institutions moving into more quality control (in deciding) which grant applications move forward."

Rama Thirunamachandran, head of research at Hefce, said a number of the proposed metrics - including certain types of research income and postgraduate student numbers - were already counted in the RAE and had not led to adverse behaviours such as an increase in grant applications.

"Where new metrics are introduced, Hefce will evaluate their likely impact through the REF pilots before taking further decisions about their use," he said.

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