EPSRC reinstates cap on first grants to spread funds more widely - but adds two year time limit

More young chemists in the UK look set to receive government grants after the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) bowed to pressure from the chemistry community to spread its early career funding more widely. 

Senior researchers warned last year that changes to EPSRC’s funding strategy had led to a sharp drop in the number of research grants awarded - particularly under the ’first grant’ scheme, intended to help chemists at the start of their academic career establish independent research programmes. 

In October 2008, EPSRC research base director Lesley Thompson told Chemistry World  that the fall was a ’real concern’. It stemmed partly from EPSRC’s November 2006 decision to scrap a ?250,000 limiting cap on the scheme - meaning that larger grants were awarded to fewer applicants. The success rate of applications subsequently dropped below 20 per cent in the first half of the current financial year, from over 70 per cent in the previous year.

From 6 January EPSRC has reintroduced a cap of ?125,000 to its first grant scheme, so that available funds can stretch to cover more applicants. 

But the research council has stipulated that each grant will only last for two years. The move prevents the money from being used to fund a PhD studentship, which typically takes four years to complete.

’I’m really pleased that EPSRC has responded to the concerns of the community by reintroducing the cap, which I hope will result in a much higher proportion of first grants being funded,’ says Robin Perutz, an inorganic chemist at York University and president of the RSC’s Dalton Division. ’But I find it mystifying why they have set a limit of two years on funding that would otherwise have been quite sufficient to fund a PhD studentship.’

Royal Society of Chemistry chief executive Richard Pike voiced similar concerns over the EPSRC announcement. ’I think the idea of a cap is a good one - but the two years seems an extraordinarily short timeframe, there should be more flexibility on that. We would like to see the grant lasting for much longer, with regular reviews during that time.’

However, EPSRC defended its decision to introduce the two year time limit. An EPSRC spokesperson said: ’We have set this limit taking into account the typical level of resources that a first grant applicant would need to devote a suitable proportion of their time to a first research project and so we can fund appropriate numbers of successful first grants. If applicants wish to submit a proposal for a project which requires resources above these limits they are free to apply via the standard responsive mode.’

EPSRC has previously admitted that it will have to cut the overall volume of science it funds in the next three years. The constraint arises because, under a programme of ’full economic costs’ (FEC), all research councils have committed to increase the size of every grant they give, to help universities cover the costs of maintaining labs, equipment and infrastructure. Once FEC is taken into account, EPSRC’s budget will remain flat or decrease slightly in real terms from 2009-11. 

James Mitchell Crow

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