The bigger the better? Why less is more

Posted by Professor Ian Strachan on 05 July 2018
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EPSRC's New Investigators Award - the replacement to the First Grant scheme - has no cap, meaning that you can apply for whatever you want - within reason! But what is within reason and who decides this? From an individual's point of view bigger is better - why apply for £200K when you can apply for £300K? Panels - in my experience - rarely question the costings of a grant, they have more important things such as research quality to consider. But Universities like big grants - but do we, the Mathematical Sciences research community, think that bigger is better?

In an idea world, yes. But money is finite - bigger grants means fewer grants, and is that what we want as a community? We have been here before: from 2006 to 2009 the cap on the first grant scheme was removed, the size of grants increased (typically to around £300K) and the number awarded decreased.

For junior staff, grant success and promotion are now tightly intertwined - so our community should help such staff by acting to increase the number of grants that are available. As anyone who has been on a prioritization panel knows, the quality of such applications in the Mathematical Sciences is not an issue. Under the old scheme - with its cap on funding - more grants could have been awarded without any compromise on quality and I am certainly not suggesting that research quality should be compromised, nor research done on the cheap.

The rules of the New Investigator Awards are not subject specific - they hold across all EPSRC's programme areas, many of which tend to award larger grants than is the norm for our field. So how do we, as a community, ensure that the scheme operates in the best interests of the Mathematical Sciences community as a whole? What can we do as a community? Some suggestions:

To EPSRC: Listen to what the community thinks is appropriate for a new investigator in the Mathematical Sciences. You have the authority to decide if a proposal falls within the remit of the Scheme, and to bounce it to responsive mode if it does not.

To Reviewers, Panel Members and Panel Chairs: pay more attention to costings and the size of the grant, and whether it is value for money. Think more about what the scheme is for and whether the proposal falls into the spirit of the scheme.

To Heads of Departments: Resist the temptation to suggest the size of the grant be increased. You may win in the short term, but the whole community loses in the long term. The next generation of researchers will be damaged by such actions.

So a call to arms: Restraint - Less is more!

No doubt a game theorist could frame this argument better: an optimization problem between individual and collective behaviour. A new research project? More likely just a decades old piece of work being relevant to how we, the Mathematical Sciences community, act.


Dr Katie Blaney, Head of Mathematical Sciences, EPSRC

The New Investigator Award scheme is regarded as an important route for funding early career academics within the Mathematical Sciences community. Applications for these awards are considered on a separate list to standard proposals and are then tensioned against it to ensure that the relative quality of the proposals we fund can be seen.

As with all EPSRC schemes, quality is considered as the primary criterion and key questions for this area on the reviewer form are regarding the novelty, relationship to the context and timeliness of the research, the ambition adventure and transformative aspects identified and the appropriateness of the proposed methodology.

Should two proposals be deemed to be of the same quality at a panel meeting then importance is considered as a major secondary criterion followed by pathways to impact, the applicant, resources and management and university support as secondary criterion.


Dr Laura Watkin, Joint Head of Building Leadership, EPSRC

Within the Building Leadership team we continue to monitor applications across the New Investigator award scheme, to understand how the changes introduced are being reflected in both applications and successful awards.

We are currently working on generating further guidance to support early career researchers thinking about applying, this sets out what the expectations of the scheme are around things like how much time might be requested and what could be covered in discussions on career development with the host organisation.

This is intended to give a flavour of what a New Investigator Award might look like without constraining the flexibility to appropriately tailor the package of support to meet the needs of the proposed research and the applicants' career development. We hope to publish this additional guidance over the summer. The range of projects already funded under the New Investigator award scheme can be found on the EPSRC Grants on the Web (GoW) site.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Portrait photo of Ian Strachan
Name: Professor Ian Strachan
Job title: Head of Mathematics
Organisation: University of Glasgow

Ian Strachan was awarded his PhD in 1991 from Durham, having previously been an undergraduate at Cambridge. After postdoctoral fellowships at Oxford and Newcastle he obtained his first permanent lectureship in 1996 at Hull. In 2003 he moved to the University of Glasgow where he is currently Professor of Mathematical Physics and Head of Mathematics. His research interests are in integrable systems, Frobenius manifolds and topological quantum field theories. From 2015-17 he was President of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society. He has been a member of the EPSRC College since 2003 and a member of the Mathematical Sciences SAT since 2015.