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September 24, 2009
The Grant Application Treadmill
There's a (justifiably) angry paper out in PLoS Biology discussing the nasty situation too many academic researchers find themselves in: spending all their time writing grant applications rather than doing research. The paper's written from a UK perspective, but the problems it describes are universal:
To expect a young scientist to recruit and train students and postdocs as well as producing and publishing new and original work within two years (in order to fuel the next grant application) is preposterous. It is neither right nor sensible to ask scientists to become astrologists and predict precisely the path their research will follow—and then to judge them on how persuasively they can put over this fiction. It takes far too long to write a grant because the requirements are so complex and demanding. Applications have become so detailed and so technical that trying to select the best proposals has become a dark art.
And a related problem is how this system tends to get rid of people who can't stand it, leaving the sorts of people who can:
The peculiar demands of our granting system have favoured an upper class of skilled scientists who know how to raise money for a big group . They have mastered a glass bead game that rewards not only quality and honesty, but also salesmanship and networking. A large group is the secret because applications are currently judged in a way that makes it almost immaterial how many of that group fail, so long as two or three do well. Data from these successful underlings can be cleverly packaged to produce a flow of papers—essential to generate an overlapping portfolio of grants to avoid gaps in funding.
Thus, large groups can appear effective even when they are neither efficient nor innovative. Also, large groups breed a surplus of PhD students and postdocs that flood the market; many boost the careers of their supervisors while their own plans to continue in research are doomed from the outset. . .
The author is no freshly-minted assistant professor - Peter Lawrence (FRS) has been at Cambridge for forty years, but only recently relocated to the Department of Zoology and experienced the grantsmanship game first-hand. He has a number of recommendations to try to fix the process: shorter and simpler application forms, an actual weighting against large research groups, longer funding periods, limits to the number of papers that can be added to a grant application, and more. Anyone interested in the topic should read the whole paper, and will probably be pounding on the desk in agreement very shortly.
The short version? We think we're asking for scientists, but we're really asking for fund-raisers and masters of paperwork. Surely it doesn't have to be this way.
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