The absurdity of research grant writing

I have recently (and luckily) been successful in applying for grant funding. I’ll write more about the grant itself later, but I wanted to highlight something that I see as far more significant. Applying for research funding is absurd and I think I’ve come up with an analogy to drive this home.

Imagine that you are an athlete (more difficult for some of us than for others). You have decided to dedicate your life to your sport and have entered a competition to pit yourself against the best in the country. The trouble is that the sport is poorly defined. You turn up on the day prepared with a full gymnastics routine, but you know right now that the judges prefer figure skating. But gymnastics is your thing and you don’t really know anything about skating, plus you have spent two months preparing this gymnastics routine and you’d hate it all to be for nothing.

So you turn up and perform your routine. Only there are no judges watching and there is no audience to cheer you on. You perform in an empty hall with your footsteps echoing around the auditorium. You finish and there is no applause. You pack your things and leave for home.  Four months later you receive a letter with the results. The letter contains only five lines of mixed, non-specific comments: “too ambitious”, “not original enough”, “clearly capable”.  The letter goes on:

“We would like to congratulate you on your marks and it is our pleasure to inform you that you placed third overall in the competition”

You are elated – third place means that you get a medal and some prize money and that is precisely what you wanted – something to hang on your wall at home and something to help you keep making progress in the career that you love.  But you read on:

“Unfortunately due to budgeting issues, we have only been able to provide medals and prize money for the first and second placed contestants.  Better luck next year”

This is what grant applications are like.  We receive vague messages about funding priorities, we push applications through archaic and arcane peer review processes which are (often but not always) unhelpful in improving the submission, and the quality of the application is no guarantee of funding even if what you write is practically flawless.  A recent Nature paper (Herbert et al., 2013) suggested that Australian scientists spent around 500 years of working hours preparing grants to submit to a major Australian funding body.  Since only around 20% of those grants were accepted, Australia wasted 400 years of research effort.  Now, I don’t consider rejected grants to be a complete loss but there is no doubt in my mind that the grant submission process (along with the scientific publishing process) could be massively improved…

Reference:
Herbert, D.L., Barnett, A.G., and Graves, N. (2013) Funding: Australia’s grant system wastes time, Nature, 495: 314.

Gymnast photo: Rick McCharles

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