I’ve just finished reviewing a couple of Rutherford Fellowships. Obviously I can’t give any details. They were both good, but I suspect that the current round is going to be extremely competitive. One of the changes this year was that rather than having many reviewers each reviewing one proposal, there was a smaller pool of reviewers each reviewing a number of proposals. This seems quite a sensible change, partly because the reviewers can maybe get a better sense of the standard, but also because STFC contacted reviewers a while ago to be part of this pool, and so it feels a bit more like you’re formally part of the process and, hopefully, encourages reviewers to take this seriously.
What I found a little unfortunate about the review process (and this doesn’t just apply to the Rutherford Fellowships) is how much emphasis appears to be put on the “quality” and “suitability” of the candidate. I suspect I’m in a minority here, but my personal view is that one should review the proposal and it’s merits without necessarily considering the applicant. Once the quality of the proposal has been assessed, one can then assess whether or not the applicant is likely be able to do the work and, if so, do they also have a record of timely publications and papers that have been well received. Although I have never sat on a UK panel, my feeling is that the perceived quality of the candidate trumps any deficiencies in the proposal. I’m not suggesting that a poor proposal would get funded, but that a candidate perceived to be strong would get funded with an okay proposal over someone who wrote a fantastic proposal but is perceived to be not of as high a calibre.
Many would probably argue that funding strong candidates is ultimately what it is all about, and there is a lot of merit in this view. Funding those with a proven track record is pretty safe and it typically will produce good science. It does, however, feel a bit risk-free. We should, in my view at least, be aiming to fund excellent and potentially exciting science, and that will generally require taking some risks. Funding, for example, the person with the excellent proposal who hasn’t yet proven themselves over the person who has a good track record but didn’t write a particularly good proposal. I should acknowledge that I don’t really believe that the process doesn’t try very hard to get a decent balance, or that the panels simply chose those with the strongest track record. It is simply a sense (that without having sat on a panel I can’t really confirm) that the applicant’s track record plays a much more significant role in their likely success than I feel is appropriate.