What did EPSRC do? Part 2: Proposal submission changes
In this post I want to start to look at the various changes that EPSRC have introduced over the past few years and why they have led to many feeling disgruntled with the changes. This is not to say that I completely disagree with the changes, but many I feel have been misguided. The first major change that EPSRC made to the grant submission and writing process was a few years ago, when they banned the re-submission of grants, and introduced a ‘three strikes’ rule, whereby applicants who were repeatedly ‘unsuccessful’ would be barred from submitting grants for a period. In fact after the initial announcement EPSRC did back track a little on this, and didn’t ban people outright from submitting, but limited them to only one grant in a year after the sanction was imposed.
Prior to this new rule you were free to submit as many grants as you liked, and if a grant was rejected, you could tweak it and resubmit after a cooling off period of six months or so. The burden that this placed on EPSRC in terms of dealing with refereeing and assessing the submissions was the reason given for changing the system, and in particular the delays introduced in getting referees to respond to proposals. In addition, the data suggested that very few resubmitted grants were ever funded.
This smacked of punishing academics for an internal EPSRC failing, and although there is no direct evidence of this, what appears to have happened was that EPSRC didn’t really know who to ask when seeking referees. EPSRC’s refereeing base is a ‘College’ of several thousand reviewers drawn from the EPSRC community, both academics, industrial scientists and engineers and those in other organisations such as NGOs. The problem, as I saw it at the time, was that I knew of plenty of people working in ‘hot’ fields that were in the College but who were never asked to review papers, some over the course of five years or more. Conversely, many, especially big names, or those well known to EPSRC got lots, often 10 or more a year. Clearly this disparity had an effect on the review rates. My hypothesis is that the people selecting the reviewers at EPSRC maybe didn’t have a good over view of the field (and this is sort of understandable – typically you might start at EPSRC as a newly minted PhD and work your way up). You could argue that they were simply asking their good bets, people they could trust, but I think the issue was a bit more basic than that. So we paid for inefficiencies in the system.
EPSRC will now tell you that they get far fewer submissions and the whole process is a bit smoother. That is to be expected, but the way in which this change was implemented was a bit of a shock to the system to many, and as the thing was backdated it made it even worse, which led to some timescale of implementation changes.
I think the key thing is that it got things off on the wrong foot, and it still rankles a bit. The communication was poor – which is a running theme with EPSRC – and the justification was never terribly strong. As things stand, I guess we are getting used to it. It does give me pause for thought when starting to put together a proposal – and this can be a bad thing, as I might hold off on something cool and speculative, as I feel it has a poorer chance of getting funded. (Note I am writing such a grant this week, as it can be submitted in a scheme which does not fall foul of these rules – I may never have written it otherwise). I have to be very careful, as if I have a great idea and it doesn’t get funded, I can never really send it back again. The worse thing is that an ‘unsuccessful’ grant proposal in this system is one which falls below the 50% line in the grant panel rankings. This does not imply that my grant is bad, poor science, or unfundable in any way, simply that the panel felt 50% of the submissions were more suitable for funding. This is a ‘strike’ and it does hurt.
The idea that we are getting used to this is important. As the other changes come into force we will ultimately get used to them. For someone new hired today, these rules are just the rules, there never was anything different. Is this a bad rule? In parts, but if it means that EPSRC can actually function and is not swamped with loads of proposals, maybe it’s the price we pay. Or maybe we need to make sure that we oppose anything that is really to the detriment of physical science and engineering research in the UK.