|'Swindon, we have a problem'|
Is this an anomaly? It is certainly less than the 25% ESRC average for 2013-14 given in the Times Higher round up published at the same time. More alarming, perhaps, was the number of high quality applications which didn't make it past the funding cut off point, which was in the 8-8.9 score range. In fact, there were more unsuccessful proposals in this range than there were successful ones.
Thus, according to ESRC's own definitions, it has had to turn away more than half of the 'excellent proposals which are of significant value, and are highly likely to make a very important scientific contribution and/or will significantly enhance the development of the applicant's academic career.'
As the scores demonstrate, the ESRC's push to increase the quality of applications has clearly had an effect: 45% of applications were scored seven ('very good...significant value...likely to make an important contribution') or above. However, this push for quality has not had a dampening effect on demand.
The current system serves neither the applicants nor the ESRC well. The applicants will have put in a huge amount of work in devising the project and developing the proposal. To be told by the ESRC that, whilst it was 'excellent...of significant value, and...highly likely to make a very important scientific contribution,' it wouldn't fund it, is galling. The project is as good as some that were funded; what more can they do?
Similarly, for the ESRC, combing through 144 applications to identify the 14 to be funded seems like a colossal waste of their time. It's inefficient, and it's not good to appear as such with the Nurse Review just around the corner.
So what's to be done? I don't want to revisit old arguments here (I explored the problems with, and potential solutions to, peer review here), but I do believe we need to rethink the adversarial way we assess applications, and move to a more iterative, supportive and nurturing system of proposal development that works with the funders.
However, I recognise that this won't happen any time soon. In the meantime I think the least that the ESRC should do is introduce a simple two stage process, so that those with no hope of progressing get winnowed out early, and those with potential are allowed to develop further.
In addition, second stage rejects should get constructive feedback and be allowed to reapply. By doing so, the ESRC would counter the sense of hopeless futility and despondency that results from all those highly rated applications, and it would help to allay the widespread disillusionment with the present system. And restoring confidence in the system would be good for both the applicant, the ESRC and the social science research base as a whole.