Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Overseas research proposals good, domestic ones bad

Simon Rattle once observed that Liverpool is a city that turns its back to England, and look outward to the rest of the world. At any rate, I vaguely recall some such sentiment being attributed to him in a concert programme that I was perusing a few months ago. If there's anything to it, I offer the following in the best Liverpudlian spirit.

I got an email asking me to review a research proposal, emanating from a foreign country, their equivalent of EPSRC. Without having perused the proposal in any detail, I feel much happier about having to review it, than I would for one submitted to EPSRC. EPSRC, and also probably most other national research funding organisations, are biased towards getting reviews from within their own country. But there are good reasons for seeking them from outside.

The main reason: Foreign reviewers do not have a conflict of interest. This problem is particularly acute in the UK, where the value of research grants has become extremely inflated as a result of "full economic costing". In the zero-sum game of research funding, when a rival institution attracts a grant, one's own institution has been disadvantaged as a direct consequence. This is especially true in the present economic climate, which may be roughly characterized as "everyone is running out of money". Ignoring this problem increasingly requires one to take up residence in an ivory-tower, and become the sort of complacent academic who imagines that higher education is recession-proof. The other obvious source of conflict-of-interest is that one's own taxes are being used to fund the proposed research. Clearly, this problem goes away when one has to review a foreign research proposal.

It enlarges the pool of expert reviewers. Most individuals' research interests are highly specialised, and in a globalised scientific community there is no particular reason to assume that there exist any reviewers within one's own country, who are competant to do the job. I've got an example in mind; the less said about that the better.

It exposes a national research community to external scrutiny. This is related to the previous point, but by no means the same. A national research agenda can become misguided, or a line of research having questionable value thrive unchecked, within a system where such scrutiny is absent.

There are practical hurdles to the process of globalisation of research-grant reviewing that I am advocating. An EPSRC official was asked at a meeting I attended a few years ago whether it was OK to list overseas reviewers on the usual list of potential reviewers that form part of a proposal, and he or she advised that they had trouble getting reviews from foreign reviewers. Still, that's how we review research papers. One might also object that a foreigner might fail to appreciate the "grade inflation", that if you don't rate a proposal very highly, then it is likely to fail. But, anything that reverses that grade inflation and allows reviewers to use the rating system in a more balanced way, would surely be a fine thing.

1 comment:

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