Thorny problem

Research councils face criticism over decision to allow advisers to submit applications

July 25, 2013

Questions have been raised about the “perennial problem” of whether research councils should allow academics on their advisory groups to apply for grants.

The issue was highlighted after the Arts and Humanities Research Council awarded a £1 million grant under its “Care for the Future” theme to an advisory group member.

Georgina Endfield, professor of environmental history at the University of Nottingham, won the grant earlier this year after the AHRC had issued a “highlight notice” to encourage submissions in the environmental change and sustainability area of the theme.

A researcher, who preferred not to be named and who had previously received AHRC funding, told Times Higher Education that she felt the award was unfair given the role advisers play and the information they might be privy to, although there is no suggestion Professor Endfield behaved improperly.

The researcher said the issue was compounded by the fact that large grants for that area of the theme were no longer being encouraged.

However, a spokeswoman for the AHRC said details of the highlight notice had been published widely and that researchers in the area could still be funded under the theme if submissions were outstanding, as well as through other routes.

She stressed that at no stage was Professor Endfield, or any other group member, involved in the decision-making process for her grant.

Advisory group members are only ever involved at the shortlisting stage, where one exists, and only then when they are not the applicant.

As in any call for submissions, applicants are not involved in the peer review process, she added.

Those in advisory groups provide overall guidance and direction on a theme, advising on the general approach and helping to define the objectives that guide the development of research.

Professor Endfield is not the first group member to receive a grant. Across the council’s four themes, five of the 42 members of advisory groups are also lead researchers on grants awarded under the relevant theme.

The question of whether funders should exclude successful and influential academics from either being involved in panels and advisory groups, or from applying for grants, was “a perennial problem”, said a research funding manager who preferred not to be named.

But he said excluding such academics would be “doing their sector a disservice” as they have interesting ideas, understand what made projects successful “and have their finger on the pulse of the sector”.

However, he added that safeguards to ensure against unfair advantage were needed and transparency was important.

Thom Brooks, reader in the Durham Law School and member of the AHRC peer review college, said advisory group members did probably have an advantage, but he agreed that the issue was unavoidable.

“It’s not unlike the fact that someone on an editorial board of a journal would know the kind of stuff that would get published – it’s an inside view, even if they’re not involved in the review itself,” he said.

But councils “can’t say a researcher who helps us can’t win funding” or researchers wouldn’t help to advise them, he added.

Professor Endfield told THE that group members also have a responsibility to disseminate and share information on upcoming opportunities, including those under development, around the academic community.

“These are publicised online, fed through institutional research offices and also advertised through town hall meetings, where community feedback and opinions are sought,” she said.

“It’s a very transparent and community led approach to project call development, which in turn is helpful to the broader academic community.”

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com

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