British Academy trials awarding research grants by lottery

Applications for up to £10,000 in funding that pass an initial quality test will be picked at random

九月 8, 2022
An official prepares lottery balls to illustrate British Academy trials awarding research grants by lottery
Source: Alamy

The British Academy will trial the UK’s first major “research lottery” after announcing that applications to its small grants scheme that pass a quality test will be selected at random for funding.

In a bold break from peer-review tradition in the UK, the humanities and social sciences funder will trial a new “partial randomisation trial” in which scholars who apply for grants of up to £10,000 will see their projects screened by evaluators to ensure that they are viable before suitable applications are chosen on the basis of a lottery. Typically, research applications are ranked based on excellence.

The academy is only the second UK research funder to experiment with this type of allocation, following a smaller trial by the Natural Environment Research Council this year, though the three-year pilot is the most significant trial to date. Last year the funder’s small grants scheme allocated £1.4 million to 160 research projects, supporting academics at 64 universities.

It follows similar trials undertaken by research funders in Switzerland, Austria and New Zealand, which have sought to ease the burden placed on peer reviewers and eliminate bias against female and ethnic minority applicants or those from less prestigious universities, who, according to some studies, are less likely to be funded or published in a scholarly journal, compared with white male counterparts from more well-known universities.

The pilot is thought to be the first research lottery focused on social science and humanities research in the world.

Simon Swain, vice-president for research and higher education policy at the British Academy, said the new selection method would “reduce the burden on assessors, and crucially also be less time-consuming for applicants and their supporting research officers who need not check and edit again and again”.

This will create space for reviewers to provide feedback for unsuccessful applicants for the first time, Professor Swain, a classicist who is also vice-president for engagement at the University of Warwick, told Times Higher Education.

“One of the things that applicants hate is when they get no information about not getting funded, so it’s good if we can help applicants decide if it is worth reapplying to us or not,” he said.

The new system would also be “less open to unconscious bias and will be more transparent and fairer to under-represented groups and institutions”, said Professor Swain.

“This trial will be a fairer and more transparent way of allocating limited funds to a consistently strong field of applications,” he said.

The British Academy will review the results of the pilot after three years, but Professor Swain said it was unlikely that it would consider applying a similar method to larger grant schemes – in particular its fellowship schemes, which, for postdoctoral researchers, cover 80 per cent of salary for three years.

Given the greater complexity in assessing candidates and their fellowship proposals, “it would be different to use a computer to look at those schemes”, said Professor Swain.



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Reader's comments (1)

Very depressing. I acknowledge there are flaws with current grant awarding processes but a lottery is not the answer. Life already contains enough good and bad luck to give it a lottery element, so adding more seems bizarre.