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Selecting excellence

For over a decade now, the AHRC’s Peer Review College has helped to ensure that the best research proposals are those that receive funding. We talked to three of the PRC’s longest-serving members about the work of the College, and its effect on arts and humanities research in the UK.

How are we to ensure that public funding goes to the best research projects?

Like other Research Councils, the AHRC makes use of a process of peer review, in which research proposals are evaluated by experts. And central to the AHRC’s peer review process is its Peer Review College (PRC). Instead of an ad hoc arrangement, with reviewers called upon sporadically, a College means having a standing body of subject specialists, who can provide regular reviews in their areas of expertise, who are trained in the peer review process, and who understand the AHRC’s aims and priorities.

Since its creation in 2004, members of the PRC have provided expert reviews of grant proposals, which ultimately inform the AHRC’s decisions about what gets funded. These days, there are about 1000 PRC members, drawn from higher education institutions and other organisations in the UK and overseas, and covering the full range of arts and humanities research areas.

Opening up

For Maggie B. Gale, who is Professor of Drama at the University of Manchester and a long-standing PRC member, the creation of the College has introduced a fairer, more systematic and more open process through which research applications are assessed. The PRC, she says, is ‘a body of academics who are qualified to give genuinely objective assessments of research applications, within the framework established by the AHRC.’

And for her, one of the changes that the PRC has brought about is in the area of communication. ‘There have been times in the past when academics haven’t necessarily felt the need to articulate their research clearly to outsiders. The PRC has been part of the system that has formalised the need to talk about research, and has encouraged a traditionally inward-facing profession to become more productively engaged with those who are not part of it.’

It’s impossible to look at the effect of the PRC in isolation, suggests Maggie B. Gale: ‘The PRC services the AHRC, so when grant frameworks change, the applications that we receive also change.’ The PRC plays a mediating role, in effect, speaking to the AHRC, but also feeding back to academic institutions.

The influence of the PRC has, then, been positive, says Gale: ‘Since the PRC was created, I’ve seen the quality of applications improve. Researchers have learnt how to put proposals together that are more complex and ambitious, and they’ve become better equipped in breaking down the parts of the research process.’

For Gale, ‘where a project is innovative, clearly conceptualised, clearly articulated, and realistic in terms of its projected outcomes and dissemination – when an applicant can say “there’s a gap in this area, this is our proposed methodology, this is a breakdown of our proposed management, and these are our expected outcomes” – it’s rare that it doesn’t get funded. I find that refreshing and rather hopeful.’    

Towards professional project planning

Another PRC veteran is John Feather, Emeritus Professor of Library and Information Studies in the Schools of Arts, English and Drama at Loughborough University. For him too, the creation of the PRC has led to research projects becoming bigger and more ambitious: ‘apart from in archaeology and linguistics, most scholars in the humanities hadn’t been used to managing large projects. The lone scholar was a myth, but most had been used to devising and writing up their research themselves. The culture of having research assistants, for example, was relatively unfamiliar to many. But the PRC has helped to change that.’

With the creation of the PRC, the review process has also become more systematic, with judgments being made against more clearly defined criteria – ‘that’s important, given that competition for funding has become much fiercer.’ For John Feather, the PRC’s requirement to provide feedback has matched the shift in a number of public bodies, in becoming more accountable to stakeholders. And in terms of its influence, there are links to the development of the Research Assessment Exercise and Research Excellence Framework: ‘it’s quite clear now that considerations of how research will be published aren’t just an afterthought. Humanities scholars are much more professional now in their mode of operation. There’s greater division of labour. There’s proper project planning, and a greater sense of urgency. But there’s also a greater consideration of what the project’s output will be, at least in terms of what form it will take. This, too, has been something that the PRC has encouraged.’

And has all this led to better research? ‘In terms of quality, at least it doesn’t follow that proper project planning has had a negative impact. It’s easy to mythologise the old days, but we should remember that when scholars spent twenty years writing books, not all of them were great.’

For John Feather, ‘it would be good if, through the AHRC’s anniversary, more people could be made aware of the excellent work that it does, underpinned by the PRC. And it gives us an opportunity to speak up for the broader socio-economic value of arts and humanities research, and to make the convincing case for its continued public support.’ 

Impact and quality

Tony Brown, who is Professor of Geography at the University of Southampton, has long been involved in the process of training new review panel members, which is an important function that the PRC performs. For him, ‘higher education institutions contribute to the work of the PRC, in effect, through the time that their academics devote to it. That, after all, is part of the idea of a College: PRC members get to build up their experience and expertise in peer review over a period of time, and this gives them a sense of the comparative quality of research proposals, which is essential to the work of assessment panels.’ But at the same time, ‘the academics get something out of it, too, including a better understanding of what makes for a proposal that is likely to win funding.’

As Tony Brown points out, though, ‘funding top-quality arts and humanities research isn’t necessarily the same as funding research that has impact. One of the things that we emphasise in our [University of Southampton] training is the need to avoid any bias towards those subject areas where impact is easier to demonstrate, or towards those institutions which by their nature are more geared-up for dealing with the public. We encourage reviewers to concentrate on identifying research that in itself is innovative and high quality. We also encourage review panel members not to be too conservative in their approach, and not to hedge their bets – it’s better for an unsuccessful applicant to hear that their proposal was flawed, and to be given the reasons why, than to be given bland feedback.’

Finally, for Tony Brown too, the AHRC’s anniversary presents an opportunity: ‘it would be good for people to get a sense of the breadth of the research that the AHRC funds, and to understand that top-quality research is of value in many different ways.’ 

The Peer Review College in facts and figures

Current PRC members as of 1 January 2015: 983
Reviews completed by PRC members in 2013/14 financial year: 1257
Panels convened in 2013/14 financial year: 55
Members since the PRC creation in 2004: 2428

For further information on the AHRC’s Peer Review College, please see the Peer Review section of the AHRC website.

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