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Nerc casts wide net for science funding ideas

Council to seek suggestions from industry and the public on grant award decisions

Pipette and four test tubes

A research council is to seek suggestions from the public, industry and academics about which science it should fund, as part of a fresh approach to strategic research.

The Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) said this change and others it is introducing will speed up the funding process, give it more flexibility and allow it to be more responsive.

Sarah Collinge, head of grants at Nerc, said the council felt that it was missing research opportunities under the existing system. She added: “We wanted to change to allow ourselves to be a bit more agile and allow us to work in partnership with other organisations.”

Under the new system a 12-strong advisory group will judge the ideas and develop proposals for how Nerc should spend its funding pot earmarked for strategic research. This comprises about one quarter of its total budget.

The move has drawn criticism from Donald Braben, visiting professor in the department of earth sciences at University College London, who said it would restrict scientific freedom.

Professor Braben said the new approach would be problematic for researchers who want to cover an area of science that does not fit into those earmarked by the advisory group.

He said it would end up with researchers being forced to “mould” their thoughts around the chosen areas, adding: “Now…scientists are not allowed to work on anything that is not predictable.”

However, Dr Collinge said that Nerc had always sought a balance between funding curiosity-driven research, borne out of unsolicited proposals, and strategic research, which aims to solve the challenges facing society.

She added: “You could say that, with this approach, the [scientific] community have more opportunities to influence and drive the strategic priorities than they have [had] in the past.”

Jon Blundy, professor of petrology at the University of Bristol, said he thought the new approach was a “great idea”. “In the past Nerc’s approach to strategic research was well intentioned but rather cumbersome and slow,” he said.

He added that the new system would “definitely speed things up” and make researchers “much more manoeuvrable” in responding to issues such as flooding and fracking.

But he cautioned that for the research community to respect any decisions, the advisory group would need to be led by people with international reputations for cutting edge science.

Paul Palmer, director of research in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, also supported the move. He said: “It is going to offer a very open and transparent process to determine the environmental research agenda over the next few years.”

The new system will replace the seven strategic research themes listed on the research council’s website, as well as the seven “theme leaders” – experts in their field who liaised with scientists and put forward ideas for new programmes to Nerc’s science and innovation strategy board.

The changes come off the back of Nerc’s new strategy, The Business of the Environment, published in November 2013. Nerc is currently recruiting for members of the strategic programme advisory group and expects to award its first grants under the new system in 2015.

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