Research Intelligence: No more plodding through

ESRC's first peer-review college aims to boost the success rates of grant applications. Neha Popat reports

June 3, 2010

The role of peer reviewers who assess grant applications for research councils is crucial to the academic endeavour.

But coming on top of already heavy workloads, the frequency with which they are asked to referee grant proposals is contributing to a low response rate from assessors.

Now, after discussions with other research councils, the Economic and Social Research Council is making efforts to improve the experience of both reviewers and applicants through the creation of its first peer-review college.

The college will have more than 1,800 members, including academics in the UK and abroad, as well as 250 users of research from the third sector, business and government.

Training will be offered to ensure that applications are treated consistently and transparently. Processes will be streamlined, and grant applications will be distributed equally among reviewers so that no one is overburdened and each has sufficient time to assess proposals and offer suitable advice and guidance in their reviews.

Upon completion, ESRC-funded projects will also be evaluated by college members to assess the findings and any impacts that may have been achieved.

Adrian Alsop, head of the research directorate at the council, said he hoped the new approach would mean more reviewers assess proposals when they are asked.

"We are currently receiving about one in three peer-review responses back." He said he hoped that this figure would double with the launch of the college.

As Times Higher Education has reported previously, only 19 per cent of applications to the ESRC secured funding in 2008-09.

Research Councils UK has acknowledged that there is a need to increase the proportion of successful grant applications at all the councils.

In a report published in 2007, RCUK Response to the Project Report and Consultation on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Peer Review, the umbrella organisation said that success rates below 20 per cent posed "a particular risk to both the efficiency and effectiveness of the peer-review system, not least because of the demoralising effect on researchers".

One of the ESRC's aims for the college is to drive up success rates by developing a more transparent and inclusive system of peer review.

"A better quality response will help applicants understand the decisions reached and help them in preparing future applications," Mr Alsop explained.

The college will become fully operational in July, but the council has already published a list of members who have been invited to join for the first two years.

Most will be asked to continue for a further two years, but Mr Alsop said there would be some turnover to "refresh and renew" the college's membership.

Vernon Gayle, professor of sociology at the University of Stirling and one of the college members, said the new system would be a huge benefit to the ESRC in ensuring that it supported the highest-quality research. The streamlining of the peer-review process would lead to "greater confidence and efficiency" in the system, he said.

Better training should mean peer reviewers can offer candidates "more clarity" about the strengths and weaknesses of their proposals.

Clarity and consistency in the refereeing of proposals are essential for researchers, said Michael Keating, professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen.

"With such broad guidelines in place, assessors are currently interpreting the criteria in their own way," he said. Because neither party understands what the other is looking for, reviewers and applicants get "frustrated" with one another.

"The increasing burden of bureaucracy on academics is making it ever more difficult for peer reviewers to devote as much attention to grant applications as they require."

With competition for research grants growing ever more intense, Professor Keating argued that applicants may even be discouraged from applying if they felt that their proposals were not given "adequate scrutiny" by referees.

By helping to "diffuse understanding" about what the research council is looking for, the college should also ensure that a "greater variety" of research is supported, he said.

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