Is there a danger that research funding calls are getting too narrow?

The ESRC have recently added a little more detail to a previous announcement about a pending call for European-Chinese joint research projects on Green Economy and Population Change.  Specifically, they’re after projects which address the following themes:

Green Economy

  • The ‘greenness and dynamics of economies’
  • Institutions, Policies and planning for a green economy
  • The green economy in cities and metropolitan areas
  • Consumer behaviour and lifestyles in a green economy

Understanding population Change

  • changing life course
  • urbanisation and migration
  • labour markets and social security dynamics
  • methodology, modelling and forecasting
  • care provision
  • comparative policy learning

Projects will need to involve institutions from at least two of the participating European counties (UK, France (involvement TBC), Germany, Netherlands) and two institutions in China. On top of this is an expectation that there will be sustainability/capacity building around the research collaborations, plus the usual further plus points of involving stakeholders and interdisciplinary research.

Before I start being negative, or potentially negative, I have one blatant plug and some positive things to say. The blatant plug is that the University of Nottingham has a campus in Ningbo in China which is eligible for NSFC funding and therefore would presumably count as one Chinese partner. I wouldn’t claim to know all about all aspects of our Ningbo research expertise, but I know people who do.  Please feel free to contact me with ideas/research agendas and I’ll see if I can put you in touch with people who know people.

The positive things.  The topics seem to me to be important, and we’ve been given advance notice of the call and a fair amount of time to put something together.  There’s a reference to Open Research Area procedures and mechanisms, which refers to agreements between the UK, France, Netherlands and Germany on a common decision making process for joint projects in which each partner is funded by their national funder under their own national funding rules.  This is excellent, as it doesn’t require anyone to become an expert in another country’s national funder’s rules, and doesn’t have the double or treble jeopardy problem of previous calls where decisions were taken by individual funders.  It’s also good that national funders are working together on common challenges – this adds fresh insight, invites interesting comparative work and pools intellectual and financial resources.

However, what concerns me about calls like this is that the area at the centre of the particular Venn diagram of this call is really quite small.  It’s open to researchers with research interests in the right areas, with collaborators in the right European countries, with collaborators in China.   That’s two – arguably three – circles in the diagram.  Of course, there’s a fourth – proposals that are outstanding.  Will there be enough strong competition on the hallowed ground at the centre of all these circles? It’s hard to say, as we don’t know yet how much money is available.

I’m all for calls that encourage, incentivise, and facilitate international research.  I’m in favour of calls on specific topics which are under-researched, which are judged of particular national or international importance, or where co-funding from partners can be found to address areas of common interest.

But I’m less sure about having both in one call – both very specific requirements in terms of the nationality of the partner institutions, and in terms of the call themes. Probably the scope of this call is wide enough – presumably the funders think so – but I can’t help think that that less onerous eligibility requirements in terms of partners could lead to greater numbers of high quality applications.

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2 Responses to Is there a danger that research funding calls are getting too narrow?

  1. I suspect that sometimes this is a result of the political imperatives of the different funding countries. The process of getting the polities to agree to give funding is so onerous that no-one has the energy left to defend a sensible research agenda. The path of least resistance is to just limit the topic to the intersection of each area of interest. But I’m just guessing.

    This isn’t limited to international funding though. It just becomes particularly acute there because of the need for partners in multiple countries.

    I’ve always felt that a narrow call just encourages people to shoe-horn their research into the required topics / geographic areas / funding and time limits. Sometimes it encourages true movement towards a new area of work, but most of the time it is mutton dressed as lamb. ymmv.

    • Adam says:

      I think that’s probably right. We’ve had some heart-sinkingly ‘designed by committee’ calls over the past couple of years for schemes with numerous funding partners.

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