The ESRC and “Demand Management”: Part 2 – Sifting and Outlines

ESRC office staff start their new sifting role

In part one of this week fortnight long series of posts on the ESRC and “demand management”, I attempted to sketch out some context.  Briefly, we’re here because demand has increased while the available funds have remained static at best, and are now declining in real terms.  Phil Ward and Paul Benneworth have both added interesting comments – Phil has a longer professional memory than I do, and Paul makes some very useful comments from the perspective of a researcher starting his career during the period in question.  If you read the previous post before their comments appeared, I’d recommend going back and having a read.

It’s easy to think of “demand management” as something that’s at least a year away, but there are some changes that are being implemented straight away – this post is about outline applications and “sifting”.  Next I’ll talk about the ban on (uninvited) resubmissions.

Greater use of outline stages for managed mode schemes (i.e pretty much everything except open call Research Grants), for example, seems very sensible to me, provided that the application form is cut down sufficiently to represent a genuine time and effort saving for individuals and institutions, while still allowing applicants enough space to make a case.  It’s also important that reviewers treat outline applications as just that, and are sensitive to space constraints.  I understand that the ESRC are developing a new grading scheme for outline applications, which is a very good thing.  At outline stage, I would imagine that they’re looking for ideas that are of the right size in terms of scale and ambition, and at least some evidence that (a) the research team has the right skills and (b) that granting them more time and space to lay out their arguments will result in a competitive application.

With Standard Grants (now known as Research Grants, as there are no longer ‘large’ or ‘small’ grants), there will be “greater internal sifting by ESRC staff”.  I don’t know if this is in place yet, but I understand that there’s a strong possibility that this might not be done by academics.  I’m very relaxed about that – in fact, I welcome it – though I can imagine that some academics will be appalled.  But…. the fact is that about a third of the applications the ESRC receives are “uncompetitive”, which is a lovely British way of saying unfundable.  Not good enough.  Where all these applications are coming from I’ve no idea, and while I don’t think any of them are being submitted on my watch, it would be an act of extreme hubris to declare that absolutely.  However, I strongly suspect that they’re largely coming from universities that don’t have a strong research culture and/or don’t have high quality research support and/or are just firing off as many applications as possible in a mistaken belief that the ESRC is some kind of lottery.

I’d back myself to pick out the unfundable third in a pile of applications.  I wouldn’t back myself to pick the grant recipients, but even then I reckon I’d get close.  I can differentiate between what I don’t understand and what doesn’t make sense with a fair degree of accuracy, and while I’m no expert on research methods, I know when there isn’t a good account of methods, or when it’s not explained or justified.  I can spot a Case for Support that is 80% literature review and only 20% new proposal.  I can tell when the research questions(s) subtly change from section to section.  And I’d back others with similar roles to me to be able to do the same – if we can’t tell the difference between a sinner and a winner…. why are research intensive universities bothering to employ us?

And if I can do it with a combination of some academic background (MPhil political philosophy) and professional experience, I’m sure others could too, including ESRC staff.  They’d only have to sort the no-hopers from the rest, and if a few no-hopers slip through, or if a few low quality fundable some-hopers-but-a-very-long-way-down-the-lists drop out at that stage, it would make very little difference.  Unless, of course, one of the demand management sanction options is introduced, at which point the notion of  non-academics making decisions that could lead to individual or institutional becomes a little more complicated.  But again, I think I’d back myself to spot grant applications that should not have been submitted, even if I wouldn’t necessarily want a sanctions decision depending on my judgement alone.

Even if they were to go with a very conservative policy of only sifting out applications which, say, three ESRC staff think is dreadful, that could still make a substantial difference to the demands on academic reviewers.  I guess that’s the deal – you submit to a non-academic having some limited judgement role over your application, and in return, they stop sending you hopeless applications to review.

If I were an academic I’d take that like a shot.

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  1. Pingback: The ESRC and “Demand Management”: Part 4 – Quotas and Sanctions, PIs and Co-Is.... | Cash for Questions: social science research funding, policy, and development

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