The results of the first round of Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Consolidated grants are due to be released in the next few weeks and the second round of submissions are due early next year. For those not in the know, STFC used to have two types of grants, Standard Grants and Rolling Grants. Standard grants were typically for individual researchers requesting funding to support a postdoctoral researcher and to pay for some travel and some computing. Rolling grants were typically for a larger group of researchers. Generally it was expected that a Rolling grant had some kind of theme and there was an expectation that such grants would typically be renewed – hence being referred to as rolling – although not necessarily in full.
There were problems – in my opinion at least – with both funding styles. My problem with the Rolling grants was that they encouraged groups and departments to focus in a few areas, and they promoted inertia. You were rewarded if you kept doing what you’ve always done (or more correctly, the system didn’t really reward risk taking and it wasn’t easy to break in if you were trying to start something new). The problem with Standard grants was their inflexibility. They were typically for a single project that lasted for 3 years and provided funding for one postdoctoral researcher. Renewal was neither guaranteed nor likely, so the funded researcher would regularly leave before the 3 years was complete resulting in either a waste of a few months of funding or trying to hire someone on a short contract.
STFC has now decided on a single type of grant called a Consolidated Grant. The idea here is that everyone in particular area (Astronomy, Particle physics, Nuclear physics) within a given department are bundled into a single grant. Within this grant are a number of proposals requesting support for postdoctoral fellows, computing and travel. Unlike the previous Rolling grants, however, there doesn’t have to be an overriding theme and each proposal within the grant is assessed independently. In a sense it’s like combining the Rolling and Standard grants. One big grant made up of a bunch of smaller proposals. Each proposal is, in theory, assessed on it’s scientific merits but having a number of proposals bundled together provides flexibility. Given the current financial constraints, this may be a very sensible way to go. I do, however, have a number of reservations.
Firstly, a lot of the “refereeing” is done within each department. There is a limit as to how many cases can be included in each submission and so each department has to decide what to include. This may make sense to some, but it is likely that internal politics will play a huge and possibly negative role. How does a junior person fight a much more senior person within their own group. Once the grant is submitted, you’re also tied to it for the full three years. If your case was unsuccessful there’s no means for you to get funding within the UK for the next 3 years. Potentially extremely damaging if you’re mid-career. Admittedly, this was also true for Rolling grants and it is something I’ve never really liked. The cases are, in theory, meant to be assessed independently and, having spoken to some panel members, this does appear to be the case. However, my gut feeling is that some strategic aspects will influence the final outcome. I can’t really believe that if one group had all their cases ranked highly and another had very few, that they wouldn’t juggle it a little to balance the system. I suspect that this wouldn’t be explicit, but my guess is that some form of this will happen. I may be wrong though.
Another issue I have is how do you propose risky projects? Your group, who essentially decides what goes in, would probably rather play it safe. I was in a meeting where senior STFC staff were present and the explicit statement was that the flexibility of the Consolidated grant system meant you could take risks with your funding if you wished. However, how do you as an individual convince your colleagues to take the risk.
As I mentioned earlier, given the current financial position, the Consolidated grant system may be the most sensible option. However, the motivation for instituting this seems to be largely to reduce admin costs and to make the system simpler. Neither of these necessarily ensure that we fund excellent science. Given that the UK community is currently very good, we can almost guarantee funding excellence by default (there are far more excellent proposals than we can fund). We will probably fund excellent people and groups and some excellent people and groups will also not be funded. My concern is whether or not this is a funding style that will guarantee excellence in the long term. I certainly don’t feel that it is. Not many seem to agree though.