UK names first winners of simplified, anonymised research grants

Research scheme advocated by Dominic Cummings may provide template for streamlined grants process in future

December 18, 2020
Source: istock

A UK research council has unveiled the first winning projects under a new simplified grant application process that might pave the way for a radical reduction in UK research bureaucracy.

As part of a pilot scheme to reward “adventurous, high-risk research”, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has allocated £25.5 million to 126 projects in the mathematical and physical sciences, it was announced on 18 December.

Projects funded through the New Horizons programme will receive up to £200,000 over two years. They include an investigation of mathematical models to determine the best way to save the Amazon rainforest and work into how tiny robots could detect bowel lesions that could be signs of cancer.

The winners are the first beneficiaries of a new drive to reduce research red tape announced in January when ministers said UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) would simplify the process for applying for research grants. As part of the streamlining effort, UKRI would remove the “unnecessary” sections of grant applications requiring researchers to predict the impact of their work, the government explained.

Under the New Horizons scheme, researchers were required to submit an anonymous four-page case for support, with a further two pages outlining the team’s ability to deliver. Successful projects were asked to provide detailed costings only after a funding decision had been made.

Dame Lynn Gladden, executive chair of the EPSRC, said the “new, simplified applications process [was] designed to minimise the administrative burden of submitting grant applications, thereby enabling researchers to focus on developing their research ideas”.

“The call for proposals attracted a very positive response in terms of both the number and quality of applications, and we look forward to exploring how to include the approaches taken through New Horizons in further areas of our portfolio,” Dame Lynn said.

Science minister Amanda Solloway also welcomed the announcement of the new projects, saying the funding would “allow some of our brightest mathematicians and physicists to channel all their creative ingenuity into achieving potentially life-changing scientific breakthroughs”.

The drive to cut research bureaucracy, allied to a new £300 million investment in “experimental and imaginative” mathematical sciences research unveiled at the start of the year, was widely seen as being driven by Dominic Cummings, who was then the prime minister’s chief adviser, who had consulted with senior scientists about how research funding processes could be improved.

New Horizons is part of UKRI’s wider Reforming our Business agenda to simplify and streamline processes and practice across the research funding agency, which has an annual budget of £7 billion.

The new process also aims to reduce the time from applications to awards, particularly for small-scale, flexible funding of research with transformational potential.

Anonymising the submissions process – with grant applicants remaining anonymous to reviewers throughout the entire review stage – is also part of UKRI efforts to improve the diversity of its grant winners.

The research funder released an analysis of the ethnicity of its grant winners on 15 December, which, according to UKRI’s chief executive Dame Ottoline Leyser, showed the “stark reality of the persistent systemic racial inequalities experienced in the research and innovation system” – a situation she described as “profoundly upsetting”.

“UKRI must redouble our efforts, in partnership with all the communities we serve, to create the culture change that will address the under-representation and barriers highlighted by this report,” said Dame Ottoline.

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