Published online 19 March 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.177

News

UK researchers lament grant ban

A string of unsuccessful proposals means being barred from making further applications.

rejectedToo many strikes and you're out.Punchstock

A British research funding body has provoked outrage among scientists by imposing a year-long ban on serially unsuccessful applicants. The rule was announced by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) on 12 March. The council says that the new policy — unique among UK research councils — is part of a raft of measures intended to relieve pressure on an overloaded system which currently peer-reviews all grant applications.

Angry researchers have labeled the policy as "scientific McCarthyism". "Everyone is staggered by this radical policy," says Joe Sweeney, an organic chemist at the University of Reading, UK, who has set up an 'online petition', signed by more than 900 protesters to date, demanding that the EPSRC repeal the policy.

Other scientists say they will refuse to participate in helping to review their colleagues' work under such a system. "I will certainly boycott the peer-review system if this goes ahead — as will many signatories of the petition," says Philip Moriarty, a physicist at the University of Nottingham, UK. "The feeling in the community is that it is draconian and deeply unfair."

But EPSRC counters that a consultation on peer review in 2007 by Research Councils UK (RCUK), the umbrella group for the country's research funding councils, had found that many scientists supported the idea of managing grant applications in this way.

Out in the cold

The new policy states that scientists will not be allowed to apply to EPSRC for research funding for 12 months if, in the past two years, they have had three or more proposals ranked in the bottom half of a funding prioritization list, and also have fewer than 25% of all their proposals funded in that time. Those excluded will have to undergo a mentoring programme at their universities to help improve their success rate.

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

Bill Wakeham
EPSRC council

EPSRC expects that around 200-250 researchers will be excluded, accounting for 5% of applicants but 10% of the total number of applications submitted to the council. "The people losing out have very high failure rates. They are producing a disproportionate load on the peer-review system," says Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor at the University of Southampton, UK, and a member of EPSRC council.

The first exclusions come into effect from 1 June this year. In April, EPSRC will contact all those affected, looking back over the previous two years of data to calculate who to exclude. It will also send a warning letter to those who are just one proposal away from reaching the exclusion criteria. "It's not ideal," says David Delpy, EPSRC's chief executive. "We are a little uncomfortable with something that's applied retrospectively. But we can't wait another two years to implement it, with success rates falling as they are."

"It's absolutely beyond the pale," says Fraser Stoddart, a British chemist now working at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. "EPSRC should not be blacklisting anyone in academia in Britain. There is no way US funding agencies would dare come up with a scheme to prevent an academic in any university in the country from applying," he adds.

In June 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shelved a far less controversial idea that would have allowed some R01 grant proposals to be "not recommended for resubmission", as part of a year-long effort to overhaul the agency's peer-review system (see NIH responds to critics on peer review)

Lightening the load

grapghThe success rate of grant applications to EPSRC is falling rapidly. (Source: EPSRC)

The exclusion policy, says Wakeham, is "at the mild end" of options considered by the council in December 2008 to counter a "dangerously low" success rate in grant applications. On average, just 24% of applications to EPSRC currently receive funding, and the success rate drops to 15% in some subject areas.

Delpy says the research council wants to cut application numbers by 30% to boost success rates. Aside from increased pressure on the peer-review system, he says, low success rates also make referees increasingly cautious, tending to avoid recommending high-risk proposals.

EPSRC has also decided to refuse uninvited resubmissions of failed proposals, bringing it in line with other UK research councils.

Delpy reveals that other options that were considered by the council, but rejected, included charging for submissions; applying institutional quotas; or penalizing universities by making doctoral training grants proportional to their success rates.

Unhappy talk

Sweeney agrees that the low success rates of grant applications are a problem. "We're happy to exchange in dialogue, but are appalled by the lack of consultation," he adds.

EPSRC, however, says that the decision follows an extensive consultation by RCUK with scientists, which found limited support for introducing general disincentives to those making grant applications, but more support for specifically targeting scientists who have had many unsuccessful proposals.

"It is the chemists who are mostly complaining, and it is the chemists who produce most of the applications that fail," adds Wakeham. The mentoring scheme will help them write higher quality grants, he adds.

The initial outrage may also have been coloured by a misunderstanding of the policy, says David Reid, EPSRC's press officer. The online petition started by Sweeney states only that UK scientists will be prevented from applying for funds if they are unsuccessful in more than 75% of their applications.

Reid adds that EPSRC will constantly monitor the impact of its changes, and will carry out a review in around 12 months. 

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  • #60677

    Now that is monumentally stupid. Are they planning for the private sector to fill the gap or something? Actually, I'm pretty sure they're not planning for the future at all. i

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