Research council plans to improve grant success rates by getting universities to screen out 'uncompetitive' proposals

The UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is planning to ask institutes to winnow out ’uncompetitive’ proposals in an effort to drive up its grant application success rates. Institutes that continue to submit a high proportion of poor proposals will face sanctions.

Success rates for standard NERC grants have fallen below 16%. The situation is worse for the NERC’s large grants, which provide funding tranches of up to ?3.7 million and support research to address the ’big science questions’: success rates in recent funding rounds have fallen as low as 11%.   Research Councils UK has previously said that success rates below 20% introduce unacceptable inefficiencies into the system. Universities and the seven research councils fork out ?196 million each year preparing and reviewing grant proposals, with universities and research institutes footing the bill for the vast majority of the costs. The NERC, which funds grants right the way across the environmental sciences, including geochemistry, ocean chemistry and atmospheric science, says this situation cannot continue. 

"At some point something has to give. You either do research and teaching or we become desk jockeys" - Wolfram Meier-Augenstein

The NERC says it will work with universities to help them self regulate their submissions. It says that targets will be set and there will be penalties for failing to hit these them, but it has not yet outlined what these penalties will look like. The council adds that its scheme will minimise inefficiency and keep submission quality high.

Researchers suggest there could be some problems. Kieron Flanagan, science and technology policy and management researcher at the University of Manchester, UK, says: ’In theory the same amount of reviewing will be going on, but in practice the research council would expect those proposals to be reviewed by experts in the field ... whereas within an institution there are unlikely to be independent experts other than the people proposing the work.’

David Hopkins, who has served on NERC assessment panels and is head of the school of life sciences at Heriot-Watt University, UK, agrees that finding expert researchers who know enough about the specific area to separate the wheat from the chaff will be tricky. However, he says one big advantage of the scheme is that it could save researchers’ time. ’It is far more time-consuming to submit a large number of unsuccessful proposals compared with screening at an early stage to avoid wasted effort,’ Hopkins says.

An NERC spokesperson emphasised that, unlike the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s ’shaping capability’ strategy, the demand management programme will not affect ’the remit or criteria used to assess proposals’. The scheme will come into operation for proposals submitted from 1 April.

Flanagan says that on the plus side the scheme could push universities to think more strategically about which areas of research they want to prioritise, rather than just reflecting the bottom up interests of individuals or groups in proposals. However, he adds that this might mean good proposals are ruled out for not meeting university priorities or fall foul of personal politics. Another potential pitfall is that grant proposals could become more conservative and risk-averse.  But Hopkins says: ’My experience in an institute suggests the opposite: the internal review panel was very keen to support adventurous proposals.’

Wolfram Meier-Augenstein, a stable isotopes researcher at the James Hutton Institute, who has received NERC funding in the past, is more critical. ’Now they want to load even more work onto the universities and I don’t think they’ve thought about the consequences,’ he says. ’At some point something has to give. You either do research and teaching or we become desk jockeys.’

Patrick Walter