Nautilus

Not as good as all that for British research

Dr Philip Strange writes in Nature’s Correspondence page this week (Nature 448, 22; 2007):

Your Editorial ‘Never had it so good?’ (Nature 447, 231; 2007) claims that British science is in “rather good shape”. Those in British universities who apply for research grants might not fully agree.

In the case of the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the new Labour government in 1997 made more cash available. As a result, the success rate for grant applications went up to about 40% in 1998–2000. Since then, however, there has been a steady decline to the present success rate of about 25%, leaving 10–15% of applications rated of international quality but unfunded. During the same period, the number of applications to the BBSRC has increased from about 1,200 a year in 1998 to about 1,900 a year in 2005. This may reflect a decline in other sources of funding from bodies such as the Medical Research Council, or a preference among applicants for funders who, unlike charities, include an amount for overheads.

This situation is not good news for British science, in that about 75% of applications to the BBSRC are now rejected, representing a huge waste of effort and ideas.

One obvious solution is to put more money into the system, to increase the success rate among applications ranked as internationally competitive. Another suggestion is to change the system for submitting and assessing applications, placing more of the onus on the universities, perhaps via a quota system for applications. A third is to weight the system more in favour of applicants’ published track record and less in favour of the proposed science (with a special track for first-time applicants).

Above all, let’s try to do something about this crazy situation in which so many grant applications fail, with the result that so much time is wasted for applicants, reviewers and administrators.

Philip Strange

School of Pharmacy, University of Reading, UK.

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