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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Grant Applications II

This post is probably not for you, unless you're interested in grant applications!

I touched on grant applications a few posts ago with reference to the THES debate on blue-skies research, I mentioned my abysmal grant application record, the generally low success rate and the pain involved for all concerned. Here I intend to add a few additional comments arising, in part, from my experience in industry.

It's worth stating what I believe the grant application process is for: on the face of it is a method by which discretionary funding is provided to researchers to provide resources for research; that is to say equipment, consumables and personnel. However, in addition to this it has a hidden purpose in that it is felt by many to be part of an rating process for researchers. Researchers believe that the more grant applications they win, the higher their ranking. Therefore top-down attempts to limit the number of applications a researcher can make cause consternation because they impact on the perceived worth of that researcher. This additional function is not explicit, and in a way it arises for a lack of any better measure of apparent researcher worth.

I believe this perception arises because university departments don't do a very good job of career management for academics. As an employee of a very large company, I have regular discussions about where my career within the company is going - indeed in my first year I spent about an hour and half talking about just this subject, whilst in academia I *never* in 8 years post-doctoral employment, had a formal discussion about my career development. This applies both to those who have successfully made it to permanent lecturing positions, and the many post-doctoral research assistants who aspire to a limited number of permanent posts.

The grant application process takes no account of an attempt to create a wider research program. Grant applications are made to acquire a specific piece of equipment and/or someone to carry out the research proposed. Typically the equipment will be used long after the end of the grant, and there will be no formal mechanism of replacement.

I am still involved in writing internal research proposals, these differ in two ways from grant applications. Firstly, they are much shorter than grant applications - a couple of sides of A4; secondly, they are much more concerned with all the things 'around' the core of the proposal rather than an explicit description of the research to be done. Funding and allocation of resources is made at the level of projects comprising of order 10 or more people, rather than at the 1 or 2 researcher level at which the typical grant application aims. Furthermore there is a longer cascade in the resource allocation process, rather than each 'end user' approaching the holder of a central pot, resources are allocated at a higher level. This reduces the number of people in the grant application business and means that rounds of allocation are smaller affairs.

The winning of grants appears to contain a large element of lottery, that is to say the outcome depends to a moderate degree on chance. To improve your chances of winning a lottery, you buy more tickets. This has caused the EPSRC, at least, problems since although the amount available for grants has increased, the amount applied for has increased more rapidly.

There are two solutions to the problem of researcher disillusionment through the low success rate of grant applications, one is to increase the amount of cash available (which is unlikely to happen in the current economic climate), the other is to reduce the number of grant applications made - here the problem is how to do this in an equitable fashion. Part of the problem here is that the number of potential researchers is governed by the number of people required to teach the undergraduates population, rather than a judgement on the number of people required to consume the research allocation pot.

So what does this suggest for the grant application process:
1. Better career management for academics, in order that the grant application process is not used as a rating tool for academics;
2. Devolution of spending to a lower level;
3. More thought paid to providing continuity.

I guess in my ideal world an academic will develop a coherent, over-arching research plan which is executed in pieces by application to research funds at something like the university scale. The success of such applications depends largely on past performance, and on the coherence or otherwise of the over-arching research plan rather than an attempt to evaluate the quality of a particular piece of research, or idea, in advance.

It's worth noting that academic research is seriously difficult, in that your ideas should be globally competitive - you should be developing thoughts about how nature operates at that are unique. Your competition is thousands of other, very clever researchers spread across the world. Compared to this, my job as an industrial researcher is easier - I need to communicate the answer to the question at hand to the appropriate person, if the answer already exists then that's fine. Also I get to do more research with my own hands than I would in an equivalent position as an academic.


Stephen Moss said...

The bigger issue is the colossal wastefulness of the grant funding process. Can you imagine, in industry, that your bosses would find it acceptable that you spend perhaps half your working year engaged in an activity that will yield nothing. The tax payer provides the salaries of thousands of academics (such as myself) who spend vast amounts of our working time engaged in writing grants that are doomed to fail. I'm no expert in the workings of industry, but I'm sure that any company that paid it's highest achievers to fritter away half their time, would soon go under.

SomeBeans said...

Yes, I didn't make much of this in the current post but sort of touched on it in the earlier one. There's also the significant amount of time spent evaluating the proposals too.

I am deliberately rather circumspect as to how exactly life is in industry ;-)

A fed-up academic chemist said...

A contributory factor in the futility of the process is the increasing managerialism of science bureaucrats in the research councils. In Chemistry, EPSRC mandarins (including the CEO) have told us we are a nuisance, because we put in too many 'small and unambitious' proposals. Well, who are the bureaucrats to judge the ambition of our proposals? Do they mean that the science we propose is unambitious, or are they deceived by that fact that most of us would be very happy to have a postdoc for 3 years plus some consumables, so the grand total is small compared with other grant proposals? We know that if we ask for, say, two PRDA's for 5 years plus a bunch of equipment, our peers would never recommend funding unless we were Nobel laureates, and maybe not even then. EPSRC have many times stated that they want to fund fewer grants, to fewer people. This has meant that increasingly, a very few chemists get very high success rates, and most of the rest of us get sod-all. Personally, I do not believe that this results in the best ideas getting funded. I think that it means that some very handle-turning work gets funded, as long as the PI is someone who already has a very good track record of attracting funding; 'unto they that hath, shall more be added'.

SomeBeans said...

EPSRC are doing what you would expect for an organisation that has a fixed pot and massive and increasing applications to that fixed pot.

I'd argue that, in a better world, the universities would be making explicit and open prioritisations on who and what they want funding. This at least brings the decisions closer to the researcher.

Career management is not a bad thing, I may not be entirely in favour of all the initiatives that my company has in this area, but at least they are trying!

Dr Aust said...

I'm for some version of "base-line funding to most academics based on record of acceptable productivity, with no strings as to what should be done with it".. plus grant process as add-on for the ambitious or for specific larger things. This is effectively what operated before 1980 or thereabouts, or at least back before:

(i) everything in research got so bloody expensive to do that you couldn't do anything without a grant; and

(ii) Univs decided that only people with a grant were any good / worth keeping. (With attendant climate of doom).

In this sort of "pre-grant frenzy" system you could tell who had grants and postdocs, because they were all Professors. But a lot of academics were happy with a PhD student and a bit of Univ money to run a cheap project.

As Steve Moss alludes to, the only solution the research Univs currently seem to have to the funding crisis is to whip those they deem acceptably research-active to crank out yet more proposals (which in an era of reduced or static funding will inevitably push funding rates even lower).

Univs also are looking to the idea of teaching-only academics (though commonly called something else) to cover the student teaching hrs. But this idea is largely doomed because most academics do research because they are interested in it, not because it is a contractual requirement. I hope we are agreed that telling people:

"If you don't have a current grant then you don't do research, as far as we can see"

- is completely demoralising.

SomeBeans said...

@Dr Aust - I think I broadly agree with you.

In the universities I've worked in my perception has been that much of the pressure on academics to get grants is self-inflicted. There are, of course, the larger scale threats where poor RAE results mean whole departments are at risk.

It is salutary to see relatively how much money is directed towards teaching and how little prestige it appears to attract, certainly in the research-oriented universities.

To use the favoured terminology, I suspect the impact of my 3 PhD students, and the many undergraduates I have helped teach is greater than all of my research by some margin.

Dr Aust said...

Yes, hear hear to the last comment, SB - feel exactly the same is true of my own "impact".