Centuries wasted applying for grants?

Grant-writing season is finally over for Australian academics. Actually, grant writing season is never over, but with the deadlines now having passed for the ARC Discovery grants and Discovery Early Career Research Awards and the NH&MRC Project Grants, most academics move from compliance-checking and form-filling to thinking about ideas again.

And maybe doing a bit of teaching and research.

Which is why many researchers would have been intrigued by a piece of correspondence in last week’s Nature, with the no-nonsense title “Australia’s grant system wastes time”. Well, everybody who has ever applied for funding and been rejected knows that. But the staggering part of the story is just how much time it wastes.

Danielle L. Herbert, Adrian G. Barnett and Nicholas Graves from Queensland University of Technology analysed the 2012 NH&MRC Project Grant round of 3,727 proposals. By surveying a sample of applicants they estimated that each grant took 38 person days of work, whereas resubmitted grants (ones that narrowly missed in a previous round and were modified and then submitted in 2012) took 28 person days.

In total, they estimated that that single round of funding – admittedly Australia’s biggest funding round – took up the same amount of time as a single person working for 550 years. And given that 80% of applications were unsuccessful, they estimate over four centuries of effort went unrewarded. This monumental wasted effort, they argued, should be considered by the funding agencies when designing their schemes:

If these [proposals] were more focused, it would reduce preparation costs and could improve the quality of peer review by reducing workloads.

Not all rejections are wasted effort

The idea of over four centuries of wasted effort makes a good headline. And yet not all of the effort involved in writing an ultimately-rejected grant is wasted. You do, as they say, have to be in it to win it. And often the process of writing the grant can lead a researcher to new ideas and research directions that can be explored independent of the funds being applied for.

Seven years ago I applied for a very large grant for which I was decidedly under-qualified. The referees identified that my CV fell short of the lofty standards of the scheme and my idea was somewhat undercooked. But in imagining and planning what I would do with such a large and prestigious grant, I arrived at ambitious and exciting research questions around which to structure my research program. It was the most productive rejection I ever experienced.

And yet it is hard to argue against the fact that a lot of researcher time and effort, not to mention morale, gets wasted every year in granting rounds. Add to the four centuries of wasted time in the 2012 NH&MRC Project round the time spent fruitlessly applying for other schemes, including those of the ARC, and we probably waste over a millenium’s working time every year.

And that is just the applicants and those helping them. Add to that the time spent reviewing the applications.

Costs of applying for funding

Governments spend considerable sums each year supporting a variety of research schemes. And public money should always go to the most deserving candidates and the most interesting, important projects. In order to weigh which projects are most deserving, interesting and important, funding agencies rely on comprehensive applications addressing tightly-specified criteria.

They also rely on the voluntary or nominally-remunerated efforts of expert peer-reviewers who assess the quality of proposals, and panellists who weigh these peer-reviews and make the unenviable decisions about which grants to fund.

I spend about one working week each year assessing grant applications, mostly from the ARC but also from overseas agencies. In my experience about 75% of applications deserve to be funded. The researchers have excellent track records in relation to the opportunities they have had, and the proposed projects involve interesting world-class science with every chance of succeeding.

Informal discussions with former panellists suggest a similar point of view. About 10% of applications are exceptional, leaving no doubt in anybody’s mind that they should be funded. But the next 65% or so of applications are all fundable and the decision about whether each gets funded comes down to tiny differences, including near-negligible differences between the referee’s scores. If your application is part of this two-thirds of the group, a degree of luck can determine the difference between funding and rejection.

Many researchers find themselves on the wrong end of this luck year after year. These are the people whose careers are being eaten away fruitlessly competing for a small piece of a funding pool that shrinks steadily in real terms.

Could the process be streamlined?

We can argue all we like about how much public money the government should be spending, or what kinds of research it should be funding. But surely everybody with an interest in research funding should embrace greater efficiency in the application and assessment process?

What if we could slice a century out of the “time wasted” column without reducing the quality of the funding scheme or the research it supports? Here are a few thoughts about the kinds of things that designers of granting programs seem to gravitate toward and that researchers and peer-reviewers, in my limited experience, equally consider a monumental waste of their time.

Artificial projections of the impact of the research.

Sometimes an application seeks funding for research that will have a particular applied purpose. That is wonderful, and it forms a strong part of the rationale for the research. But some agencies require fundamental or strategic basic research applications to project exactly how the research will have “impact” – despite the fact that the applicants haven’t yet done the research.

The “Pathways to Impact” statement required by the various schemes of the Research Councils of the UK suffers from this problem. As you might expect, these sections get inflated with managerialist newspeak.

As an overseas referee asked to comment on the scientific merits of grant applications and applicants, I grow incensed at the waste of my time and the applicant’s time making fictionalised assurances about the likely ways the just-conceived project will change society and strengthen the economy. In my limited experience of UK schemes, this section has nothing to do with the quality or likely success of the research itself.

