In the previous post in this series, I said a few things about the increased use of outline application stages and greater use of ‘sifting’ processes to filter out uncompetitive applications before they reach the refereeing stage. But that’s not the only change taking place straight away. The new prohibition on “uninvited” resubmissions for the open-call Research Grants scheme has been controversial, and it’s fair to say that it’s not a move that found universal favour in our internal discussions about our institutional response to the ESRC’s second Demand Management consultation. Having said that, I personally think it’s sensible – which in my very British way is quite high praise.
In recent years I’ve advised against resubmissions on the ground that I strongly suspected that they were a waste of time. Although they were technically allowed, the guidance notes gave the strong impression that this was grudging – perhaps even to the extent of being a case of yes in principle, no in practice. After all, resubmissions were supposed to demonstrate that they had been “substantially revised” or some such phrase.
But the resubmissions the ESRC might have wanted presumably wouldn’t need to be “substantially revised” – tightening up perhaps, refocusing a bit, addressing criticisms, that kind of thing. But “substantially revised”? From memory, I don’t think an increase or decrease in scale would count. Am I being unfair in thinking that any proposal that could be “substantially revised” and remain the same proposal (of which more later) was, well, unfundable, and shouldn’t have been submitted in the first place? The time and place for “substantially revising” your proposal is surely before submission.
The figures are interesting – apparently banning resubmissions should reduce application numbers by about 7% or so – a significant step in achieving the very ambitious goal of halving the number of applications by 2014. Of those 7%, 80% are unsuccessful. A 20% success rate sounds high compared to some scheme averages, but it’s not clear what period of time that figure relates to, nor how it’s split over different schemes. But even if it was just this last year, a 20% success rate for resubmissions compared to about 15% for first time applications is not a substantial improvement. We should probably expect resubmissions to be of a higher standard, after all, and that’s not much of a higher standard.
But moving to invited-only resubmissions shouldn’t be understood in isolation. With very little fanfare, the ESRC have changed their policy on a right to respond to referees’ comments. They do have a habit of sneaking stuff onto their website when I’m not looking, and this one caught me out a bit. Previously the right to respond was only available to those asking for more than £500k – now it’s for all Standard Grant applications. I’m amazed that the ESRC hasn’t linked this policy change more explicitly to the resubmissions change – I’m sure most applicants would happily swap the right to resubmit for the right to respond to referees’ comments.
There are problems with this idea of “invited resubmissions”, though, and I suspect that the ESRC are grappling with them at the moment.
The first problem will be identifying the kinds of applications that would benefit from being allowed a second bite of the cherry. I would imagine these might be very promising ideas, but which perhaps are let down by poor exposition and/or grant writing – A for ideas, E for execution type applications. Others might be very promising applications which have a single glaring weakness that could be addressed. But I wonder how many applications really fall into either of these categories. If you’re good enough to have a fundable idea, it’s hard to imagine that you’d struggle to write it up, or that it would contain a fixable weakness. But perhaps there are applications like this, where (for example) a pathways to impact plan in unacceptably poor, or where the panel wants to fund one arm of the project, but not the other. Clearly the 20% figure indicates that there are at least some like this.
The danger is that the “invited resubmission” might be a runner up prize for the applications that came closest to getting funding but which didn’t quite make it. But if they’re that good, is there really any point asking for a full resubmission? Wouldn’t it be better for the ESRC to think about having a repêchage, where a very small number of high quality applications will get another chance in the next funding round. I’m told that there can be a large element of luck involved in the number, quality, and costs of the competition at each funding meeting, so perhaps allowing a very small number of unsuccessful applications to be carried forward might make sense. It might mean re-costing because of changed start dates, but I’m sure we’d accept that as a price to pay. Or we could re-cost on the same basis for the new project dates if successful.
A second problem is determining when an application is a resubmission, and when it’s a fresh application on a related topic. So far we have this definition:
“a ‘new’ application needs to be substantively different from a previous submission with fresh or significantly modified aims and objectives, a different or revised methodological approach and potentially a different team of investigators. This significant change of focus will be accompanied by a different set of costings to deliver the project. Applications that fall short of these broad criteria and reflect more minor amendments based on peer review feedback alone will be counted as re-submissions.”
Some of my former colleagues in philosophy might appreciate this particular version of the identity problem. I’ve had problems with this distinction in the past, where I’ve been involved in an application submitted to the ESRC which was bounced back as a resubmission without having the required letter explaining the changes. Despite what I said last time about having broad confidence in ESRC staff to undertake sifting activities, in this case they got it wrong. In fairness, it was a very technical economics application with a superficial similarity to a previous application, but you’d have to be an economist to know that. In the end, the application was allowed as a new application, but wasn’t funded. That case was merely frustrating, but the ESRC are planning on counting undeclared resubmissions as unsuccessful, with potential sanctions/quota consequences, so we need to get this right. Fortunately…
The identification of uninvited re-submissions will rest with staff within the ESRC, as is currently the practice. In difficult cases advice will be taken from GAP [Grant Assessment Panel] members. Applications identified as uninvited re-submissions will not be processed and classified as unsuccessful on quality grounds under any sanctions policy that we may introduce.”
Even so, I’d like to see the “further guidance” that the ESRC intend to produce on this. While we don’t want applicants disguising resubmissions as fresh applications, there’s a danger of a chilling effect which could serve to dissuade genuinely fresh applications on a similar or related topic. However, I’m heartened to see the statement about the involvement of GAP members in getting this right – that should provide some measure of reassurance.