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Loss of innocence

Research managers should not have to become the eyes and ears of the research councils

It may not always appear to be so, but here at Research Fortnight in Tech City we do have the research councils’ best interests at heart. Which is why we understand that something needs to be done to help them cope with the doubling of the numbers of researchers who apply for grants. The need is ever more pressing as applications tend to increase even further in an economic downturn.

As we report on page 6, the councils’ responses to their cluttered inboxes can be grouped into three broad categories. The first, pioneered by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, is for temporary bans on researchers who persistently fail to win awards. Other councils are now thinking of going down this road and the Economic and Social Research Council is even thinking of adopting a stricter regime on serial offenders than the EPSRC’s “three strikes” policy.

The councils’ second response has been to ask university research departments to act as a filter, removing potentially fatal applications before a research council has to do so. Peer review costs the research councils around £9.8 million a year and they are keen to shift the burden. The third response is to increase the amount of funding available to targeted research, reduce the sums for riskier responsive-mode research, and make grants larger and longer lasting.

Concentrating on the second of the three, there will be at least one very serious impact from the research councils’ planned course of action to get universities to undertake pre-award peer review.

Relations between professors and research-management offices are often characterised by what can be called ‘creative tension’. But one thing that the managers can say time and again with confidence is that they are on the same side as the academics. Research managers are an important resource for universities, helping academics to win money, saving them time, and guiding them through the labyrinthine processes of grant getting.

Coalition reforms to higher education mean that university personnel relations are already being tested, and we have reported [RF 15/6/2011, p1] that instances of stress are on the increase. If research councils are now asking research management to act as a kind of gatekeeper, they will have crossed an important line and the perception on the part of academics that management is on the side of the funders will only increase.

The research councils believe there is a problem because more people are applying for research funds and this is putting a strain on resources and making their success rates look bad. Yet if more people are applying for limited funding, then the percentage of successful candidates will inevitably be lower than before.

The answer to their problems is not to create yet more mayhem inside academe. The research councils should instead group together and demand that the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills finds them an extra £10 million. Academics should not be penalised for doing what everyone wants them to do—to apply for research grants.