The Irish Research Council are the body for grant giving in, among other areas. the Arts, humanities, and social sciences. They are immensely busy and grossly understaffed. That they do even the half decent job they do is a wonder. But, dealing with public money and peoples careers, they have to be above reproach. I have some questions and suggestions that might aid
Over the years I have had success and failure with applications to the IRC and its predecessor, the IRCHSS. Being honest, I have had more failure than success. But, as a glance at my CV will evidence, I have clearly managed to publish, shepherd PhDs and postdocs, and generally get on with it. So what follows is not and should not be taken as whinging. I honestly dont care if I get a cent from them, or anyone so long as I am confident that the process is as good as it can be or at least is working towards. Recent interactions on a PhD and a Postdoc funding application give me some concerns.
Most of my concern arises in regard to communication.
How hard would it be to tell applicants when they have succeeded via an email not via a status update on a website? Why one earth would a funder not, on success or failure, email an applicant with an update? Why would you then not give details of the grounds on which a decision is made? Given that there is an appeals process (Irish Research Council Appeals Process FINAL) would it not be helpful to give people as much information as exists up front? My 25y experience in academia suggests that when people have full information about why they got what they got they are usually satisfied, if not happy. So really, do you think it good enough to communicate in this way? I dont. Also, while I appreciate that the council sees itself as a clearing house for grant processes, the appeal process really breaches Nemo judex in causa sua. Its totally in-house for the first two stages.
There is considerable evidence that the peer review process is at best a crude way to select. I know this as an editor, and as such I make it my job to not blindly follow the suggestions of the reviewers. While you have to have clarity when dealing with public money, might it not be useful to consider a tapering grant process, where (say) the top 25% get full grant, the next 50% and the rest nothing? Imposing a moving and within proposal group floating cutoff guarantees a high degree of artificiality.We know that for grant applications there is enormous heterogeneity. What evidence do you have on the efficacy of the grant process? Im doing a study for SFI, looking at this based on similar US studies , and I offered to extend it to your system, pro bono. There is nothing to lose from a clean external look at whether or not those who get and those who dont get are materially different in research outcomes. In particular at PhD level this is important.
Why not give grants to PI’s for projects, and let them get on with selecting PhD and Postdoc candidates, instead of you having to vet them (without communicating feedback..)? the researchers who are going to carry out work know better than anyone what they want from their staff – no desk review however comprehensive can be as good as one combined with a face to face interview. You already do this with thematic grants where the money is fungible. It would be a smoother, faster, and I suggest a better process to grant PI’s money. If they dont achieve with that, through poor selection, then they will be looked at askance next time round. At present there is, to me, confusion about whether you re funding scholars or scholarship.
It would be of enormous help if data were published on the success rates by program (phd, postdoc, enterprise postdoc etc) and discipline. I have no clue whether or not management/economics/finance do better or worse than archeology. As a researcher, as a Director of Research in a university school, it would be useful to me in directing my efforts if I have some sense of outcome. I know this for the ERC for example. But I have no clue if 10% or 1% or 65% of phd proposals get funded and how this varies across disciplines.
When dealing with public money and people’s careers we cant be too careful nor can we be ever too open. No system is perfect and these suggestions and questions are aimed at trying to improve what is by and large a decent system.