Thursday, 25 November 2010

RCUK to Concentrate on Large Grants

This week's Times Higher is reporting on how the Research Councils are aiming to 'concentrate cash'. You can see their point: last time round they went for 'salami slicing', spreading the pain so that everyone got a couple of groats and a rotten potato, which they had to eke out whilst shelving their big projects.

Wellcome has already gone down the route of selecting the few, of course, and STFC have said they're going to do something similar. There are noises about EPSRC following suit, and rumours from the BBSRC about limiting the number of proposals each university can submit. Meanwhile the ESRC are talking about ditching their Small Grants scheme for all but earliest of early career researchers.

However, concentrating funding on the few is not without its detractors: as THE reports, some 'have pointed out that the efficiency of research groups tends to drop when they grow beyond a certain size.' So big doesn't necessarily mean good.

There's also the question of maintaining morale, especially for young academics. If there's nothing for small project or pilot studies, it will be easy for them to become disillusioned. Worse still, if the Councils concentrate on what they think are the current strategic priorities, there'll be no fostering of future (as yet unrecognised) priorities.

The comments that follow the THE piece are illuminating. Almost all make the point that some of the best research comes from small grants, which give investigators the opportunity to explore risky and tentative avenues, whilst larger grants tend to stick to more incremental developments of understanding.

Let's hope the Councils take these thoughts on board and don't slavishly try to follow what the government wants.

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