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Changes in BBSRC grants procedures and processes

24 January 2011

In early 2010, BBSRC published The Age of Bioscience - Strategic Plan 2010-2015. Following the recent spending review settlement we now know the resources we will have available to us to deliver the vision in that document over the coming years. While the settlement is, given the current circumstances, a very generous one we will need to focus resources very carefully to meet the ambitions of the Strategic Plan.

In March there will be a substantial change in management of the research grants process, as BBSRC follows other Research Councils in transferring a significant amount of grant processing activity to the RCUK Shared Services Centre. This will involve some temporary slowing of normal service, and to allow for this grant closing dates will be altered. At the same time we are also introducing a number of other modifications. These are set out below and in further information in our policy news (see related links).

Many of these changes are intended to try and keep the demand for research funding in realistic balance with the available funds and to prevent success rates falling below the level where peer review functions effectively. BBSRC is urging the research community to continue to ensure, by applying proper mentoring and review procedures to proposals before submitting them, that excessive numbers of proposals are not submitted. BBSRC is also asking researchers to reduce the numbers of applications that are not correctly completed, or not in the BBSRC remit. In the case of neuroscience, BBSRC has reluctantly concluded that demand-led funding is resulting in too great a proportion of funding going to that one area, and we are seeking to focus our investment in the areas most relevant to our strategic priorities.

In addition to these demand management measures, further changes seek to reinforce the importance of ensuring that grant holders explore the potential impact of their work, and to maintain the balance of the workload in our committee system.

Further information about these changes will appear on this website as they are implemented. If you have any queries please contact alf.game@bbsrc.ac.uk.

BBSRC process update

The timing of future grant rounds and delays in processing grants

The transition of the BBSRC grants function to the RCUK Shared Service Centre (SSC) means that during the Spring some parts of our grants system will be unavailable to BBSRC staff, or operating less effectively than usual. Also, a substantial proportion of the effort of the BBSRC Delivery Group will continue to be diverted into management of the change, and following the transition there will be a period of familiarisation with the new systems of working. In consequence it will take longer than usual to process the grants submitted for the 11 January 2011 closing date. Consequently the following closing date has been moved back to 25 May 2011 and the one following that will be 25 October 2011. The intention into the future will be to ensure that at any given time the next two closing dates will be known to the community.

Other aspects of the award and post-award process will also be slower than usual until the transition has taken place and new ways of working have bedded down. In particular, announcements from the Autumn round, and some initiatives, cannot be made until after go-live which will be in March 2011.

Further information on the BBSRC transition to the RCUK SSC is available in our policy news (see related links).

Changes to the Committee structure

When BBSRC moved to its current four-committee structure it was intended that the boundaries between them should be porous and subject to change as demand fluctuated and science moved on. The new system has settled down well but it has become apparent that Committee C's current focus on tools, technologies and methods is now attracting too few proposals, at least in part because more applications in this area can be assessed in the context of the scientific area in which the work is applied. Accordingly, from the Summer 2011 (closing date 25 May 2011) round, the focus of Committee C will expand and it will take over primary responsibility for genetics and development. It will retain a focus on basic and generic science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) proposals underpinning biological tools and methods, but more applications in this area will be considered by the other committees if they are clearly relevant to their field of interest. See the revised "clover leaf" diagram.

This change will require some changes in chairs and core membership, which will be announced on the BBSRC website in due course. It will also mean that technology development expertise is likely to be used more flexibly across the Committees.

Prioritisation

We shall be asking Committees to prioritise research proposals that clearly address the research priority areas of the BBSRC Strategic Plan. These are, in particular, food security, bio-energy and industrial biotechnology and basic bioscience underpinning health and wellbeing.

Grant applications in the area of neuroscience, human psychology and animal behaviour currently account for 13% or more of the demand at most rounds, and sometimes more than 50% of demand at Committee A. This proportion is reflected in the portfolio of funded grants. BBSRC has decided that this represents investment of too great a proportion of its grant funds in one area, and it will seek to focus its overall grant commitment to neuroscience in the future, through greater concentration of neuroscience funding to the new strategic priority areas (given in the preceding paragraph). For example: health, nutrition and welfare in farm animals (including animal disease); diet, exercise, ageing and other aspects of healthy human function. The strategic priorities for grant applications are being comprehensively revised, to reflect the priorities in the new Strategic Plan, and these will be published on the BBSRC website shortly. As part of this, we shall continue our existing practice of using highlight notices to indicate scientific areas where proposals will be particularly welcome.

