The EPSRC is the main research funding body in the UK for computer science and software engineering. I wrote my first EPSRC proposal in 1981 and have reviewed proposals, served on panels and helped with making funding decisions for at least 25 years. Over that time, I guess I must have spent hundreds of unpaid hours reviewing proposals and being involved in panel meetings. However, I will do no more reviews – I have now resigned from the EPSRC College of Peers.
My resignation has been prompted by a small thing – a ‘requirement’ for members of the College of Peers to complete an online training course that I discuss below. However, I think that this is indicative of a culture change that has occurred in the research council over the past few years, where the EPSRC seems to me to have lost sight of what should be its principal objectives – to support high-quality research and to nurture the research community.
Let me start with the most recent piece of nonsense. Earlier this month, I received an email from the EPSRC inviting me to take an online training course for proposal reviewers. It included the following paragraph:
“We believe this training provides valuable information on EPSRC and our strategies and priorities, and essential guidance on best practice on reviewing proposals as well as training on roles and responsibilities for being part of an EPSRC peer review panel. For this reason we are making this training a mandatory requirement for all college members.”
The training course is a generic, on-line course (i.e. it is not tailored to the discipline of the College member) and those taking the course are required to successfully answer 12 out of 15 multiple choice questions. It is not clear what happens if you fail.
I am under no illusions that I know everything about reviewing proposals and I am sure that I could learn from experienced reviewers of proposals in computer science and software engineering. However, I have NEVER seen a generic on-line training course which is not superficial and trivial and I see no way in which any such course might change my reviewing practice. Asking experienced reviewers to complete such things is simply a consequence of a quality system that favours process over thought and which believes that so long as all boxes are ticked, then all is well.
I object on principle to the notion that you can assess how good a reviewer is by multiple choice questions which are almost certainly put together by someone who has never reviewed a proposal in their life. I object in principle that the EPSRC expect me to spend an hour of my time on trivia, without reimbursement, that will be of no benefit to anyone.
I object in principle to the notion that my reviews should take EPSRC priorities into account, whatever these priorities are. What I think of these priorities is not important. I recognise that when funding is limited there have to be priorities but implementing these is a funding decision and there is no need for reviewers to know anything about them. Reviewers should use their knowledge and judgement to assess the scientific merit of a proposal and that is all – they are rarely qualified to do otherwise.
Of course, many of my colleagues will simply ignore the email and nothing will happen. The nature of these things is such that no-one will pay any attention to whether or not this course has been completed and reviewing will continue as before. I could do the same thing and, it might be argued, objecting as an insider is more likely to be effective than as an outsider.
Sadly, this view is not supported by recent history. The EPSRC have made a number of policy changes over the past few years, which many of us thought were unwise- we pointed out the flaws and we were ignored. Let me turn now to some of these policy changes that I believe have been damaging to the research community, particularly to early career researchers and researchers who have taken career breaks.
- The ban on resubmission of rejected proposals – introduced supposedly to reduce the number of proposals for review. This is simply daft. None of us get things right first time but this policy hits younger researchers with less experience of proposal preparation and those adventurous and innovative proposals that are exciting but flawed. Inevitably it leads to incrementalism and a preference for proposals from experienced researchers who already understand the system.
- The shift in PhD funding to Doctoral Training centres (CDTs). Not only is putting all your eggs in a small number of baskets unwise, it leads to researchers being trained in a small number of areas which may or may not be important in future. It means that there is less diversity in the expertise of new academics which can lead to difficulties in teaching important parts of the curriculum (such as software engineering) which are not fashionable and so not a topic for a CDT. As far as I am aware, there is no empirical evidence that these centres improve the quality of the PhD experience for research students.
- The focus on few large grants rather than many smaller grants. Again, this makes it harder for early career researchers to get started and reduces the diversity of the project portfolio. To be successful, this requires an ability to foresee the future and know what will be important. None of us have such an ability. The empirical evidence that exists here suggests that research from smaller projects received more citations. (Big Science vs. Little Science: How Scientific Impact Scales with Funding). Disclaimer: I have personally benefited from this policy over the past 10 years – but this does not mean I think it is money well-spent.
- The abolition of project studentships. Bidders for research projects can no longer request support for a PhD student but must instead request support for a more expensive, salaried RA. The EPSRC have a First Grant scheme for young researchers (one of their better ideas) but this has a relatively low limit on funding. It was ideal for funding a PhD student and this was a great way for a young researcher to get started. Now it is impossible to fund an RA for 3 years on the First Grant scheme and so early career researchers are forced into shorter term projects.
I could go on – but these are the most significant policy changes that have, I believe , seriously damaged the CS and IT research community. Of course, difficult decisions have to be taken when resources are limited and for sure some people will be unhappy. But these decisions which threaten the long-term health and diversity of the research community are profoundly wrong.
The latest nonsense on training, unimportant in itself, is, for me, the straw that has broken the camel’s back. It is indicative of an organisation that does not really understand or know the academic research community, whose concerns are to reduce it own workload rather than support the most exciting research and which favours tick boxes over professionalism. I know there are many well-meaning people involved in the EPSRC – both academics and staff who are often underpaid and overworked. Full-time staff are understandably unwilling to challenge the culture of the organisation and I suspect any academics who do so are quickly eased out. The EPSRC has been taken over by ‘professional managers’ who pay lip-service to consultations with the community and who do not care about nurturing that community.
I believe that it is time to say that we have had enough – if we wish to preserve our community in the long-term, we need to withdraw our support for this flawed organisation and agitate for change. I have therefore resigned from the EPSRC College of Peers and will no longer work unpaid for them (nor will I apply for research support as I have said in this post). I hope that others will join me.
The email from the EPSRC’s Peer Review Manager acknowledging my resignation stated “However, although you may no longer be a College member, we may still call upon you for the occasional review where appropriate”. So it seems that training isn’t necessary after all!