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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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There’s an article out today in Research Fortnight detailing some of the frustrations that we had with a recent AHRC/UKRI grant proposal. Perhaps my favourite part of the whole thing is that when we applied, the letter from UKRI on the 24th April said “applications acknowledged within 48 hours and an aim to make decisions within 10 days”. When it took us 3 months to get a response and Research Fortnight contacted UKRI they offered “apologies” but said “To clarify the timelines, we aimed to contact principal investigators within 10 working days—with a funding decision if possible but at least with an acknowledgement that their proposal was being processed”. Now wait a minute! This is rewriting history. “At least with an acknowledgement” = “applications acknowledged” and we were told that would happen within 48 hours. It doesn’t mean much to get an apology if they then try to gaslight you into believing it was your fault or misunderstanding all along.

But let’s also talk about one of the major challenges we had in the peer review of this grant. You might think that I am just sour at not getting a grant: this was a rejection. Sure, it’s better to get grants than to get rejections, but some of the rejection here is part of a fault that UKRI was specifically setup to address: the challenge of interdisciplinarity. This was a project in the area of publishing studies. It had practice-based components for aggregating information on COVID-19.

Here’s what a peer reviewer for the AHRC (to whom I am nonetheless grateful) had to say:

  • “In the Sciences, there would be little doubt that this proposal is of significance, but since the Sciences would be the main beneficiary, I cannot honestly say it is a project suitable for funding by the AHRC”.
  • “However important the proposed project might be, it does not seem to fit the remit of what the AHRC is in place to fund. It is for this reason that I have selected unsatisfactory, rather than this being what I think of the project in the round.”
  • “There is no doubt that the personnel are well placed to take this on, with appropriate networks and expertise. The track record for this kind of project, and project management, in this area is all clear to see. I am sure the team could enact this project successfully and in the time available.”
  • “Within the Sciences this would be a very impactful project, potentially helping scientific research into the virus to be made available in a reliable and consolidated way.”
  • “I hope - however - that this proposal might be seen by another Council under UKRI, since there it might find a more comfortable home.”

So: we have a good team; we are capable of pulling off the project; we have a track record that shows we can do it; it was an important project that might have huge benefit for dealing with the virus; but… it is too much in the area of the sciences to be funded(!)

I have little doubt that, if we had submitted it to a different natural-scientific council, they would have told us that this was a project in the area of publishing studies and so should not be covered by their council. Despite the last comment from the reviewer – and my own scepticism that another council would have even been friendlier – we were specifically told we could not resubmit the proposal. (We suggested the AHRC and Research England as the councils who might be best placed and were filtered into the AHRC stream.)

Perhaps the peer reviewer was right and this isn’t in remit. But, if that’s the case, this is a huge problem with UKRI and discipline-based funders. Rather than thinking about solving problems, it encourages us to retreat into disciplinary silos, to protect our turf, and to continue to engage in a war of two cultures that is just inappropriate for contemporary research work. If we cannot apply what we have learned in the realm of academic publishing studies to practical initiatives that could help with defeating problems like a global pandemic, then what even is the point of studying such phenomena?