Government grants awarded to researchers in error due to spreadsheet mistake

Authorities forced to issue additional grants at cost of almost €500,000

Five applicants were mistakenly awarded funding based on the criteria for selection. Photograph: Getty Images/iStock

Five applicants were mistakenly awarded funding based on the criteria for selection. Photograph: Getty Images/iStock

 

A spreadsheet error resulted Government research grants being mistakenly awarded to five overseas academics.

The error resulted in education authorities having to issue additional research awards to the intended recipients at a cost of almost €500,000.

Under the Government of Ireland’s Postgraduate Scholarship programme, about 250 grants are awarded annually to researchers in areas that range from archaeology to zoology.

Shortly after the grants were awarded this year, the Irish Research Council realised that five applicants had been mistakenly awarded funding based on its criteria for selection.

Legal advice obtained by the council indicated that its parent body, the Higher Education Authority (HEA), would be open to legal challenge if it withdrew funding.

Least risky option

As a result, the making of five additional awards – at a cost of €468,000 over five years – to the intended recipients was considered the least risky option.

The error arose during the processing of awards in which researchers are categorised as European or international.

Under the terms of the programme, the vast majority of awards go to European applicants. However, the council realised last April that a small number of international applicants in the arts, humanities and social sciences area had been categorised as European in error. The mistake is understood to have occurred in the transfer of data to an Excel spreadsheet.

The council warned the HEA at the time the mistake might impact on funding for other research programmes, but savings elsewhere could ease this impact.

When asked if any intended awardees lost out as a result of the error, a HEA spokeswoman said this was not the case.

Strictly implemented

She said the Irish Research Council recommended to the HEA that an additional five awards be made in order to ensure that the ranked order of merit – as determined by an independent international assessment panel – was strictly implemented.

The council also reported the matter to the Department of Further and Higher Education and said it has taken steps to automate its processes so the error does not reoccur.

The council received a total of 1,194 eligible applications under the 2021 call.

Some 254 awards were made for 2021, including the five additional awards.

Under the terms of the programme, awardees receive a yearly stipend of €18,500 per year, plus a contribution to fees up to a maximum of €5,750 per year and research expenses worth €3,250 per annum.

Concern

When asked if there was any concern over the quality of research proposals that were mistakenly awarded funding, the HEA spokeswoman said “absolutely not”.

“All awards made under the 2021 Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship Scheme meet the criteria for excellence,” she said.

“There are always many more excellent applications than the budget allows and all applicants receiving offers were well above the bar of excellence.”