Academics and industrialists charged with assessing research proposals for Realising Our Potential, a multimillion-pound Government award scheme, are worried about the quality of work being funded.
This year the Office of Science and Technology has pumped more than Pounds 45 million into the programme, which aims to boost university-industry links by rewarding, in particular, researchers already successful in collaborating.
But an OST report paints an alarming picture of money going to projects whose value is strongly questioned by proposal assessors, particularly those concerned with the Medical Research Council and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
OST officials Martin Power and Jeremy Clarke prepared the reports earlier this year for Sir John Cadogan, director general of the research councils, on the basis of observations of several Ropa assessment panel meetings.
Mr Clarke notes that the MRC's molecules and cells assessment panel "repeatedly expressed its concerns that the Ropa scheme was supporting second or even third-rate science". He was also "mildly surprised" by the number of proposals described by assessors as being a direct repetition of work elsewhere. The panel judged that only five of the 50 applications considered would have been successful if processed through normal peer review. Nineteen were actually recommended for Ropa funding.
For the BBSRC's cells research panel, the OST official notes that assessors "forcefully" expressed the need to safeguard quality. The report says that there was also a need to combat the perception that the Ropa scheme was "an easy touch" in comparison to conventional peer-review programmes and that it was draining funds away from conventional initiatives.
The BBSRC's systems panel recommended Ropa finance for 23 out of 44 applications. But the OST report says that only a small number of the successful applications could be considered to be "highly speculative research" for which Ropa was felt particularly suited.
"The majority of applications were relatively safe, simple developments of the applicants' existing research," it says. One academic on the panel said that Ropa applications were "poorly written and would stand no chance of receiving funding through normal routes".
While there was less concern on panels in other councils, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council panel members struggled with interpreting "quality". The Economic and Social Research Council panel said that most Ropa applications considered were no different from normal grant applications. The Natural Environment Research Council panel expressed "disappointment" that the NERC community had not grasped the opportunity Ropa presented for funding speculative ideas which might not find support through normal peer review.