Tuesday, 5 October 2010

ESRC to Follow EPSRC's Lead in Blacklisting?

Phil Sooben, Director of Policy and Administration at the ESRC, has been offering some gloomy insights into what the ESRC may do if the cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review are the anticipated 25%.

At the annual RCUK UK Research Conference he suggested that 'the only way to release significant funds for new activities would be to stop existing ones.'

By 'activities' did he mean funding schemes, or research projects? The Times Higher, which reported his comments, seems to think it's both, and talks of the ESRC 'rescinding' grants. Hmm. Not sure of the logic on that one. Why are shiny new projects inherently more worthy of funding than the old, dusty projects, which have gone through just as rigorous an assessment process? Just to keep their headline success rates buoyant?

If it's the latter, it does seem to suggest - as one comment on the Times Higher webpage points out - that 'RCUK funded research will essentially become contract research: the researcher investigates a specific topic proposed by the funder.' It will be a depressing switch. Most academics I talk to prefer responsive mode funding, and a move to throw limited funding at the government's topic of the day is a retrograde step. Surely, in these conservative times, the government should be happy to let the academic market decide what's important, rather than imposing priorities centrally?

In addition, he admitted that 'we'll be pushed even harder on the impact agenda and we will have to demonstrate that the work we are going to fund has wider relevance - without throwing out of the window support for blue-skies research.'

And, in a long anticipated step, he mused on the possibility of following EPSRC's lead in blacklisting persistently unsuccessful applicants. Using a football analogy, he suggested that 'the logic is that if you take enough shots at goal, eventually you will score. But my answer is if you continue to miss you'll be dropped from the team.'

Interesting, and worth bearing in mind when Adrian Alsop, the ESRC's Director of Research, visits us next week. More on this can be found on the Times Higher website.

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