One of the most popular research schemes in the Arts and Humanities Research Council's portfolio could be axed, Times Higher Education has learnt.
The Research Leave Scheme, which gives individual researchers time off from teaching to undertake work such as writing books, was debated behind closed doors this week at an AHRC event to discuss how the council is to support individual researchers in the future.
The scheme, which supports more than 200 researchers a year with up to £6 million, has already come under pressure this year, with the AHRC cancelling its September 2008 round to save money.
Although the AHRC has repeatedly expressed its commitment to maintain support for individual researchers, it has identified a number of "problems" with the scheme. These include the fact that per cent of researchers do not complete projects within the time frame, that costs are rising because of the need to pay salaries rather than a fixed amount for replacement teaching, and that the scheme does not do enough to help early career researchers.
The consultation on the future of the scheme is being overseen by an academic working group that is due to deliver options to the AHRC in September.
John Caughie, chairman of the group, said that one option would be to replace the single scheme with a variety of ways to support individuals at different points in their careers. "The Research Leave Scheme may not continue but we will be trying to do something that serves the same purpose," he said.
Brad Hooker, president of the British Philosophical Association, said the scheme had been a "huge success" even if it was not perfectly designed. He said the worry was that support for individual scholarship would be sunk into that for collaborative projects.
"We certainly don't want to see the total abandonment (of the scheme), certainly not a reduction in funding and certainly not anything that would mean the AHRC dictated the subjects of the research. We think it should take a bigger percentage (of the AHRC's budget) at the cost of collaborative funding and big grants," he added.
James Ladyman, who represents the British Society for the Philosophy of Science, agreed. "I can't think of anything else in the bureaucratic and administrative trappings of academia that is universally loved. I would like the AHRC to defend the scheme and change or get around the (salary) rules," he said.
But Evelyn Welch, professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, and an AHRC board member, said she would be happy to see a "wholesale reworking" of the scheme where individual research leave became an integral part of collaborative projects. "Why not have a flexible scheme for collaborative research that might include individual research leave?" she asked.
Helen Beebee, of the British Philosophical Association, said the AHRC seemed committed to funding individual scholars but also to disbanding the scheme in its current form.