Ensuring the quality of proposals and making effective use of peer review effort

BBSRC strongly recommends that departments submitting grant applications to BBSRC operate internal review processes to ensure that grant applications are realistically competitive and do not waste the time of reviewers. We do not wish to introduce restrictions on the numbers of proposals that poorly-performing applicants or institutions can submit, but may need to do so in future if the volume of applications becomes such that the assessment effort required to process them is disproportionate to the available funds.

Starting with grants submitted for the 11 January 2011 closing date, referees will be asked to give a score to grants on a 1-6 scale. This aligns BBSRC procedures with those of other Research Councils (RCs). Enabling referees to score grants means that, if necessary, it will be possible in future to operate a triage of grant proposals based on referee scores, in order to eliminate lower-scoring applications before the committee meeting and reduce the burden at meetings.

Changes to standard procedures

It is expected that institutions submitting applications to BBSRC should ensure that they are properly completed. The Je-S system is now in use across all RCs and the differences in RC requirements are fewer and well explained.

Too many grant applications are received with faults and errors, mainly because applicants appear to be leaving insufficient time to check them before the deadline. Iterating with applicants to rectify errors in the forms reduces the time available to obtain peer review assessments and diverts staff effort from properly completed proposals. In future, the privilege of being allowed to correct mistakes may be withdrawn from individuals who repeatedly submit faulty applications, or from departments submitting them in significant numbers, in which case the corrected proposals will need to be submitted to a subsequent round.

Substantial additional work is also regularly caused by applicants who fail to provide clear justification for items of proposed expenditure and then protest when these items are not funded. In future, if an item of expenditure has been deleted or reduced because no justification was provided or the justification was considered inadequate, no further correspondence will be entered into: the offer of an award is not open to negotiation.

When the use of facilities (Hector, HPC(x) and The Genome Analysis Centre) is required for the proposed work, a Technical Assessment Form must be submitted at the time of application. Applications submitted without the required technical assessment form will not be accepted by BBSRC.

Eligibility, resubmissions and the BBSRC remit

Up to 10% of grant applications submitted at each round can end up not being assessed because they are ineligible: this can be because the applicant is ineligible, the project is a resubmission, or it is not in the BBSRC remit at all and has to be submitted to another Council.

There are clear rules for eligibility of both individuals and institutions and in cases of doubt the BBSRC should always be consulted before time is spent on writing a proposal. This is particularly important if the employment status of an individual is unusual, or a proposed partner is from an organisation not previously in receipt of BBSRC grant funding.

BBSRC does not allow resubmission of unsuccessful grant applications unless these have been specifically invited by the Committee. Subsequent proposals on the same topic must be substantially different and must be accompanied by a letter explaining what these differences are. Anyone in doubt about whether such differences are sufficient is strongly advised to consult the BBSRC office well before submission.

This rule also applies to applications similar to proposals previously submitted to other UK funders, and applicants are reminded that they must declare such previous submissions.

Research that is solely or primarily aimed at understanding the cause, treatment or prevention of human disease is not in the BBSRC remit. Applicants should particularly bear this in mind if considering submitting work previously addressed to medical research funders: applications to BBSRC must primarily address a problem of basic biological interest or a topic otherwise within the BBSRC remit.

Scoring pathways to impact

The Pathways to Impact section of the application will, for applications submitted to the 11/01/2011 deadline and subsequently, be given a separate score by committee members which will be taken into account in the rank ordering of proposals and be available in feedback to applicants. The scoring scale and an explanation of how this will be used in overall rank ordering are attached at Annex 3. This is being introduced in order to ensure that impact activity is given appropriate weight in peer review assessment.

It remains the case that if an application is otherwise outstanding, it will not be rejected solely because of an unsatisfactory Pathways to Impact document without an opportunity to improve it being given.

Refereeing of grant applications

Applicants are reminded that being prepared to provide review comments on grant applications to BBSRC is a requirement on BBSRC grant-holders. Individuals with a poor track record of responding to such requests are unlikely to be invited to join Committees and other bodies involved in developing and delivering BBSRC science.

Applicants in receipt of requests that are not in their area of expertise, or are otherwise inappropriate, should check their Je-S profile and ensure that it is accurate and up to date.

From January 2011, new calls for proposals will use the Je-S refereeing system. This will replace the current BBSRC system where proposals are attached to emails. The Je-S system will send an email referee request containing limited information on the proposal to be assessed. Within the email will be a link to the Je-S portal where the proposal documents will be held. After logging in to the Je-S system, the referee will be able to view all of the proposal documents and then complete the online reviewer form and upload attachments. The Je-S system also supports the PI response to referees, which is again completed using an online form and document attachments. Information on Je-S refereeing will be provided via the Je-S helptext ( https://je-s.rcuk.ac.uk/jesHandBook/jesHelp.aspx).

ENDS

Contact

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