Monday, December 15, 2008

Grants without peer review?

Grants without peer review?

Posted by Elie Dolgin
[Entry posted at 12th December 2008 05:29 PM GMT]
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University College London is offering new unorthodox research grants for its staff without peer review, deadlines, directives, or milestones.

The funding, which is open to any UCL employee, is in in the ballpark of £100,000 ($150,000) per year for at least three years for each awardee, according to UCL visiting earth sciences professor Don Braben, the scheme's brainchild and the founder of Venture Research International, a company that raises funds for blue skies research projects.

Unlike most lengthy grant proposals, initial applications are meant to be short -- less than 500 words long -- to detail only the research problem, its significance, and the resources needed. Successful first-round applicants will then sit down with Braben and UCL vice-provost for research David Price, who will make recommendations to UCL provost Malcolm Grant, who has the final say.

The grants "will go to UCL researchers whose ideas challenge the norm and have the potential to change substantially the way we think about an important subject," UCL wrote on its website.

UCL launched the scheme -- called the Venture Research Prize -- as the antidote to the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), the results of which will be published next Thursday (Dec. 18). The RAE, which evaluates the quality of research at British universities and is used to allocate national funds, has been criticized for narrowing research opportunities and only rewarding safe research.

Peer review "automatically discriminates against ideas that challenge convention," Braben told The Scientist. "For most research, it's fine. But for new ideas that are a step out from what we understand -- and that's all the great ideas of the 20th century -- then peer review would work against them."

In the 1980s, Braben's Venture Research initiative funded 26 research projects, all but one of which had been turned down by peer review. He points to successes, such as University of Liverpool chemist Kenneth Seddon's discovery of ionic solvents, as evidence that the scheme works.

Braben, who laid out some of his ideas in an editorial for The Scientist in 2004, said that UCL has "set exceptionally high standards," and he dismissed the critique that he and Price will effectively serve as a peer-review panel of two. In the 1980s, he said, "we never had to have a debate as to whether someone was a venture researcher. It was obvious."

UCL is looking for motivated researchers -- "from the humblest postdocs right on up" -- who "have a vision" and "want to substantially change the way we see the world," noted Braben. "What we really need is a Nobel Prize that people can apply for," he added.

Funding people with this level of ambition will lead to valuable results, even if the original project proposal doesn't work out, Braben said. "You can't fail."

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