Institutional Commitment

In ARC schemes, applicants are now required to work with their host institution to prepare a statement about the research environment or the commitment of the institution. Remember that only certain organisations are eligible to host ARC grants and fellowships. And yet applications require a 2-page outline, signed by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) of such eligible institutions, concerning (in this case from the DECRA guidelines):

  • the fit between the application and the existing and/or emerging research strengths of the administering organisation,
  • the support the applicant will get from the organisation and
  • the opportunities the fellow will have to become an independent researcher who is “competitive for research and/or research and teaching pathways at the Administering
    Organisation” during and after the project.

I have read about a hundred of these statements for various schemes. They universally tend toward bland corporate verbiage about the institution’s “Strategic Plan” and “Research Strengths”. Amazingly every project falls into a current or emerging strength. Likewise every institution promises to back the researcher as though they were already short-listed for a Nobel prize. And they promise to turn out a well-rounded and highly competitive researcher after the three-year period.

DECRA Fellowships constitute some of the toughest money to win – worldwide. The best of the best PhD graduates compete with their burnished CV’s and scintillating ideas. To suggest that somebody could win one without already being highly competitive for a research career is patronising in the extreme.

Likewise, asking institutions to discuss how committed they are to a Discovery or NH&MRC grant is like asking “Do you want your research to be funded?”. There is only one correct answer.

And yet sometimes as much as 10% of the mark used to score a proposal is based on this section. A section that reveals little about the quality of the applicant or the project. A reviewer wishing to give a very good mark might not know whether to score this section an 8 or a 10. And yet the two-point difference can determine whether an application ends up in the funded 20% or well outside the fundable range.

I’ll probably make myself very unpopular with research administrators for saying this, but if I were in charge of funding schemes, I’d definitely get rid of this section. The time it takes to write, check and assess it cannot be justified.

How would you streamline the granting process?

I’d love to hear from researchers and research administrators, either in the comments below or via Twitter (@Brooks_Rob), how best grant application and assessment processes could be streamlined without compromising the quality of the applications funded. Perhaps we can save a few centuries’ effort.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

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I Fucking Love…..Sexism

What do you know? The creative force behind science’s favourite Facebook site is … a woman.

Holy mother of Christ.

Just over a year ago, Elise Andrew, then a biology student at the University of Sheffield, created a Facebook page, to which she gave the catchy name “I Fucking Love Science” (IFLS). Combining interesting facts, sumptuous pictures, quotes from celebrity scientists and geeky jokes, the site took off instantly.

Today it has more than 4.3 million fans. And for the many whingers who simply couldn’t bring themselves to like a page with the “F-word” in its name, she mirrored it at Science is Awesome (255,000 fans).

Apparently, IFLS amassed 1,000 “likes” in its first 24 hours, mocking the adoption rate of other pages (my own effort, Sex, Genes & Rock, took 18 months to amass 1,000 fans).

In the whirlwind year since she started IFLS, Andrew has relocated to Canada to work with the LabX Media Group, and now has a team at her disposal to maintain her spinoff Facebook pages: Evolution, The Universe, and The Earth Story.

Elise Andrew’s identity wasn’t any kind of secret, even if most IFLS fans had no reason to know her name. They could have clicked the “about” link on the IFLS page profile. All that changed early last week when she announced she had joined Twitter:

I got Twitter! I figured it’s about time I started exploring other social media. If you’re on there, can you Tweet me some science people worth following?

Continue reading I Fucking Love…..Sexism

Boys, war and the prescient mosquitofish mother

The Eastern Mosquitofish, Gambusia holbrooki, is a livebearer from the southeastern USA that has established ferally in many parts of the world, including near Canberra. Photo by Andrew Kahn

Some aspects of the natural world are so commonplace that we mistake them for essential truths. This is especially true of the fact that the animals we know best, including our own species, usually give birth to near-indistinguishable numbers of sons and daughters.

In high-school genetics we learn that half a father’s sperm carries his Y-chromosome, and the other half carry his X. So the 50-50 sex ratio seems like the consequence of thousands of chance conceptions.

But while chance plays a part in each conception, the ratio of sons and daughters at birth results from some of the strongest and most consistent natural selection known to science. The fact that in humans, the sex ratio at birth leans ever so slightly in a male direction is no accidental quirk. When nature takes its course, 106 boys are born for every 100 girls. This slight male bias is a consequence of differences in how taxing boys and girls are to raise and how likely they are to survive to reproductive age.

Selection on sex ratios is so strong because when one sex becomes rare, individuals of that sex grow more valuable as mates. So parents who conceive offspring of that rarer sex rather than the more common sex will eventually have more grandchildren through those offspring. Which favours behaviors and physiologic traits that bias conception.

In most species, this effect of competition keeps the sex ratio close to even. But under some conditions selection should favour departures from an even sex ratio.

I have written in this column before about the Trivers-Willard effect, possibly the most surprising idea yet to spring from evolutionary theory. In 1973, Trivers and Willard predicted that parents who can afford to invest heavily in caring for offspring should bear offspring of the sex that benefits most from lavish parental care.

