Research council amends controversial grant-funding proposal

After a campaign by scientists, the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has softened and delayed its controversial policy to bar serially unsuccessful grant applicants from making funding bids for one year (Nature online News, 5 May 2009). The ban was due to be imposed on 229 researchers starting on 1 June, in an effort to reduce pressure on an overloaded system that currently peer-reviews all grant applications. But eight weeks after it published the policy (see Nature online news 19 March 2009 and Nature 458, 391; 2009), the EPSRC now says that the restriction will not come in until 1 April 2010 — giving scientists more time to change their grant-submission behaviour so that they do not fall under criteria defining repeated failure. And instead of being excluded outright, researchers will be allowed one application during the year.

“We have made these adjustments to address concerns raised by the community — for example, the retrospective nature of [the policy’s] implementation,” the EPSRC said in a statement. “We’ve made bold changes to protect peer review, but we’re not an insensitive organization.”

Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics in London, says the EPSRC has listened to criticism and has shown flexibility. “It’s the policy that it perhaps should have been in the first place,” says Joe Sweeney, an organic chemist at the University of Reading, UK, who set up an online petition demanding the policy be repealed, signed by more than 1,900 scientists.

But some researchers say they are disappointed not to have been consulted more directly beforehand — which might have prevented the EPSRC from introducing the ban in the first place. “It’s something of a shame that we had to force them into this policy change,” says Philip Moriarty, a physicist at the University of Nottingham, UK.

The EPSRC is keeping a policy introduced on 1 April, to refuse uninvited resubmissions of failed proposals, which it says will cut 20% of applications submitted for review. The exclusion policy had been expected to cut a further 10%.

The EPSRC says that letters intended to warn individuals in April were never sent. “We are an organization that listens to the community,” says chief executive David Delpy. “If we can make amendments to help researchers whilst ensuring the overall policy is still effective, then that’s in everyone’s interest.”

Not all scientists oppose the proposals, however. In an online comment to this Nature news story, Nial Wheate writes: “I don’t have a problem with the EPSRC policy. Seriously, if you have three grants all ranked in the bottom half in one year, then you need to stop and think about what research you are trying to get funding for. And what’s wrong with only submitting 2 grants per year to make sure this doesn’t happen to you? The policy makes sense to me.”

News story first published online 5 May 2009 Nature doi:10.1038/459020b.


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