The EPSRC today announced changes to its controversial blacklisting policy for persistently unsuccessful grant applicants

The Engineering and physical science research council (EPSRC) has today bowed to pressure from the scientific community and revised its recent policy on blacklisting academics with low success rates for grant applications.

In March the EPSRC announced a series of changes to its grant application process designed to relieve pressure on the peer-review process. The moves proved controversial, provoking outcry among researchers who saw the measures as ’draconian’ and damaging to UK science.

Today, however, the EPSRC has announced amendments to its policy that tackle some of the points of contention that so irked the scientific community.

Unsuccessful applicants

A feature of the original EPSRC policy that caused uproar in the chemistry community was the proposal to ban repeatedly unsuccessful grant applicants from making further applications for a period of 12 months.

This move to blacklist researchers resulted in almost two thousand signatories on a petition calling for the Prime Minister to repeal the blacklisting policy, calling the plan heavy-handed, inappropriate and flawed.  

In response to what the EPSRC refers to as ’constructive criticism from [its] communities and stakeholders’, the Council has now revisited its approach to repeatedly unsuccessful grant applicants. 

Rather than being completely excluded from applying to the EPSRC, investigators who have ’three or more proposals within a two-year period ranked in the bottom half of a funding prioritisation list or rejected before panel and an overall personal success rate of less than 25 per cent’ over the same two years will now be allowed to submit one application (as principal investigator or co-investigator) during a 12-month ’cooling off’ period.

Mike Ward, head of chemistry at Sheffield University, sees this change as a positive step that will improve the quality of submissions: ’The fact that people will still be able to submit one proposal per year is a great improvement,’ he says. ’It means people won’t just get disillusioned and fed up, it means they’ll think really hard about trying to put together one really good application; and that’s the whole point. So it’s a very constructive improvement and much better.’

The revised policy also now gives researchers more time before restrictions come into force, allowing scientists until 1 April 2010 to ’adjust their submission behaviour’ in line with EPSRC rules. The original plans to make the ban retrospective drew criticism from many parties. ’The academic community was fairly unanimous that the retrospective nature of the ban was particularly unfair and it’s nice to see that’s gone,’ Ward commented.

Mentoring of unsuccessful applicants, a proposal criticised by some researchers as impractical and placing significant administrative burden on universities, is still on the cards as part of the new policy, though decisions as to the best course of action will be taken on a case-by-case basis.

The amended policy aims to ’minimise the risk of any unintended consequences’ that could have been caused by the policy in its original form, while still maintaining the EPSRC’s aim to relieve pressure on peer review. With the number of proposals to research councils having doubled over the past 20 years, it was felt an overhaul was necessary to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the peer-review process.

No hard feelings?

Although the revised policy undoubtedly addresses some of the concerns regarding the original EPSRC policy, not all are convinced that the changes go far enough.

’I would have liked to see them go further,’ says Philip Page of the organic chemistry department at the University of East Anglia. ’I don’t think there should be any blacklisting at all; but nonetheless it’s good to see that they have now listened to the community’.

There is also some concern that the policy will not necessarily achieve its aim of reducing pressure on peer review - or that it will at least cause innocent casualties as it is applied.

’I still have slight concerns that given that the basic mechanism is still as it was, there is a risk that [the policy] will trap some people they don’t intend to trap,’ says Ward. ’I accept that that’s probably going to be a very small number, and given that they are prepared to show a human face and listen, maybe they will treat exceptional cases sympathetically.’

Page agrees that the policy is short of perfect, and believes the EPSRC has underestimated the number of researchers the policy is likely to affect: ’I still think their criteria, if applied strictly, will result in a lot more people (perhaps particularly [within chemistry]) who find that they’re blacklisted than the EPSRC have suggested.’

Dave Garner, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), welcomed the EPSRC’s decision to amend its policy in response to concerns from the chemical science community, but is concerned about the Council’s ’demand-management’ strategy and urged it to make further changes to its policy. Garner said the RSC was ’very disappointed’ in the Council’s decision not to change a clause on resubmissions, holding fast to its rule that as of 1 April 2009 the Council will no longer accept uninvited resubmissions of proposals.

However, despite lingering concerns, the feeling towards the EPSRC does appear to have warmed slightly following today’s news.

’The main point is that they have responded quite graciously to the disquiet that was expressed first time around,’ says Ward. ’It’s nice to know they do listen. I think they’ve gone a substantial way to repairing some of the hard feelings that were engendered to start with.’

’As long as they’re prepared to be flexible when flexibility is needed that’s all that really matters.’

Anna Lewcock