Those of you who follow UK research priorities can’t have missed the creation of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).  Over the last few months the research councils in the UK have been running the first GCRF competition, a two stage process where preliminary applications are sifted and only certain chosen proposals are allowed to go through to the second stage.   We put one in, and like many others didn’t make the cut.  I don’t mind this, rejection is part of the process; however I do worry about this phrase in the rejection email:

Please note specific feedback on individual outlines will not be provided.

Before I go on, I want to launch an impassioned defense of the research councils themselves.  Overall I think they do a very good job of a very complex task.  They must receive many hundreds of applications, perhaps thousands, every year and they ensure each is reviewed, discussed at committee and a decision taken.  Feedback is provided and clearly UK science punches above its weight in global terms, so they must be doing something right.  They are funding the right things.

I’m also aware that they have had their budgets cut to the bone over the last decade and by all accounts (anecdotal so I can’t provide links) Swindon office has been cut to the bare minimum needed to have a functional system.  In other words, in the face of cuts they have protected research spending.  Good work 🙂

I kind of knew GCRF was in trouble when I heard there had been 1400 preliminary applications.  £40M pot with expected grants of £600k means around 66 will be funded.  That’s quite a sift!

The argument will go that, with that sheer number of applications there is no way the research councils can provide feedback.  Besides, it was a preliminary application anyway, so it matters less.

I couldn’t disagree more, on both accounts.

First of all lets deal with the “preliminary” application thing.  Here is what had to happen to get our preliminary application together:

  • Initial exchange of ideas via e-mail, meetings held, coffee drunk
  • Discussions with overseas collaborators in ODA country via skype
  • 4-page concept note submitted to Roslin Science Management Group (SMG)
  • SMG discussed at weekly meeting, feedback provided
  • Costings form submitted and acted on by Roslin finance
  • Quote for sequencing obtained from Edinburgh Genomics
  • Costings provided by two external partners, including partner in ODA country
  • Drafts circulated, commented on, acted on.
  • BBSRC form filled in (almost 2000 words)
  • Je-S form filled in, CV’s gathered, formatted and attached, form submitted

In actual fact this is quite a lot of work.  I wouldn’t want to guess at the cost.

Do we deserve some feedback?  Yes.   Of course we do.

When my collaborators ask me why this was rejected, what do I tell them?  “I don’t know”?  Really?

Secondly, let’s deal with the “there were too many applications for us to provide feedback” issue.  I have no idea how these applications were judged internally.  I am unsure of the process.  However, someone somewhere read it; they judged it; they scored it; forms were filled in; bullet points written; e-mails sent; meetings had; a ranked list of applications was created; somewhere, somehow, information about the quality of each proposal was created – why can we not have access to that information?  Paste it into an e-mail and click send.  I know it takes a bit of work, but we put in a lot of work too, as did 1400 other applications.  We deserve feedback.

At the moment we just don’t know – was the science poor?  Not ODA enough?  Not applied enough?  Too research-y?  Too blue sky?  Wrong partners?  We are floundering here and we need help.

Feedback to failed proposals is essential.  It is essential for us to improve, especially for young and mid- career researchers, the ones who haven’t got secure positions, who are being judged on their ability to bring in money.  Failure is never welcome, but feedback always is.  It helps us understand the decision making processes of committees so we can do better next time.  We are always being told “request feedback” so when it doesn’t come it feels like a betrayal.  How can we do better if we don’t know how and why we failed?

So come on research councils; yes you do a great job; yes you fund great science, in the face of some savage budget cuts.  But please, think again on your decision to not provide feedback.  We need it.