Tuesday 25 October 2016

Thoughts on BA Small Grants & Fellowships

Jack Carswell in action last week
Last week we hosted a visit by Jack Caswell the Assistant Head of Research Awards at the British Academy. The BA plays an important part in the research funding ecosystem: with the demise of smaller grants from the ESRC and AHRC, the BA is one of the few places where those working in the humanities and social sciences can turn if they want to undertake riskier, explorative research.

This may come as a surprise to many. The BA has something of a reputation as a fusty, traditional funder, a kind of Piccadilly gentlemen's club with an academic veneer. An unfair reputation, perhaps, but one that I've duly exploited for humourous ends in the past.

However, it makes sense, when you stop and think about it. The ESRC and AHRC are now so keen to push for larger, longer, higher, faster, stronger grants, that there's little space left in their portfolios for taking a punt on more speculative research. You get the sense that, for them, you essentially need to be completely certain of the outcomes of your research before you apply to them.

The BA, by contrast, offers Small Research Grants that can facilitate small scale pilot projects that test out possible scenarios. If things don't pan out as they should, there's not a huge amount that's been lost.

This is such a welcome offering in the current climate. I've written elsewhere about the current rush to fund centres and large grants, and the weight of evidence demonstrating that this is not necessarily healthy for research more broadly.

Jon Lorsch, director of the US National Institute of General Medical Sciences, explained the issue clearly. 'It is impossible to know where or when the next big advances will arise, and history tells us that they frequently spring from unexpected sources. It is also impossible to know what threads of foundational knowledge will be woven together to produce a new breakthrough. Supporting a wide variety of lines of inquiry will improve the chances of important discoveries being made.'

Thus, I have respect and admiration for the BA (and Leverhulme that bankrolled the scheme when it was in trouble a few years back) for sticking to first principles on their Small Grants. Moreover, in a time of plummeting success rates they have managed to maintain a fairly healthy 20%, receiving some 1900 applications and giving out around 350 awards each year. The responsibility for administering this scheme apparently falls to just one officer at the Academy. Just be thankful you're not her. 

Nevertheless, it did get me thinking about the BA's larger schemes: their fellowships. These are the Postdoctoral Fellowships, Mid-Career Fellowships, Senior Fellowships, and BA/Wolfson Professorial Fellowships. These, in contrast to the Small Grants, give out a handful of awards: less than 90 a year between the four scheme. 

Whilst, of course, welcome to the recipients, the BA has had to introduce demand management measures to stem the flow of applications for its Postdoc Fellowships. And yet the success rates for the scheme are barely above single figures. 

Given this, I couldn't help wondering why the Academy didn't just give up on the larger fellowships and instead concentrate on being a small grant funder, a facilitator of novel, exciting, risky research, research that ensured the long term health of the disciplines it represents. Sure, it might mean that there were less big ticket fellowships to crow about, but actually it would be able to really sell itself as the champion of new research, not just handouts for the usual suspects. 

It's interesting to look at the figures involved. This pie chart, taken from the BA's Review of the Year 2015-16, shows that the 80 Postdoctoral Fellowships and Mid-Career Fellowships given out in 2015-16 accounted for £14.4m. Even if this figure includes existing PDFs (up to 90), this is still £14.4m for c170 awards. By contrast, the 391 Small Grants accounted for £2.3m. Doing the maths, that £14.4m could buy an extra 2,448 Small Grants. 

I suspect the answer lies in the patchwork of funding that comprises the BA budget. Unlike the research councils, the BA distributes both government and charitable funding. Even the Small Grants scheme uses funds from over 20 different sources. Thus, the BA is probably limited in what it can use its funding for, and the backers of the Fellowships may well specify that their funds should go towards this end. However, it's a shame: imagine how many new lines of research, new careers, and new discoveries could be launched if the BA were to be solely a small grant funder. 

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