Thoughts on the Irish Research Council

Fundingsmaller.jpgThe 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.


9 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Irish Research Council

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Thoughts on the Irish Research Council

  2. Kevin Kelly

    Good article Brian. In particular, I’d be ad idem with you regarding the confusion re scholars and scholarship. Right now it seems to be the worst of both worlds – the candidates are held to extremely exacting (and crude) standards, while the academic is increasingly drawn into more time-consuming proposal preparation. I’ve had pretty frustrating experiences in recent times where it would appear to me that candidates are being marked excessively harshly, presumably to ensure that the threshold is not breached by too many applicants

  3. Fionn Murtagh

    Dear Brian, all that is here is interesting. A significant paper on this topic will be completed very soon by me with a colleague. A few Science Foundation Ireland programs were discussed in my Sixth
    Boole Lecture (UCC, 2008), published here:
    F. Murtagh, “The Correspondence Analysis platform for uncovering deep structure in data and information”, Sixth Boole Lecture, Computer Journal, 53 (3), 304-315, 2010.

  4. Michael Punch

    As a past assessor on the IRCSET (science) panel for postdocs (and chair, the last time), I am wondering if things have changed so much, or are so different in your domain?

    We were instructed (copy paste from instructions e-mail): “… approx 3 comments of feedback should be recorded for each candidate” (out of the many paragraphs written on each candidate). A process which provides no feedback is pretty useless, as it doesn’t help candidates to improve next time, and it is frankly a waste of the efforts that the assessors go to in writing comments, if some edited version of them is not transmitted.

    I completely agree that the success rates should be published (at the time I was chair this was something like 15%). I hope that it remains relatively high, not like ERC grants for instance, where researchers have calculated that the time spent in writing proposals overall in their university (or even Europe-wide), is more costly than the grants that are given out, so it would be better for research overall if the ERC system were scrapped.

    For IRCSET, my requests that follow-up on the selected candidates should be done (especially whether their research goals were achieved in whole or in part) was not taken up, unfortunately. It could have allowed later committees to correct for the string-theory mafia selections (I’m sure economists have their own such closed-system cliques).

    On the other hand, I don’t see any problem with informing people via a website on the progress of their applications. This avoids missing mails which ended up in the spam, etc.

    1. brianmlucey Post author

      Comments do come, but at the conclusion of all stages, not as things go along. Which staging makes it of course impossible, next to, to mount an effective challenge or to even take on board same while one applies to other funders.

      1. Yvonne Murphy

        Just to add a little to this aspect of the conversation, this year there have been no status updates at all via the online portal. All applications remain at ‘Ready for Review’ (according to message boards and my own application status); mine was changed to this status in late February. The major problem with this lack of updates is that although I remain pessimistic about my chances of success, that small vestige of hope remains; this makes it hard to know whether and when to apply for jobs or not. I, like many, remain in a limbo until late June or early July this year, and if unsuccessful (which, lets face it is the most likely outcome) I then have only two months to make alternative arrangements for the forthcoming year.

        As you say, communication is key. Also, as far as I’m aware the only feedback provided comes in the form of percentages under a range of headings, which are then totalled to give you an idea of where you fall in relation to the qualification cut off (usually around 86% or so). No comments are sent to applicants, which isn’t incredibly helpful as it’s a very subjective measure of quality that is heavily rooted in this particular process. I actually hadn’t realised that reviewers are writing comments anyway, so if they exist I would have thought sending them on would make sense – even if simply through an annotated version of the application made available online.

        Many thanks for spurring on this debate though, I think anything that can be done to humanise and streamline the process would be most welcome for early career researchers, many of whom are being exposed to the research grant model through this very process! I’m just glad I never have to apply for this particular award again as I’m nearly finished my PhD now!

  5. seamusjmartin

    I couldn’t agree more Brian. The system of having an undergraduate student apply for the research grant in their name is a complete nonsense. The idea that someone in the final year of their undergraduate degree should write (with ‘help’ from their prospective PhD supervisor) their own PhD proposal is laughable-and everyone knows it. In the sciences, this is completely absurd, and of course the reality of what happens is very different. I wonder what purpose this farcical system serves?

    Another bizarre element of the IRC system is the paltry budget for research consumables that is approximately 10% of what it really costs to run a PhD project in the sciences.

    By requiring students to apply for the research funding, rather than qualified PIs, the IRC approach appears to be to spread the funding as wide as possible, rather than letting the most competitive researchers get the majority of the funding (which is what would happen if the grants were written by people with research track records to assess). It is a very curious and inefficient way to do things. Ah, but we know best how to do things in Ireland….

  6. joe

    Excellent article – and welcome. This forum highlights the frustrations of students – never mind potential supervisors

    The motivation for a structure like proposed from IRC is hard to comprehend, award grants to PI (early stage researchers I would recommend), then let supervisors select appropriate candidates – and vet recommendations as a condition of award….


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