The problem with research funding: it’s not just money…

02Aug13

DataIt is at least the third time I am confronted with this problem – submitting a proposal to a funder, being unsuccessful, and not being told why. Is my proposal flawed or is it simply addressing a topic that is less of a priority for them? And if it is flawed, is it because of its scientific contents or its project management plan? To what extent did my (and my collaborators’) past career affect the decision? I am sure all others in my job will have experienced similar frustration at least once… and my feeling is that this is becoming more and more frequent.

Applying for research funding should not just be like buying a lottery ticket – funders, whether public or private, national or international, should play a much more important role in advancing knowledge and supporting the research community. This should include, I believe, helping unsuccessful applicants understand what was unsatisfactory and how they could improve their ideas. This would be a way for funders to contribute to raising the quality of research above and beyond what their (necessarily limited!) financial means allow.

For all their inadequacies, peer-reviewed journals do this: I never got a paper rejection without a justification, even when it was just a quick desk rejection. However disappointing at first sight, in the long run well-motivated rejections can be highly helpful for a researcher.

Why, then, do so many grant givers refrain from following similar rules? Some say they have limited resources and cannot ask too much of their administrative staff and reviewers. But journals lack resources too: they largely rely on fellow academics acting as unpaid volunteers, and yet they do offer this help to colleagues. (Well of course journal publishers are known to have fat incomes, but this is another story – better leave it aside for now). More seriously, many funders report being snowed under huge numbers of applications at single deadlines, once or twice a year – way above what the average journal would expect – so that refusing to provide feedback is a way for them to cope, ensuring the whole process takes a reasonable time.

In a long-term perspective, however, I insist that providing feedback would still be a better option than holding it back – as those who are unsuccessful at their first application will know whether there is any hope for them to improve the proposal and succeed at some future call, instead of just re-sending it blindly at any possible deadline. Applications, over time, would become more self-disciplined and overall, of better quality.

But there seems to be also an underlying issue with public funding of research more generally, and with research not specifically Poundsear-marked to a project for which a dedicated stream of funding is absolutely necessary. General research money is less and less available in our institutions (I can speak at least for France and the UK, but I’m sure other countries would fit the picture too…): it becomes more and more difficult to fund work for small projects, single papers that do not require massive data collection or analysis, follow-up work on previous projects, or pilot studies. As a result, more and more researchers apply for project-tied funding, but not all of their research can be disguised to look like a well-defined project – hence, the volume of applications reaching funders explodes and their quality and suitability go down.

Funders can do better, but governments and research ministries should do better too – not placing all the responsibilities on single funding agencies but providing the basic resources that keep general research going.

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