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Sanctions on the horizon to boost NERC success rates

The Natural Environment Research Council is to introduce updated demand-management measures—including potential sanctions—to boost its low success rates for responsive-mode grants.

The measures, which will require institutions to cooperate with the council to reduce demand for grants, will apply to proposals for “urgency” and “large and standard” grants, submitted from 1 April.

The aim is to lower the number of “uncompetitive” proposals, which are defined as scoring six out of ten or less on the council’s scoring scale for research excellence.

NERC says its success rate for standard grant proposals has been only 16 per cent in recent rounds, despite measures to manage demand, such as limiting re-submissions and publishing the success rates of research organisations to “encourage self-regulation”.

The new measures will also focus on self-regulation, but research organisations could be subject to sanctions if they fail to reduce the number of uncompetitive proposals to certain agreed targets and timescales.

The council has not indicated the type of sanctions that would be considered.

In addition, institutions will have to nominate a “designated first point of contact” for demand management by April. The contact could be either an organisational or departmental representative, depending on the organisation’s preference.

NERC will make a first identification of institutions with a high number or proportion of unsuccessful submissions by July. It intends to start meeting organisations for “strategic dialogue” and setting targets by the autumn.

Several other research councils are also in the process of putting in place stricter demand-management measures.

In October last year, the Economic and Social Research Council, which had a success rate of just 16 per cent in 2010-11, published consultation responses on demand management supporting the introduction of researcher sanctions.

More than two-thirds of respondents backed a proposal that would ban any researcher who makes two failed bids for funding in any 24-month period from submitting further applications for 12 months. This is tougher than similar measures put in place by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which allows a sanctioned researcher one application after three failed bids.

After introducing researcher sanctions, the EPSRC increased its success rate, which was 26 per cent in 2008-9, to 36 per cent in 2010-11.

A Research Councils UK report on the efficiency of peer review, published in 2006, said that success rates below 20 per cent lead to unacceptable inefficiencies.

“The overall aim of introducing these measures is to increase success rates in NERC responsive mode schemes year on year for several years. This is likely to be a gradual process, but initial progress is expected to be achieved within two years,” reads a NERC statement.

The measures, which follow a consultation with NERC’s client community, were approved by the NERC council in July 2011.