Thursday, January 07, 2016

counciling the UK research councils

The UK research councils are unique in the way proposals are reviewed in several ways (in my experience)

firstly, unlike almost any other research funding agency (unlike DARPA, NSF in USA, CNRS in france, DFG in germany, the Japanese, scandinavian, and just about any other national funding agency I have dine reviewing for, which is a lot), the officers are not seconded experts so the assignment of reviewers depends on the reviewers self description - notoriously inaccurate. Unlike a journal (where the editor is an expert) there's not really a _peer_ review assignment process

secondly, the reviews can be rebutted by the proposer, but since the reviewers don't see each others reviews, they can't be calibrated against each other (unlike a conference or journal)

thirdly, the panel are not the reviewers and are not allowed to re-review the proposal, even if they are experts and only in exceptional circumstances will they discount an obviously incompetent or inappropriate review.

As a recipient of significant funding from the research councils, I am not expressing this through some sour grapes emotion, but more on behalf of my bewildered junior colleagues, who frequently receive inexplicably odd reviews and panel decisions. This is not good for community trust in the system - it may be ok at the obvious top 5-10% of proposals, but it results effectively in random decisions quite shortly after the very top (all 6s) ranked research. This is not good for confidence.

I can't give examples as that would be a breach of confidentiality, but everyone I know can tell a tale.

Maybe the new system after the recent review will involve people who have an answer to why the EPSRC and other councils should have a unique, and uniquely odd system. I have never heard an evidence based response to the comments above, which I have made several times to officials from the research councils. of course, since they themselves are not seconded from the community, how would they know, in any case. However, they could try talking to colleagues in other countries a bit more and see what works (or not) to persuade us that this is not just some random "we do it this way because we always have done"...

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