A leading UK research council has backtracked from controversial plans to ban scientists from applying for grants for a whole year as part of an attempt to reduce the number of grant applications it receives.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) announced on 12 March that it would introduce the new plan to reduce the pressure on its peer-review system for reviewing grant applications, which it says is overburdened with proposals.

The rule, which would have come into effect on 1 June, said that scientists would not be able to apply for funding for 12 months if, in the past two years, they have had three or more proposals ranked in the bottom half of a prioritization list and have less then 25% of all their proposals funded in that time.

The EPSRC said the introduction of this rule would exclude up to 250 researchers, or around 10% of the total applicants, from applying for funding. The excluded researchers were to have been contacted this month to be told they cannot apply for funding for a further 12 months and encouraged to take part in a “mentoring programme” at their university.

Cause for concern

The plan caused outrage in the UK scientific community and led to over 1900 people signing a petition on the UK government’s website demanding that the policy be reversed. Researchers were particularly furious that the new rule would have been retrospective, which meant that the EPSRC would have used the previous two years of applicant’s performance even though the rule was not active then.

Although the EPSRC originally said it would review the rule in 12 months’ time, it has now watered down its plans. The new policy will not ban scientists from applying in the future, but will limit the amount of proposals they can submit to one per year for the 12-month period. The rule will also not be retrospective but begin from 2010.

“I’m delighted to see that EPSRC has made the exclusion procedure rather less draconian and that it has responded positively to the very strong response of the community," says Philip Moriarty, a condensed-matter physicist at the University of Nottingham. “However, I am still concerned that there remains the implication that there is a direct correlation between the quality of a proposal and where it is placed on a ranked list at panel.”