EPSRC anti-grant proposal ("targeted disincentives")

I knew about the following, but now that Nature has reported it I can blog it with thorough anecdotal background. (BTW Nature plays a very useful role in scientific journalism and was a conduit when we were trying to raise awareness in the ACS – NIH – Pubchem affair). I won’t reproduce it all here as it’s c*p*r*ght…

UK funding ban sparks protests

EPSRC slammed for excluding some grant applicants.

British scientists are campaigning against a plan to bar hundreds of unsuccessful grant applicants from making funding bids in the following year.
The rule, announced by the government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) on 12 March, aims to reduce the pressure on an overloaded system that currently peer reviews all grant applications.
But by 24 March, more than 1,200 protesters had signed an online petition (http://tinyurl.com/cvyexx) demanding that the policy be repealed. “The feeling in the community is that it is draconian and deeply unfair,” says Philip Moriarty, a physicist at the University of Nottingham, UK. He and other scientists contacted by Nature say they will refuse to review their colleagues’ work under such a system.
Science-funding experts think that the strategy is unique among UK, US and European funding bodies. “We could not do it in the United States. It would be very contentious,” says Antonio Scarpa, director of the Center for Scientific Review at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Frank Wissing, life-sciences programme director at Germany’s science funding agency, the DFG, adds that its committees have never discussed a ban on unsuccessful applicants.

“It is the chemists who are mostly complaining, and it is the chemists who produce most of the applications that fail.”

The EPSRC says that scientists will not be allowed to apply for research funding for 12 months if, in the past 2 years, they have had three or more proposals ranked in the bottom half of a funding prioritization list, and also have less than 25% of all their proposals funded in that time.
Chemists are most likely to be affected by the policy, says David Reid, head of marketing and communications for the EPSRC, because they tend to submit larger numbers of smaller, short-term proposals compared with other subject areas. Some funding areas with a focus on chemistry have seen success rates fall as low as 15%.
“It is the chemists who are mostly complaining, and it is the chemists who produce most of the applications that fail,” says Wakeham.
Tom Welton, head of chemistry at Imperial College London, echoed the feeling of many chemists contacted by Nature, calling the move a “knee-jerk bureaucratic response”. “We are appalled by the lack of consultation,” adds Joe Sweeney, an organic chemist at the University of Reading, UK.
Reid concedes that the EPSRC did not consult widely on the specifics of the policy. But he argues that a 2007 consultation by Research Councils UK, an umbrella group for the country’s research funding councils, had found that some academics supported the idea of targeted disincentives to improve success rates.

PMR: Although I am a chemist I shall try to take a wider view. I have sat on grant-awarding panels – including (joint) EPSRC ones –  and sifted through mountains of applications and I think what is described here is unacceptable whatever numbers you put in the equation.  If someone has a new idea, whatever their past track record, it deserves consideration. One way we did this was to require preliminary proposals on <= 2 sides of epaper. That allows for fairly rapid screening – we went through hundreds. But to condemn peope for life is unacceptable – criminals don’t suffer that. (And, in passing, they mention a figure of 25% – four strikes and you are out – when I was in my first job I used to paper the wall with grant rejections.)

Mentoring could be a good idea. Part of the life-blood of a University is to bring in grants and if a University thought like a commercial organization it would put more effort in helping scientists find grant opportunities, prepare them, help them with the submission systems, negotiate the contracts through contract and tech transfer (where many grants fall down), etc. But I suppose leaving scientists to work it out for themselves is good training for real life…

The EPSRC is also the most resistant of the UK research counciles to Open Access (please correct me but they are the only one not to require Open publication from grantees. They subscribe to the “level playing field” policy – do nothing). That means it will also be difficult to get them into the increasing need to make research data Open.

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5 Responses to EPSRC anti-grant proposal ("targeted disincentives")

  1. Peter Morgan says:

    The EPSRC is at last moving forward on Open Access. Their public statement of policy on the subject
    http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/AboutEPSRC/AccessInfo/ROAccess.htm, last updated in Jan 2009, concludes “EPSRC Council agreed at its December [2008] meeting to mandate open access publication, but that academics should be able to choose whether they use the so-called green option (ie, self-archiving in an on-line repository) or to use the gold option (ie, pay-to-publish in an open access journal). Further details will be published in spring 2009.” Not there yet, but closer.

  2. pm286 says:

    @Richard – thanks

  3. Pingback: Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - Stop the blacklist of UK scientists « petermr’s blog

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