More than a fifth of research departments in Portugal are to have their funding cut, leaving the future of the groups and their staff uncertain.
As part of the latest five-yearly evaluation of the country’s Science and Technology Foundation (FCT), its primary funding body, 22% of 322 evaluated units (representing 1,904 researchers or 12% of the total) were graded as fair or poor, and will receive no funding between 2015 and 2020.
A spokeswoman for the FCT told Nature that these units “may face a difficult period… and will have to re-group and re-think their strategy for the coming years”. Units can appeal their grade, a process that is already underway.
Meanwhile, another 26% of units – graded as “good” – will receive core funding only. This funding, which depends on the size of the lab and its equipment and activities, is minimal. “High intensity” labs with more than 81 researchers will receive just €40,000 per year, while “low-intensity” research units with fewer than 40 members will receive €5,000 a year. The FCT says this funding “may be used to re-structure the unit, in order to be better prepared for future review and funding rounds, both in Portugal and internationally”.
The remaining 52% of units (66% of the pool of associated researchers) were graded as “very good” or better and will now pass through to a second round of funding. There they will compete for strategic funding, which they will receive on top of enhanced levels of core funding, up to 10 times that of “good” units. The results will be based on a further assessment, including a site visit, with the final results due by the end of the year.
The total funding being allocated – which amounts to around €50 million ($68 million) each year – is unchanged from previous years. The number of units being denied funding in the latest round is comparable to the 2007-2008 evaluation, in which 17% of 378 units received no funding.
But changes to the evaluation process have drawn criticism from some researchers. In a blog post on Science 2.0, science writer and former immunologist Catarina Amorim says that most of the units that have been denied funding show “competitive productivity” scores at the international level and the decisions were largely made by non-specialists in each field.
She adds that the level of basic funding for units rated as good “in practice is a a slow death sentence”.
In an open letter to the president of FCT, a group of 13 social scientists from universities across Portugal also criticised the assessment. They claimed that rigour and impartiality were “glaringly absent” in the evaluation, taking as their case in point the failure of one of the country’s benchmark research units in the social sciences, the University Institute of Lisbon’s Centre of Investigation and Study in Sociology (CIES), to pass to the second stage.
The FCT told Nature that while bibliometrics formed part of the process (which for the first time was carried out in two phases, and in collaboration with the European Science Foundation), each unit’s evaluation was carried out by three reviewers, whose report fed into an assessment by between 9 and 17 academics drawn from a pool of international experts. Reviews were based on measures such as graduate training output and the unit’s research strategy, as well as productivity. The first phase also included a rebuttal phase for researchers to respond to comments, she adds.