Research Funding To Be Concentrated In Large Grants

New model grants: fund the chosen few

This story appeared in the Times Higher yesterday. It suggests that Research Councils are shifting towards a model where they award fewer, larger grants. It is likely that at least EPSRC and STFC will adopt this approach, and other councils may follow. The piece also notes that the Wellcome Trust have already moved in this direction with the introduction of their investigator awards.

This has significant implications for bidding strategies of the university, faculties and individual academics. It likely means that larger research teams with eminent and successful senior researchers as PI will increasingly be needed to secure funding in future. Inter-institutional collaboration may also become more common under this arrangement, as could interdisciplinary working particularly where funding calls target large scale societal “grand challenges” such as an ageing population, climate change, and energy efficiency.

The move has been widely criticised by academics across the sector, many of whom fear it could stifle innovation and creativity as well as being detrimental to the independence of early-career researchers. The EPSRC have argued that larger scale grants are more effective in terms of impact and give greater flexibility and stability for those who are funded. It will also, of course, reduce administrative costs for research councils since they will be processing a smaller number of applications and awarding fewer grants.

A funding shift that would reduce the availability of small grants for individuals in favour of concentrating cash on larger projects risks shackling scientific creativity, researchers have warned.

The prospect of research councils focusing larger sums on a smaller number of projects has been raised by the huge savings being demanded of them. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has said he wants “ruthless” efficiency savings in excess of 30 per cent from the councils.

During a hearing of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee last week, David Delpy, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, discussed the possibility of fewer but more generous grants. He said his organisation was contemplating moving away from project-based funding towards larger grants focused on individual group leaders. “It is likely that the number of individuals we fund may reduce, but they will be funded in a larger and hopefully more continuous way, (while) managing larger groups of researchers,” he said. “We will probably finish up with fewer individual (principal investigators) but with roughly the same number of researchers being funded overall.”

But researchers have pointed out that the efficiency of research groups tends to drop when they grow beyond a certain size. Peter Lawrence, emeritus researcher in the University of Cambridge’s department of zoology, said he was “totally against” the trend for fewer, larger grants because of the problems it would pose for identifying the best researchers. “True innovation will be less likely, as who knows where it would come from?” he said.

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