ESRC Demand Management Part 5: And the winner is…. researcher sanctions!

"And the prize for best supporting sanctions scheme goes to...."
And the winner is.....

The ESRC today revealed the outcome of the ‘Demand Management’ consultation, with the consultation exercise showing a strong preference for researcher sanctions rather than the other main options, which were institutional sanctions, institutional quotas, or charging for applications.  And therefore….

Given this clear message, it is likely that any further steps will reflect these views.

Which I think means that that’s what they’re going to do.  But being (a) academics, and (b) British, it has to be expressed in the passive voice and as tentatively as possible.

Individual researcher sanctions got the vote of  82% of institutional responses, 80% of learned society responses, and 44% of individual responses.   To put that in context, though, 32% of the individual responses were interpreted as backing none of the possible measures, which I don’t think was ever going to be a particular convincing response.    Institutional sanctions came second among institutions (11%), and institutional quotas (20%) among individual respondents.  Charging for applications was, as I expected, a non-starter, apparently attracting the support of two institutions and one learned society or ‘other agency’.  I’m surprised it got that many.

The issue of the presentation of the results as a ‘vote’ is an interesting one, as I don’t think that’s what this exercise was presented as at the time.  The institutional response that I was involved in was – I like to think – a bit more nuanced and thoughtful than just a ‘vote’ for one particular option.  In any case, if it was a vote, I’m sure that the ‘First Past the Post’ system which appears to have been used wouldn’t be appropriate – some kind of ‘alternative vote’ system to find the least unpopular option would surely have been more appropriate.  I’m also puzzled by the combining of the results from institutions, individuals, and learned societies into totals for ‘all respondents’ which seems to give the same weighting to individual and institutional responses.

Fortunately – or doubly-fortunately – those elements of the research community which responded delivered a clear signal about the preferred method of demand management, and, in my view at least, it’s the right one.  I’ll admit to being a bit surprised by how clear cut the verdict appears to be, but it’s very much one I welcome.

It’s not all good news, though.  The announcement is silent on exactly what form the programme of researcher sanctions will take, and there is still the possibility that sanctions may apply to co-investigators as well as the principal investigator.  As I’ve argued before, I think this would be a mistake, and would be grossly unfair in far too many cases.  I know that there are some non-Nottingham folks reading this blog, so if your institution isn’t one of the ones that responded (and remember only 44 of 115 universities did), it might be worth finding out why not, and making your views known on this issue.

One interesting point that is stressed in the announcement is that individual researcher sanctions – or any form of further ‘demand management’ measures – may never happen.  The ESRC have been clear about this all along – the social science research community was put on notice about the unsustainablity of the current volume of applications being submitted, and that a review would take place in autumn 2012.  The consultation was about the general form of any further steps should they prove necessary.  And interestingly the ESRC are apparently ‘confident’ they they will not.

We remain confident that by working in partnership with HEIs there will be no need to take further steps. There has been a very positive response from institutions to our call for greater self-regulation, and we expect that this will lead to a reduction in uncompetitive proposals.

Contrast that with this, from March, when the consultation was launched:

We very much hope that we will not need additional measures.

Might none of this happen?  I’d like to think not, but I don’t share their confidence, and I fear that “very much hope” was nearer the mark.  I can well believe that each institution is keen to up its game, and I’m sure discussions are going on about new forms of internal peer review, mentoring, research leadership etc in institutions all across the country.  Whether this will lead to a sufficient fall in the number of uncompetitive applications, well, I’m not so sure.

I think there needs to be an acceptance that there are plenty of perfectly good research ideas that would lead to high quality research outputs in quality journals, perhaps with strong non-academic impact, which nevertheless aren’t ‘ESRC-able’ – because they’re merely ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ rather than ‘outstanding’.  And it’s only the really outstanding ideas that are going to be competitive.  If all institutions realise this, researcher sanctions may never happen.  But if hubris wins out, and everyone concludes that it’s everyone else’s applications that are the problem, then researcher sanctions are inevitable.