Research intelligence - Big pitch: are you in or out?

EPSRC launches a Dragons' Den-style format to decide the fate of £2 million. David Schley reports

July 23, 2009

Researchers in the physical sciences will get the opportunity to bid for a share of up to £2 million of funding in a Dragons' Den-style interview process.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's Ideas Factory is launching a pilot programme to fund "innovative and high-risk ideas".

The two-stage process will culminate in the "big pitch", in which applicants will have about 45 minutes to make their case before an expert panel of entrepreneurs and scholars. The panel will then decide on the spot whether or not to allocate funding.

Researchers in materials manufacturing will be the first to take part in the scheme. They will get the chance to bid for up to £250,000 each.

Submissions must be made by 10 September. They will be reviewed in a manner pioneered by the Gates Foundation, which asks applicants to provide brief outlines of their projects on an anonymous basis. At this stage, applicants will be whittled down to a shortlist of ten.

The chosen researchers will then have to face venture capitalist Jack Boyer at the end of October. He will be joined by four materials scientists and another entrepreneur on an expert panel.

Susan Morrell, head of the Ideas Factory, said that this stage of the process would involve a "discussion of intellectual content, sending ideas back and forth", rather than the "horrible grilling" often witnessed on Dragons' Den.

She said the small number of candidates invited to "pitch" their ideas would ensure that each had a fair amount of time with the panel. Even those who were ultimately unsuccessful would benefit from a "direct, interactive peer review on the day", Dr Morrell said.

She added that the panel would have the option to "give to as few or as many as it wished", and that the awards could be "for as much or as little as it wished".

She acknowledged that the £2 million budget would be spent in its entirety only if at least eight projects were funded.

Instant gratification

Although initial applications are restricted to just two pages, they will need to explain the ultimate impact of the research and the candidate's rationale for expecting success.

Researchers will sketch out their idea and explain why it would be "transformative".

The format of the pitch has yet to be determined, but it will draw on Mr Boyer's experience with a similar project at Stanford University in the US.

The 45-minute slot is likely to be split between a presentation and a discussion.

Because there will be no further vetting of the proposals, successful candidates will receive funding almost immediately. Explaining the reasoning behind the new format, Dr Morrell said: "The anecdotal evidence is that the traditional peer-review process often results in conservative decision-making because people are averse to supporting things that might not work."

She said it was therefore important to design a review process to match the aims of the call, which in this case was "to help the academic community to come up with really exciting and innovative research ideas", where "a high degree of risk was expected and welcomed".

While agreeing that existing review procedures failed to fund the most ambitious research, Donald Braben, visiting professor in the department of earth sciences at University College London, was scathing of the approach, which he described as a "theatre of the absurd".

He said it was "not the business of research funders to concern themselves with risk ... a bureaucratic term", but rather that of the scientist whose career and reputation were at stake.

He conceded that a focus on impact was necessary for industrial research, but insisted that it was short-sighted to apply this to the academy because it was impossible to predict where research would lead.

"Ideas come from scientists who can think freely, and we are severely curtailing that freedom by using such formats," he said.

A second "big pitch" is being planned for the physical sciences, after which the process will be reviewed by the EPSRC in light of feedback from participants and panellists.

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