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Lightening the load

Image: Rob Oo [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

How can the government fulfil its desire to make funding applications easier?

The government announced its intention to scrap the pathways to impact section from UK Research and Innovation applications at the same time as a review of “research bureaucracy

and methods, including unnecessary paperwork, arduous funding applications and research selection processes”, and the two are clearly linked.

I am not sure that scrapping pathways to impact is a good idea, but even if it turns out to be, I would still say that when it comes to reducing the burden on funding applicants, there is an elephant in the room. To put it bluntly, Je-S—the application system used by UK research councils—needs to be replaced.

Blast from the past

The core system dates from around 2003. For context, that’s the same year Myspace launched. By today’s standards, Je-S is a clunking hybrid of an online application form with text boxes to complete and a document portal for individual upload of what could be easily a dozen or more separate documents. It won’t allow two people to have edit access to the form at once. It won’t talk to research costing or financial management systems to allow direct upload of costs or other information, so they need to be re-entered manually. It’s difficult to navigate, gives far too many options and menus at once, and it’s hard to find what you want. Oh, and it still refers to Innovate UK as the Technology Strategy Board. 

Navigating Je-S is a source of friction, delay, duplication and frustration. It’s an obstacle to progress. Indeed, there were moves towards moves towards Je-S 2.0 which were “paused” in February 2017 and have stayed that way, possibly because of the greater task of bringing the Research Councils together and aligning their ‘brands’ under the umbrella of the UKRI empire.

Of course, if the Je-S 2.0 project got going again it shouldn’t just be an IT project. We would need to think about the different application requirements of research councils, and how much deviation from the standard is allowed. It would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t rethink what ought to be in an application. 

Is the best application form one that is tightly structured and has word limits for many specific questions, or is it a looser one that gives applicants suggested headings as guidance, and an overall word or page count to allocate as best suits their proposal? Or somewhere in between? Should Je-S 2.0 also alert researchers to funding calls? Should it support collaboration and partner search functions? Or are these supported elsewhere?

Preliminary applications

As well as Je-S 2.0—or as part of it—UKRI should also consider greater use of preliminary applications and a very selective approach in inviting subsequent full applications for schemes with (anticipated) low success rates. But there are potential problems.

The first is that if you make it easier to apply, you’ll end up with more applications. This isn’t a bad thing; it makes it easier to submit higher-risk ‘Marmite applications’ (panels either love them or hate them) and it may lead to more radical ideas being submitted. But it may also increase pressure on researchers from less-enlightened universities to submit more applications.
And all these applications will need reviewing.

The second is that it might entrench structural advantage for established researchers. A panel member told me that while they try to avoid ‘big names’ having an advantage, they often get the benefit of any doubt where a relative unknown would not.

Lower application requirements could end up entrenching inequalities if they mean greater funding panel reliance on trust (or otherwise) that the principal investigator and their team know what they’re doing about parts of their proposal that are unclear.

We might worry, too, about whether a reduced opportunity to present information might be bad for complicated proposals. As well as about outline stages making decision-making take longer. But there’s still potential for a net saving of time and effort.

The waiting game

Je-S 2.0 and associated work would be expensive and time-consuming. Cutting the pathways statement is cheap and quick. While those who talk of “impact” in sneer quotes may celebrate, those doing research with a more immediate application are now trying to work out how to fit some of that information elsewhere lest their bids be disadvantaged. This could be done through a combination of carving out space in the case for support and creative use of letters of support or even in investigator CVs.

Removing pathways may turn out to be a quick win for everyone. Still, if done correctly, a Je-S 2.0 could provide a slower but more comprehensive victory. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com.