The British Academy is trialling a new, fairer method of selecting its Small Research Grants - here's why

by Professor Simon Swain FBA

7 Sep 2022

For academics in SHAPE disciplines (social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the environment/economy), securing research funding is a brilliant achievement. But finding the time to apply is tough, as I heard at a recent British Academy funded grant-writing workshop in Leicester. Assessors like me can also find it challenging to carve out the time needed for our part of the job.

As a funder and a fellowship of academic assessors, the British Academy is looking at ways to improve this situation. This year, we will be trialling a new system of partial randomisation as part of the selection process for our Small Research Grants (of up to £10,000). The new process will be two-stage. First, an assessment by the Fellows of the British Academy of whether an application meets our rigorous quality threshold, similar to the standard peer review process we have long had. Then, awards will be randomly allocated across all those applications that are above the quality threshold.

The Academy will be only the second in the UK – and certainly the first on this scale and in the SHAPE disciplines - to use this innovative and efficient two-stage method. But we are building on international work in this area. Trials undertaken by the Swiss National Science Fund, Austrian Science Fund and Health Research Council of New Zealand have been so far successful, with positive feedback from both applicants and staff.

The key benefits of partial randomisation are its simplicity and transparency. It will reduce the burden on assessors, and crucially also be less time-consuming for applicants and their supporting research officers who need not check and edit again and again – applications have to be good enough in the first instance to meet our quality levels. The new process is also less open to unconscious bias and will be more transparent and fairer to under-represented groups and institutions.

Finally and as importantly, the new system will enable us to give applicants some feedback for the first time. Our Small Research Grants remain open for researchers to submit again if they have previously been unsuccessful; by building in feedback, we will help applicants decide if it is worth reapplying to us and remove some of the uncertainty they tell me they most hate when they get no information about not getting funded. This new process will allow us to give information in a way that is far less costly and burdensome than is usual for funders.

If resources were limitless, the Academy would fund all applications that pass the first-stage quality assessment threshold, as the merit and value of every one of these research proposals will have been rigorously established. But with a finite funding pot, not every application that passes the quality threshold can get funding. This trial will be a fairer and more transparent way of allocating limited funds to a consistently strong field of applications.

This is a three-year trial, across our Small Research Grants only – that is up to £10,000 for direct research expenses. It is a fitting place to start, since these grants themselves are designed to award innovative ideas and pilot studies. As ever, we will be evaluating along the way and taking an open and transparent approach to publishing the results with the support of independent academics Adrian Barnett and Philip Clarke. We hope that this new initiative will play some small part in improving research culture in our disciplines.

Professor Simon Swain FBA is Vice-President for Research and Higher Education Policy at the British Academy.

Visit the British Academy's Small Research Grants page for more information about the scheme and the Partial Randomised Allocation Trial.

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