'Terrible' ESRC grant survey is extended

Brief demand-management consultation produces little consensus, lots of dismay. Paul Jump reports

February 10, 2011

The Economic and Social Research Council is to run a full consultation on how it should manage demand for grants - but only after a controversially brief and narrowly distributed sounding exercise failed to deliver a consensus.

All the research councils have made a commitment to introduce measures to limit demand and raise grant application success rates.

In 2009-10, the success rate for applications for ESRC grants was just 17 per cent - less than the 20 per cent minimum desirable threshold set by Research Councils UK.

The ESRC's original "option paper" was sent out just before Christmas to some research managers and ESRC committee members, with responses required by 18 January. Options for review included sanctions on unsuccessful individuals or institutions, or institutional quotas.

Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, complained that she found out about the consultation only by chance in January.

"Individual academics' livelihood depends on grant income but they were not consulted," she said.

Iain McLean, professor of politics at Oxford and a member of the ESRC's peer review panel, also felt he should have been directly consulted. He feared that the "terrible" exercise would leave the council open to legal challenges.

But the council has now announced that it will consult more widely after an analysis of responses indicated a lack of consensus.

A spokeswoman for the ESRC said the council had always kept open the option to seek further feedback. She said the consultation would include a "narrowing" of the options in the original paper.

Professor Bishop described those options as "stark". Most would require universities to conduct their own internal peer review before submitting applications, and she predicted this would lead to infighting among disciplines and resentment from academics told by administrators that their proposals were not fit for submission.

She said better options might be to limit the number of grants held by one individual, to allow each institution to submit applications only in alternate years, or to reform full economic costing to make grants less lucrative for universities.

John Holmwood, professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham, suggested that internal peer review would be done by internal academic panels, but feared that they would lack the expertise to assess blue-skies submissions and would be overly guided by the research priorities set by the research councils.

Professor McLean said internal peer review would disadvantage early career researchers. "The key is to have a more sophisticated triage system so you have a limited number of full submissions," he said.

Meanwhile, a group of post-1992 pro vice-chancellors have written to Paul Boyle, the ESRC chief executive, urging a rethink of the council's decision to restrict doctoral funding to pre-1992 universities.

As reported last week, the ESRC is to confine its PhD studentships to just 21 "doctoral training centres", made up of 45 pre-1992 universities.

The letter, signed by the pro vice-chancellors for research from the universities of Plymouth, Middlesex, Portsmouth and Oxford Brookes, says the decision shows "a complete disregard" for the research capacity of the 25 post-1992 universities currently recognised by the ESRC.

Those institutions' provision in some subjects "is stronger than that available within some of the doctoral centres", the letter says.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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