Suitors sought for overlooked but loaded LoLas

The BBSRC wants academics alert to the potential of its multimillion-pound long-term grants.

January 10, 2008

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council wants life scientists to consider making bids for longer-term, multimillion-pound grants to develop their blue-skies research ideas.

"Three years, one postdoc, one protein" - this is the mindset that scientists applying for grants to the BBSRC seem to be stuck in, said Nigel Brown, director of science and technology at the council.

"We have always said we welcome longer and larger grants if the science is justified, but a standard seems to have been established that a three-year, £250,000 grant is the norm," he says.

In an attempt to break the convention, the council formally launched a new longer and larger grant scheme (LoLa) in April 2006. But to date, only two grants have been awarded (see right) under the scheme. According to the council, the research community needs to wake up to the untapped potential the scheme has to offer.

"There was an element of Blue Peter about LoLas in its first inception - 'here's one I prepared earlier'," Professor Brown said. "People were submitting separate project grants cobbled together, and that is not the idea at all."

Rather, the idea behind the grants - which do not come smaller than Pounds 2 million and have a maximum length of five years - is to fund "integrated pieces of work" that truly require extended periods and several staff, and that will almost inevitably involve different disciplines, Professor Brown stressed. Bids were coming in for up to Pounds 5 million, he added, though there is no cap.

As such, they sit comfortably alongside the Pounds 115 million push in systems biology that the council intends to make over the next three years as highlighted in its recent delivery plan. The area, almost by definition, requires a multidisciplinary approach, perfect for LoLas.

The main advantage of the grants is that they allow researchers to be ambitious in their aims, but there are other benefits too, Professor Brown said.

There is more flexibility for innovative thinking in a five-year grant compared with a standard three-year one. "It gives you the headroom to do more imaginative things ... So I hope it is more likely to generate blue-skies thinking," he explained.

It also reduces the costs of peer review. A large grant addressing a major area of activity is much more efficient to award than single grants spread over a number of projects. What researcher wouldn't rather have a bigger chunk of cash?

But Professor Brown cautioned that they are "probably slightly more difficult to get" than standard grants. "There are specific management criteria that must be met. You have to demonstrate you have properly integrated the different disciplines."

Applying for a LoLa grant is unlike applying for normal responsive mode grants, in that it involves two stages. The council will ask for a full application if it likes an outline proposal. There have been four rounds so far. In the first, the BBSRC requested eight full proposals (which resulted in the two grants). The last three attracted 48 outlines, and half the applicants have now been invited to submit full proposals.

John Wood, a professor of molecular neurobiology at University College London, is the joint award holder of one of the two LoLa grants awarded so far. Starting on 1 January and worth Pounds 3.6 million, the grant will fund research on touch and sensation. The research merges elements of genetics with physiology, and the grant covers four postdocs and two technicians.

Professor Wood particularly welcomed the extended length of the grant because of the time it takes to generate the knockout mice needed. "To do this under the normal terms of a (BBSRC) research grant would be a high risk for postdoctoral research fellows who may not get any papers out for two or three years," he said.

According to the BBSRC's delivery plan, the intention is to increase the funding going into longer larger grants in both responsive mode, where academics pitch a research idea of their own to the council, and managed mode, where the council sets out what research it wants covered. Professor Brown was keen to stress that standard grants would still be available.

The total responsive-mode budget (from which LoLa grants are funded) is currently Pounds 170 million a year, and that figure is set to rise 3 per cent year on year after the BBSRC's budget settlement.

The question of whether to earmark a fixed proportion of responsive-mode funding for LoLa grants is being considered, Professor Brown said, although he added that it was "too early" to give anything away. "We are expecting to spend a significant amount, subject to the BBSRC community responding appropriately," he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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