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Amid falling success rates, one UK science funder bucks the trend

successrates1.pngAt last some good news for UK physicists and chemists: although there is less research money in the pot, more than one in three grant applications to the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) were funded last year.

As the Times Higher Education reports today, EPSRC success rates in 2010-11 shot up to 36%, a startling recovery from recent years. It bucks the general trend: success rates at other UK research funding agencies are still falling (see chart, right).

Those who have been following EPSRC know how this has been done — through a series of tough and sometimes controversial policies in what the agency terms ‘demand management’, designed to reduce the burden on the agency by getting researchers to submit fewer applications (see ‘Fixing a grant system in crisis’, Nature, 464, 474-475; 2010). And, as the numbers show, this is exactly what has happened (see chart, below), though the Times Higher Education story wonders if all of this decline can be ascribed to EPSRC’s policies.

successrates2.pngAll is not rosy in the EPSRC garden. The policies have led to protests. Researchers got particularly angry about one policy in 2009, which involved preventing repeatedly unsuccessful grant applicants from continuing to apply. (They forced EPSRC to revise its scheme.) And the agency, which is losing government funding, continues to draw the ire of its scientists by cutting support for PhD students, and most recently by announcing reduced support for particular subjects (such as organic chemistry), which researchers say has been done without sufficient consultation and on the basis of weak evidence.

Last year, a Nature editorial (‘Tough love’, Nature, 464, 465; 2010) called EPSRC’s efforts to improve success rates a ‘gutsy gamble’. Do the 2010-11 figures suggest that the gamble is paying off? Other research agencies — and not just those in the UK — may be watching closely.

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    S.Pelech-Kinexus said:

    May be I am missing something here, but if fewer investigators submit grant applications, then of course success rates would appear higher, even though less grant proposals are actually funded. While this probably means fewer investigators are wasting their time writing and/or reviewing grants, it does not translate that the most deserving and innovative researchers are actually supported.

    In typical grants applications, an inordinate amount of information is demanded such that the description of the actual proposed experiments forms only a small portion of the submitted package. Moreover, the technical aspects of grant proposals are now rarely reviewed externally by experts, but only by two or three internal panel members that are often not as familiar about the specific research area. This problem has become increasingly inflated over the last two decades. In the end, many of the proposed experiments will have already been done before grant submission or will never be done by the applicant, or will have been done by someone else.

    For new investigators that have limited track records, detailed grant applications of the proposed research is sound idea. Even if the grant is not funded, the feedback provided by knowledgeable peer-reviewers can be especially usefully to inexperienced researchers. However, for established investigators, their track record over the last five years is the better indicator of future performance. Society would save a lot of time and money if the applications from established investigators focused on what they achieved with their previous funding, and their new project descriptions were brief.

    With respect to the amount of requested funds, most applications to the grant panels that I have served on in the last 30 years had very similar financial budgets in each competition. This aspect of grant applications actually receives relatively little attention in panel discussions. We should just award more grants with slightly lower than average budgets, and leave it to the investigators to use these funds as they see fit most prudently. Higher awards should be given to those investigators that demonstrated outstanding productivity. Those previously established investigators that have not been funded for several years could be treated as new investigators that would have to submit more exhaustive applications to justify new funding.

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