AHRC Demand Management

A few weeks ago I attended an ARMA/AHRC Study tour at Polaris House, the main home of the UK Research Councils,  in Swindon. Unlike the usual ARMA Study tours, which are intended primarily as an opportunity for research support staff from universities to increase their understanding of how funding bodies operate and to discuss topics of common interest, this Study Tour took the form of a Special Event and focused on ‘demand management.’

Demand management measures were agreed by all Research Councils as part of the recent Spending Review negotiations as a way of reducing wasted cost and effort in the system.

Research Councils have agreed to:

  • work in partnership with research organisations such that they self-manage demand and quality control;
  • use quality, impact/added-value and, where appropriate, Research Council strategy in delivering quality decision making;
  • consolidate and simplify/streamline funding schemes where possible;
  • maintain a range of funding models to deliver the objectives of each Research Council (e.g. for core business, capacity building, translational research etc);
  • use sift / triage processes robustly to reduce the burden on the peer review system;
  • share good practice and strive for continual improvement;
  • remain sensitive to the challenges of reviewing and supporting multidisciplinary and collaborative research;
  • discuss plans for demand management with stakeholders;
  • develop and share tools for demand management across Research Councils and research organisations;
  • maintain awareness of the effect of demand management on the wider community and relevant stakeholders.

The implementation of demand management, to comprise of a combination of new approaches to funding, good practice in HEIs and sanctions if necessary, is intended to be collaborative and led by Research Councils in partnership with Research Organisations. However each council will be adopting their own approach to reflect the differences in practices at each of the Research Councils. The ESRC’s approach to demand management has already been discussed on this blog and they will be deciding later this year whether to introduce sanctions. The EPSRC have gone down the route of individual sanctions, however the AHRC do not see the same patterns in submissions so this approach would not be appropriate. The AHRC have not ruled out implementing sanctions  however it is anticipated these will be institutional rather than individual.

Research Councils currently receive far more high quality applications than they are able to support and this is reflected in low success rates as Research Councils try to balance demand against available resources. There is also a concern that the high volume of proposals is placing an increasing burden on peer reviewers which, should that burden continue to grow, could have a negative affect on the quality of decisions being made.

Whilst Peer Review is designed to sift out the successful from the unsuccessful, a large number of proposals are submitted which have little chance of success. If these proposals could be removed from the system before they reach the Research Councils through a pre-submission ‘triage’ of applications the burden will be reduced and success rates should increase. Whilst Research Councils do have an internal sift or triage system to remove the proposals which are out of scope or ineligible, they want this process to move to the submitting institutions and are encouraging self-management of demand and quality control.

The AHRC’s current, and preferred, approach is to develop good practice guidelines for Research Organisations specifically in the operation of internal peer review and an internal institutional triage system whereby only the best applications are submitted to RC’s. About 20 different institutions were represented at the event and whilst there were differences in approach to peer review – ranging from processes whereby each application had to be reviewed by at least two internal academics and one external if the grant was significantly large, to a more informal expectation that proposals should be reviewed before submission to the Research Office for institutional approval – it was clear that no institution had a clearly defined approach to demand management. Approaches to mentoring of Early Career Researchers also varied widely across the sector, despite being seen as a vital part of their development. Whilst it is clear that these processes will become even more important to all institutions it was also recognised that measures to imbed demand management within institutions will take time and involve a cultural shift in the way researchers and institutions work.

Like all other Research Councils, the AHRC’s approach to demand management will also use more targeted schemes to include longer and larger awards with greater use of the Expression of Interest phase, and an increase in the number of ‘sandpit’ style workshops to limit the number of applications on specific schemes to those which have been invited. An internal review will also consider whether resubmission rates are high and consider stricter triage of applications prior to panel. It was stressed that sanctions would only be introduced as a last resort however they will be monitoring success rates as the basis for strategic discussions with Research Organisations and introducing sanctions if deemed necessary.