Value quality of research, not grant proposals, Sir Paul Nurse urges

Research funders should avoid “micromanaging” research and requiring applicants to set out the impact of their proposals, according to the president of the Royal Society.

November 30, 2011

Sir Paul Nurse used his annual Anniversary Address today to urge funders to pay more attention to the quality of applicants than to the details of their proposals.

“The objective is not to simply support those that write good quality grant proposals but those that will actually carry out good quality research,” he said.

He said applicants should be assessed on the basis of their past performance – or, for early career researchers, by a face-to-face interview.

“The greater costs involved in direct interviews will be more than compensated by the greater quality of the decisions that will be made,” he said.

“Well-intentioned” attempts to draw up research priorities and stipulate budgets for them should be avoided because such initiatives “may attract less creative and effective scientists who simply follow where resources are being made available”, Sir Paul said.

He also warned that the committees that drew up such strategic priorities typically consisted of senior researchers who may no longer be research active and who were therefore “prone to coming up with the rather obvious and being behind the cutting edge”.

“Better judgements are more likely to be made by the scientists actually carrying out specific areas of research, who are much closer to the research problem being pursued,” he said.

Even when a programme was directed at achieving specific goals, sectors worthy of support should be “broadly scoped” and be determined with the involvement of both researchers and research users.

The latter should be asked to make a financial contribution “as a statement of their support”.

Rather than ring-fencing or “micromanaging the research agenda”, funders should “undertake a process of education and inspiration of researchers so they become motivated to work in that area” and submit applications to do so via the responsive mode system.

“Should (the area) not be so interesting, high quality researchers…are less likely to be persuaded to submit proposals. In this case the research leader should perhaps think again whether his or her enthusiasm is well placed,” he said.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council recently ran into controversy when it divided up the areas it funds into around 100 fields and began to make decisions about which of those fields to grow or shrink.

Sir Paul also highlighted the “problems” created when “crude metrical applications of impact are made a compulsory part of research funding decisions and assessments”.

In what will be taken as a reference to the research councils’ “pathways to impact” statements, which all grant applications are obliged to complete, he said: “To demand a statement in every research proposal or assessment about impact for societal or economic benefit will often simply result in unhelpful flights of fantasy of no value.

“Impact is just one aspect out of a number of factors that need to be considered when assessing a research proposal, and should be provided when relevant and not at all if irrelevant.”

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