The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has announced reforms that will, in effect, end the distinction between "responsive mode" funding for blue-skies research proposed by academics, and "managed mode" funding, where the council sets out what it wants to be researched.
The changes will also see the number of committees to which academics can submit grant applications cut from seven to four, and a reduction in priorities for research funding from 70 to 15.
The new structure, the product of two years' work by the BBSRC, will be explained in a series of national workshops. It will come into effect in mid January.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Alf Game, the council's deputy director of research, said the current peer-review structure had been in place since 1994 and needed updating to reflect the interdisciplinary nature of research.
The new committees, which will not have fixed remits, will be: "animal systems, health and wellbeing"; "plants, microbes, food and sustainability"; "technological and methodological development"; and "molecules, cells and industrial biotechnology".
Each will have a core membership of ten assessors, supplemented by up to another ten drawn from a "pool" of peer reviewers. Dr Game said the new structure maintained "consistency" from meeting to meeting, but would also be more efficient.
He said the new research priorities - which would need to be addressed in applications - would reduce the number of "managed mode" calls, although these would be retained for "complicated areas".
"The idea is not to use them very often ... We will try to deliver priorities through the committee system," he said. He accepted that the move in effect brought responsive and managed-mode research into a single process. Fewer priority areas would also make it easier to identify whether applications were addressing them, he said.
It is yet to be decided how the BBSRC's annual budget of about £420 million is to be divided between the priority areas, although a plan delivered after the last budget said that responsive-mode funding (currently about £170 million a year) would rise 3 per cent year on year.
BBSRC PRIORITIES 2008-2011
- Animal health
- Crop science
- Global security
- Living with environmental change
- Synthetic biology
- Systems approach to biological research
- Technology development for bioscience
- Economic and social impact
- Impact on public policy
- Increased international collaboration
- Replacement, refinement and reduction in research using animals
- Welfare of managed animals.