ESRC Future Research Leaders call announced

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The ESRC has recently launched their long-awaited Future Research Leaders scheme, and it’s a mixture of good news and not so good news.

The good news first – that there’s a scheme at all, and that there’s funding at all.  As senior ESRC staff are quick to point out, the research councils did well to get a ‘flat cash’ settlement in the comprehensive spending review.  It could be much, much worse.  Another piece of good news, I think, has been the merger of the old ‘First Grants Scheme’ and the ‘Post-doctoral Fellowship’ scheme.  The problem with the PDF was that those who had a permanent academic contract could not apply.  I don’t know about other disciplines, but in Business and Management, I think it’s fair to say that most of the best and brightest career young researchers would be snapped up.  Now, it’s possible that some of the best and brightest might have turned down a permanent academic (research and teaching) contract for a year or so of concentrated research time, but that would be a brave move.  So I wonder if the ESRC ended up funding the best of the best who didn’t get permanent jobs – but perhaps that’s unfair.

So… limitations of the old PDF scheme and reduced budgets make a consolidated scheme seem sensible.  But the change in emphasis is clear even from the language.  The clue’s in the name – with the old ‘First Grants Scheme’, it was about outstanding career young researchers with outstanding ideas who hadn’t yet had a chance to be PI on their own project.  Make no mistake – it was always very competitive, and before the ESRC introduced an outline stage, the success rates were lower than for the late lamented Small Grants Scheme.  But ‘Future Research Leaders’ strikes a rather different note.  When I first heard the name I thought this marked a shift from the a broad scheme, to a much more narrow, much more elitist one.  And that’s been confirmed by the call specification.

“We expect to see only a limited number of outline applications from a single research organisation; only bids from outstanding individuals, with the potential in Research Excellence Framework terms to become the 4* researchers of the future, should be submitted through this call”

And there are other limitations too.  If I remember rightly, the old FGS eligibility rules were for seven years post-PhD.  With FRL, we’re down to four years.  Add in the fact that there was no call last year because of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and it’s obvious that a whole cohort of early career researchers will miss out on this opportunity.  The only people who should be applying are those sitting right at the centre of a Venn Diagram of demonstrable 4* potential, post-doc experience eligibility, and having an absolutely first class outstanding project.  Anyone else looking at this call, frankly, is wasting their time.

While I’m not sure about the eligibility rule changes, did anyone really think that those getting funding through this scheme or its predecessors weren’t the 4*ers of the future?  Perhaps this is just an example of the ESRC being more up front about its funding criteria – or, better – what it actually takes to get funding through this call.  But I do think that the current social science research funding landscape has very serious problems.  Yes, let’s encourage the 4*s of the future, but we also need 3*s, and even 2*s and 1*s, both in their own right, and to properly exploit, comment upon, and explore the implications and applications of 4* research.  But the dysfunction of the funding landscape is a topic for another blog.

But….. no-one can accuse the ESRC of not being absolutely up front about this.  And it’s not hard to see why.  With no call for two years, other funding sources drying up, institutional hunger for attracting research funding, rising teaching loads across the sector, and promotion incentives for grant getting, there was a real danger of the ESRC drowning in a tidal wave of applications.  In many ways, this is the first test of the ESRC’s “demand management” request for institutions to self-regulate.  Let’s see if we’re capable.