ROPA research 'has drawbacks'

December 1, 1995

An independent body should review a Pounds 70 million university-industry research initiative before the scheme is expanded, recommends the Royal Society.

In a study of recent developments in peer review published this week, the society says that the Office of Science and Technology's initiative, the Realising Our Potential award scheme, has some innovative features but also "some apparent drawbacks".

The Pounds 25,000 of support needed from industry for ROPA's proposals to stand is "neither a necessary nor a sufficient indicator of ability to conduct first-class basic research", the study says. It also voices concern that pressure to complete ROPA grant rounds "extremely quickly" inhibits grant assessment panels from seeking advice on proposals outside their expertise. The society adds, however, that ROPAs do have the potential to avoid some of the pitfalls of conservatism to which conventional peer review can be prone.

The society says that an effective peer review system is vital for sustaining the confidence of the scientific community and the taxpayer. The system is nevertheless under pressure with demand from well rated proposals increasingly outstripping the supply of funding.

The peer review mechanism has correspondingly become more costly, with more time being spent on proposals. The society says that the system must operate at an acceptable level of efficiency and excessive rejection rates represent an "irresponsible drain" on the time of the scientific community. All funding agencies should seek ways of streamlining their assessment procedures and of moderating demand, it recommends.

* In his final address this week as the Royal Society's president, Sir Michael Atiyah urged scientists to voice their concerns on moral issues relating to applications of science. Scientists had to regain the confidence of the public. He said: "The only way to break down this suspicion and distrust is for scientists to speak out openly and freely, to criticise the establishment when necessary and to demonstrate that independence of thought really is the hallmark of the scientist."

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