Dilemma of HEC research grants

Availability of generous research funds is the bottleneck for sustainable research and innovation

Muhammad Zaheer/Adnan Yousaf March 07, 2021
The writer is an assistant professor of Chemistry at LUMS

Besides creating knowledge and providing skilled manpower, universities play an essential role in solving pressing national and global grand challenges. However, the availability of generous research funds is the bottleneck for sustainable research and innovation.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) backs research at higher education institutes by providing several research grants such as National Research Program for Universities (NRPU). For the last decade, NRPU supported researchers in building research groups and conducting cutting-edge research. The programme benefited junior faculty, enabling them to hire human resource, purchase tools and supplies crucial for their research. Resultantly, the number of research papers published and patents filed increased greatly. However, there remain some areas of improvement for NRPU and other related HEC funding programmes.

HEC revised the criterion for NRPU grants in 2020. As per the new regulations, only 30% of the total amount could be allocated to supplies and equipment — the costliest and the most essential budget head for experimental sciences. Most likely, HEC adopted this model from UK funding agencies, where human resource is expensive. However, in the Pakistani context, devoting 70% of the budget to salaries does not make sense.

I had a chance to see the comments some applicants had received on their applications. For instance, an Oxford graduate’s application was rejected because the reviewer believed the faculty was inexperienced to successfully complete the project. An ETH and MIT alumnus was told he had no previous record of executing a large research project. Being a newly-hired or junior faculty seems like a disadvantage despite the applicants’ excellent track record and research experience.

The review process is not double-blind either, and referees can know the identity of applicants. Likewise, applicants somehow can know who reviewed their grant. An open peer review leads to biased decisions where inferior proposals might get funded and technically sound ones rejected.

In many of the reviews, referee comments were incorrect or irrelevant. For instance, one reviewer rejected the procurement of an equipment that was not even requested in the budget. Another suggested buying equipment that had no connection with the research area. This happens when unrelated referees are selected to evaluate grants outside their subject area. Irrelevant reviewers also significantly cut the budget, because of their inability to judge the proposal to its depth, limiting the grant’s intended objectivity.

In a recent letter to the vice-chancellors (VCs), the HEC chairman had asked universities to raise the quality of research proposals for HEC-funded grants. The chairman emphasised that universities must set up internal mechanisms to review grant proposals and pass only the best ones to the HEC. This would add another snag to the success of a grant application and politicise the proposal screening process. Junior faculty, being lower in hierarchy, will be placed at a disadvantage again.

Because of the change in NRPU policy and intrinsic defects in the review process, junior faculty — more than 80% of the total faculty at the national universities — will suffer much. The research output will drop, and young faculty will be under immense pressure to survive academia. For the award of promotion and tenure, faculty performance is evaluated based on the number of research papers published and grants won.

HEC also took some extraordinary steps to build the capacity of faculty nationwide, such as training programmes to improve the quality of research proposals. However, grant review process will remain the bottleneck of all HEC research grant awards pivotal for sustainable academic research.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2021.

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