Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Hail the Kingmakers!

There has been an interesting development at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in America. Following on from their radical rethink on gathering metrics, the NSF has applied its imagination to the process of assessing grant applications.

According to Science Insider, the NSF will be doing away with external peer review for a new scheme that will fund unorthodox ideas. Applications to the Creative Research Awards for Transformative Interdisciplinary Ventures (CREATIV: an acronym that is almost European in its creakiness), which will provide grants of up to $1m for up to 5 years, will be judged by NSF program managers. Cutting out the academic review will dramatically slash the turn around time: applicants can expect a decision in 2 or 3 months, which is half the time it takes at the moment.

Is this a worrying step towards cutting out peer review completely? No, says the NSF. Richard Behnke, co-chair of the internal committee that designed CREATIV, said that 'for the great majority of proposals, we will continue the traditional merit-review process. The gold standard remains in place.'

Whilst it doesn't affect UK researchers directly (only US institutions can apply), I wonder whether UK funders will be looking at the experiment with interest. After all, the Research Councils are under pressure to find ways to save money, bureaucracy and time. This could be the answer to their prayers. But, to be honest, I don't think they'd dare. When I worked at the AHRC it was often very clear to us which applications were likely to rise to the top of the prioritisation lists. However, applicants need to be reassured that it is primarily on research quality that their proposals are being judged, and that reassurance can only come from peer review.

I'll be intrigued to know how the NSF scheme works. I wish them all the best, but I think that they'll be creating more problems than they'll be solving, and will be snowed under with appeals and complaints. The NSF officer-kingmakers will, I think, have only a short while in the sun.


  1. I think this is what the political scientists would call a legitimacy issue. I agree that it is likely to cause all kinds of problems even if the decisions are fundamentally what a peer review committee would make (though no one will ever be able to make that case).

    I love you point about that dreadful acronym. I wonder whether some agencies come up with the acronym first.

  2. I agree Jo: the decision not only has to be right, but has to be seen to be right, and arrived at through a legitimate process. I think this seems to be almost designed to antagonise the sector they serve. However, I do wish it success: it will certainly save a lot of time and effort for all those involved.