Off the beaten track

December 13, 2012

Nobel laureate Andre Geim criticises academics who spend their lives researching the same subjects that they addressed in their doctoral work ("Not monkeys, so why the peanuts?", News, 29 November). But it is no wonder they do so when the research councils do so little to help them plough new furrows, requiring instead that each applicant submit their "track record" of grants obtained and papers published in the fields for which they are applying for funds. The merest hint of teeth-sucking from a grant review panel and the application slips down the rankings.

Perhaps Geim would join me in calling for Research Councils UK to remove the track record element from the application process? I give three reasons. First, as outlined by Geim, requiring evidence of past ability restricts opportunities to explore new areas.

Second, past performance is no guarantee of future performance: having a good idea 10 years ago is no guarantee that the next one will be any good, so it would be better to concentrate on reviewing new proposals on their own merits.

Third, the inclusion of track records prevents blind analysis of grants. Given evidence of gender bias in science hiring and in editorial commissioning, as covered recently by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a Nature editorial, respectively, the blind review of proposals stripped of track records would allow a more transparent and less bureaucratic assessment of the value of proposed research.

Rupert C. Marshall, Lecturer in animal behaviour, Aberystwyth University

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