The following details responses to comments posted on a previous blog about the ‘Age of Bioscience’, the BBSRC Strategic Plan 2010-2015. The comments facility was made available at the launch of the plan on 28 January and was left open for 2 weeks.

Response to comment from ‘Philip Smith’

International eligibility for BBSRC grants

There is no change to eligibility for BBSRC grants. We accept grants bids from eligible UK HEIs, Institutes and Independent Research Organisations. BBSRC encourages international collaboration by UK scientists and has a variety of schemes available to support this.

Response to comment from ‘Philip Smith’

Research Council structures

The UK bioscience community is world-leading and BBSRC remains committed to maintaining its support. We are aware that people are speculating about changes to the structure and number of Research Councils.

BBSRC has no ‘hidden agenda’ and believes that the current system of 7 independent Research Councils, working together when appropriate as Research Councils UK, has delivered one of the world’s strongest and most effective research bases. The ‘unity’ of BBSRC is in the strength of understanding fundamental biological mechanisms across a wide range of organisms and potential application. Through the Strategic Plan BBSRC is committed to supporting our bioscience community to continue to deliver world-leading science and social and economic impact.

BBSRC works effectively within the Research Councils UK partnership to ensure effective and appropriate cross-Council working. We contribute to 5 of the current 6 cross-Council research programmes and will shortly be announcing the launch of the BBSRC-led Global Food Security programme.

Response to comment from ‘Cathy Bayliss’

BBSRC Institutes

BBSRC awards 5-year Institute Strategic Programme Grants (ISPGs) to 8 research institutions and these are collectively ‘the BBSRC institutes’ – Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Studies (Aberystwyth University), Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre, The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh), Rothamsted Research and The Genome Analysis Centre.

This method of funding helps the institutes to maintain world-class, scientific capacity around major programmes of research which typically underpin long-term national capability in strategic areas such as animal health, and/or require unique or specialist research facilities.
Individual institutes operate in different ways, largely reflecting their areas of research, external funding streams and opportunities for synergistic collaborations. For example, 2 institutes (IBERS and RI) are embedded in universities, and 3 (IFR, JIC and TGAC) cooperate closely and share support services as the Norwich Bioscience Institutes on the Norwich Research Park where they also enjoy close links with the University of East Anglia.

On average, BBSRC invests around 30% of its annual research spend on institutes. There are no plans to reduce this commitment. Over the past decade, BBSRC has invested, and attracted additional investment, for major developments in Institute facilities. This includes the redevelopment of IAH Pirbright and the establishment of TGAC.

BBSRC is working with the Governing Boards of BBSRC institutes to develop models of good governance that both respond to the issues raised in the Costigan and Follett reviews of Research Council institute governance and support the long-term sustainability of the institute base. We will continue to consult with recognised trades unions.

Response to comment from ‘Biggles’

Peer review processes

BBSRC consults widely with its research community on any proposed changes. We conducted consultations for both the new Strategic Plan and the recent change to our funding committee structures.

Applicants for BBSRC grants can already suggest referees and many do not make full use of this. We strongly encourage the BBSRC research community to make themselves available to referee applications when approached as we cannot force applicant suggested referees to participate.

Problems caused by pressure on our peer review system have been widely acknowledged by BBSRC. There is huge pressure caused by high demand for grants, too much burden on referees and low success rates. We are examining ways to improve this. Other Research Councils have introduced demand management policies; however, we would like to find a solution that is effective for the particular needs of the BBSRC community.

Payment for peer review has been trialled by other funders and has not been shown to improve response rates.

High demand on the peer review system is not restricted to BBSRC. See www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=406607.

Conflict of interest

The application process allows applicants to list close scientific competitors that they do not wish to be invited to referee their proposal or sit on the relevant committee panel. Many applicants make use of this.

Excluding larger numbers of competent people from acting as referees or from sitting on panels would further increase pressure on the peer review system. The experience of the BBSRC Office has been that committee members are very effective at spotting signs of competitive bias and are able to remove this from the system.

Concentration of funding

It has been widely acknowledged that there is increasing concentration of resources into a smaller number of top institutions and groups which have strength and skills in breadth, and a move to larger, longer, multidisciplinary applications that draw across these strengths and skills.

UK bioscience is world-leading because we fund world-class excellence proposals. The future of bioscience is increasingly integrated and problem-solving in nature and this means we are funding more of this approach than the small, single investigator awards that predominated 20 years ago.

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