Thursday, 11 August 2011

Changes to NERC Schemes

With all the changes at ESRC, EPSRC, STFC and AHRC, it feels like NERC has been dragging its feet somewhat. Not any more. It's announced that:
  • It's cutting its Small Grants.
  • Consortium Grants are being cut from two rounds per year to one, and an outline stage will be introduced.
At this stage these kind of changes shouldn't come as a surprise. There's barely a funder left standing that hasn't stripped out its small grants: the ESRC and BA have already done so, and the Royal Society dropped its Conference Grants. Small scale funding is so last year.

NERC does say that 'it will remain possible to submit proposals for small discrete projects, proof-of-concept studies and pump-priming exercises to the Standard Grants scheme, if they exceed the minimum scheme funding level'. That's defined by NERC as '£25,000 for directly incurred costs', which has always struck me as a slightly curious way of defining a lower limit. Why not a minimum that includes directly allocated and, perhaps estates and indirect as well? Whilst £25k may sound like quite a small amount, and way below the £65k maximum for the current Small Grants, when you add in directly allocated, estates and indirect costs you would be coming very close to this figure.

So, in effect, they will not be providing any small scale funding. I tried talking to them about it this morning, but unfortunately the relevant person was away from her desk, but I imagine the reason for cutting the grants is (a) they're getting too many applications and the success rates are plummeting, (b) what they have been funding has tended to be incremental and not paradigm shifting, and (c) universities should be funding it anyway.

Well, up to a point, Lord Cooper. I would suggest, in response, that (a) if you're getting too many applications, it's a sign of popularity, of a scheme that the sector actually wants. How about putting more money towards it and away from the flashy large scale schemes? (b) okay, it's small scale by nature, but then, sometimes research does progress in small increments, and current breakthroughs build on previous knowledge, and (c) universities have the cash?? Ha!

However, something tells me that NERC aren't going to backtrack on the decision, especially when all their sister funders are doing the same. So we need to work in the changed climate. If you want to apply for funding for a small project get in touch with me and I'll help you identify other possible sources of funding, or how to frame your project in such a way that it could fit within NERC's Standard Grants scheme.


  1. Sarah Collinge from NERC got back to me this morning, and was very helpful in filling in more detail on the issues underlying the decision to cut the Small Grants. Partly it was cuts to their budgets, partly it was recognising that it was just as bureaucratic to manage small grants as it was standard, and partly it was a case of lower quality grants getting funding compared with the Standard Grants. I suggested that taking away an opportunity to access small scale funding removed that crucial 'first step' for ECRs to get experience of managing a grant. Interestingly, however, she said that they'd done some analysis of the awards, and the profile for small grants was roughly the same as the standard, and there wasn't a massive slew of ECRs that would disenfranchised by the move.

  2. Thanks for this, Phil. Good post and analysis as usual. Did you hear that the British Academy is reinstating its Small Grants, at least for one more 2011 round?

  3. That's very interesting to read, Phil, because I was of the opinion that smaller grants were more often accessed by ECRs as building-blocks before tackling larger schemes. One thing that occurred to me was that, if many academic teams used small grants as a way of 'road-testing' research and methodologies, what will doing away with them mean?

    Thanks for the insight. Always enjoy your posts.

  4. Thanks both for your comments. Thanks for the heads up on the BA Small Grants, David: I did (eventually) see this when I worked my way through my email pile. I think this is really good news, and a real fillip when so much other news is gloomy. I do think there is a need for small scale funding - as Tseen suggests, they are often used for pilot projects. What will happen without them? I think there'll be a lot of self-funded/subsidised research, which goes against the whole principle of Full Economic Costing. With the 'efficiency' cuts, this could well mean the effect end of fEC.