This prediction has been upheld by hundreds of tests. Wasps lay female eggs on large caterpillars (thus bearing large, fecund daughters) and prefer sons when they have caught a puny prey item to feed the larva. A hind or female antelope in good condition is more likely to have a son because they can afford the extra milk that will set him on the perilous path to becoming a successful stag. In poor condition, she is more likely to bear a daughter.

Evidence consistent with the Trivers-Willard effect has also been reported in humans, although the quality of the data tends to vary. Approximately 60% of the children born to billionaire families are sons. Junior wives in polygynous Rwandan marriages bear far more daughters than higher-status first wives or women in monogamous relationships. And female infanticide in early-colonial North-West India was peculiar to the highest-born castes, whose daughters suffered very poor prospects of marrying upward (downward marriage being unthinkable).

The case that Trivers-Willard effects can lead some parents to bias conception or care toward one sex and other parents to bias investment toward the other sex has reasonably solid support. Although much quibbling surrounds many purported cases. But what about other factors skewing the birth sex ratio?

What happens, for example, if large-scale death of one sex distorts the mating market? In humans, warfare does exactly that, because young men are far more likely to die in warfare than any other group. Interestingly, after major wars there is often a spike in the birth of boys, as there was after World War I in Britain. But other conflicts, such as the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s have precipitated the birth of more girls than boys.

Another problem with the idea of sex-ratios responding to warfare is that the men who die in warfare are already old enough to be sexually active, and so newborn babies won’t really replace those men in the mating market. Unless the conflict runs for decades. But if parents could anticipate a future shortfall of one sex and then bear offspring of the rare sex, those offspring would enjoy an enormous advantage when they grew up and mated.

A new paper published by researchers from ANU this week in Nature Communications shows that, in one species at least, parents can anticipate a future shortfall of one sex and respond accordingly. They made use of a curious biological quirk in the live-bearing mosquitofish, Gambusia holbrooki.

PhD student Andrew Kahn who led the study told me:

We first suspected something interesting was going on in the previous summer. I was out collecting fish for a behavioural study. One week there were heaps of males around, the next week I couldn’t find any! So we knew there were some strange, sex-specific patterns of mortality happening. We then collected a pilot sample of females in that autumn, just to see if there was anything interesting going on with their birth sex ratio. A couple of months later, we had a lot of little female fish swimming around the lab, and knew we’d stumbled on something unusual.

Mosquitofish breeding peaks in Spring and then again in Autumn. Males and females born in Spring tend only to breed in Autumn and then die. Autumn-born males breed in spring and then die, but many Autumn-born females breed in Spring and live long enough to do so again the following Autumn.
Continue reading Boys, war and the prescient mosquitofish mother

How the Internet is changing music (Feat. Amanda Palmer on vocals)

Sometimes I think I can hear the internet as it relentlessly changes everything. This week’s tabloidisation of Fairfax is merely a symptom of the way the net has already changed the news media. So, too, is the pending extinction of science journalism. And the withering of book publishing.

But the sound of the internet changing everything grows most audible in and around the music industry. Mostly howls of impotent rage from large record companies and some of the more histrionic artists.

Music profits have never been as big as they were in the late 20th Century. I recently binge-read Howling at the Moon, the memoirs of Walter Yetnikoff, the notorious former CBS boss who presided over CBS from the mid-seventies until 1990. His accounts of the cocaine-sodden, sex-soaked excesses among record industry executives overshadow those permeating the ghost-written biographies of most rock stars. And I don’t think that is entirely due to a difference in candour.

Thirty years ago, people who wanted to listen to Michael Jackson’s Beat It had to buy the Thriller album. And that put a lot of money into CBS’s account and Yetnikoff’s entertainment fund. Last year’s equally vacant cross-national nerve toucher, Gangnam Style has enjoyed over 1.3 billion YouTube views. I embed the video below, not as endorsement, but because I am allowed to do so for free.

Psy’s rather esoteric Gangnam Style an internet-driven phenomenon

And now, to offset that sin, and because I would rather promote something in which you have probably not yet marinated, I embed an equally cross-lingual video from the “fresher than Zef” Jack Parow.

Jack Parow featuring Francois van Coke – Hard Partytjie Hou

Continue reading How the Internet is changing music (Feat. Amanda Palmer on vocals)

How do we let people pay for music – Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on the dignity of asking

As technology changes, irreversibly altering the ways in which people experience and enjoy music, it also alters the economics of how music is made, distributed and sold. And that changes the incentives for artists, the livings musicians can lead, and even their prospects for living a long an healthy life.

Readers of Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll will have encountered my thinking on how recording, radio and television changed music in the first six decades of last century and how that led to the musical eruption of Rock. It also made music a dangerous place to be, especially for musicians.

These themes are touched, in a very twenty-first century way, by musician Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on the dignity of giving and of asking. It’s a wonderful video that makes some simple but often obscured points about human contact, intimacy and dignity. And she evokes a way of returning to the local intimacy that music had in the lives of our ancestors.