Buy a ticket, play the funding lottery!

Academics and researchers must apply for grant funding. These grants provide the financial support required to carry out the research proposed in the grant. These funds are used to purchase equipment, pay salaries, cover publication and travel costs, etc.

Being successful in a national funding competition is a key indicator of success. Not only can the researchers carry out the proposed work, they will be viewed more favourably by their home institute and the tenure and promotion committee. Moreover, success breeds success: researchers who are successful are more likely than not to be successful in the future. This is in part because track record and feasibility are often considered by funding agencies. Moreover, granting agencies invite successful candidates to site on granting panels, allowing them to gain an insider’s view of the process, discussions, and politics.

As previously discussed, granting panels are generally able to distinguish between good and bad grants. However, when resources are scarce and only a small proportion of applications are funded, grant panels have to rank the good applications. Unfortunately, grant panels are not as skilled in making this distinction.

Roll the dice

Our previous post discussed the pros and cons of applying a modified lottery to the process of allocating grant funds. A recent paper by Gross & Bergstrom (2019) revisited this topic using the economic theory of contests to analyse how efficiently grant proposal competitions advance science, and compare this to alternatives such as partially randomized lotteries.

In their paper, which has been viewed over 45,000 times, Gross & Bergstrom (2019) emphasise that researchers are spending more and more time preparing grant applications, with less and less chance of success. Unfortunately, the key outcome desired by granting agencies is not grant applications, but rather the science contained in these applications. By spending more time preparing grant applications, researcher necessarily will spend less time doing science.

High competition leads to wasted effort

Based on their simulations, Gross & Bergstrom (2019) conclude that the effort researchers waste in writing proposals may be comparable to the total scientific value of the research that funding supports, especially when only a few proposals are funded. This is a major problem, one that highly successful researchers who sit on granting panels are less likely to be aware of.

The authors go on to say that when professional pressures motivate researchers and academics to seek funding for reasons other than the proposed science (e.g. promotion, prestige), the funding program can actually have a negative effect the progress of science, especially when the number of awards is small.

Personally, I enjoy doing science. I also enjoy thinking about and writing about science. Thus, I do not see the grant writing process as a waste of time. It helps consolidate ideas and identify key research questions that need answering. However, when you hear of people spending the first few years of their academic careers writing and submitting dozens of grants, you have to wonder if their time would have been better spent actually doing science. Yes, some of these researchers succeed, and they become the heroes that up and coming researchers try to emulate. But is this really the type of researchers we want to create? Is creating a generation of savvy grant writers who learn to play the game science really the best thing for the advancement of science? What about the clever scientists who do not crack the funding system; is society losing out?

Buy a ticket, play the lottery

The simulations run by Gross & Bergstrom (2019) show that a partially randomized lottery allows for greater efficiency in the scientific process, especially when funding levels are low.

Why are funding agencies not making the switch? I am an outsider, so I can’t answer that question. However, what is clear is that the people in positions of power in funding agencies are currently or were successful scientists in the current granting system. So too are the people who sit on grant panels. Thus, a major shift in the funding system would likely be unnerving to those that have been lucky enough to find success in traditional funding systems.

Conclusion

Some researchers don’t take the funding game too personally. They try their hand as best as possible, and are pleasantly surprised when they succeed. However, other researchers are extremely driven to succeed in the current system, and would do anything to ensure they keep their job, obtain their promotion and get their next grant. Unfortunately, metrics for success in the game of science are not necessarily metrics for good science. Moreover, by continuously reaching and surpassing the current metrics for success, administrators and assessors will set the bar even higher. Unfortunately, there will always be some extremely motivated and savvy researchers who find ways to achieve these (unreasonable) targets.

Funding agencies can play an important role in improving the quality and transparency of research by requiring applicants to adhere to certain practices, such as openly sharing data and computer code, as well as pre-registering key studies. They can also reduce the waste of time and effort by considering implementing a partially randomized granting lottery. Only time will tell which major funding agencies take the leap to improve research quality and reduce wasted effort.

Reference

Berg K, Bergstrom CT (2019). Contest models highlight inherent inefficiencies of scientific funding competitions. PLOS Biology. 17:e3000065.

 

 

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