Serial appliers could be shamed

February 20, 2004

Universities could be named and shamed if they make too many unsuccessful research council grant applications, it emerged this week, writes Anna Fazackerley.

Research Councils UK, the umbrella body for the country's seven research councils, said that it would investigate whether to publicise the success rates of universities applying for grants.

The House of Commons science and technology committee last week warned the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council that it was being "unduly reticent" about controlling its rapidly rising application rate.

In a scrutiny report, the committee urges the BBSRC to publicise university success rates to shame institutions that are overburdening the system with wasted applications.

It also suggests that the council place a cap on the number of applications permitted from underachieving universities.

Applications for funding from the BBSRC have risen from 770 in 1997-08 to 1,680 in 2002-03 because of a boom in the biological sciences. But with no major increase in funding, success rates have fallen from 40 per cent to 30 per cent over that period.

The BBSRC has confirmed that it likes the committee's proposal, although Julia Goodfellow, the BBSRC's chief executive, told the committee that she would want buy-in from universities and the other research councils.

A spokesperson for RCUK said that success rates were an issue for all the councils. "Although there are no immediate plans to implement something like this for all the councils, it is something we will be looking at," the spokesperson said.

The committee's report praises the BBSRC's attempts to encourage science that crosses traditional boundaries, with measures such as its "discipline hopping" awards.

But it warns that the BBSRC needs to work with the Medical Research Council to ensure that biomedical researchers understand the scope of their remits and do not waste time applying to the wrong organisation.

David White, head of the council's science and technology group, told the committee that news of a fall in research grant funding at the MRC had caused applications from medical departments to the BBSRC to double over the past few years.

The report congratulates the BBSRC for taking steps to reduce the number of staff it employs on short-term contracts. It urges the council to push universities to support this stance.

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