Putting the fun back into research funding

Rob Brooks reckons grant writing can be fun!
Rob Brooks reckons grant writing can be fun!

This piece first appeared on 28 Aril 2011 in the excellent new debate and ideas website The Conversation.

Getting research money, especially the no-strings-attached kind that government agencies give out, is difficult. Researchers spend months on each proposal with only a small chance of getting funded. To have any chance of winning support, proposals have to convince funding agencies, such as the Australian Research Council (ARC), that the research is both scientifically interesting and likely to benefit the country.

Grants we can believe in

Some recent experiences have me questioning whether too many of us, in academia, are trying to sell funding agencies the research we think they want rather than the research we know society needs.

For Australian academics, the year typically begins in March. Not because we take exceptionally long holidays (many take no holidays at all), but because the ARC’s grants submission deadlines tend to be early in March. Like religious devotees, we begin our year by laying ourselves bare and submitting to a higher power. We submit our cherished research ideas in ten pages of tight prose, hoping to be among the 20% or so who get funded. Four out of every five applicants get no funding return on the months they invest in grant-writing.

As with any devotional practice, when it comes to winning grants there is a lot of mumbo-jumbo. There is also a fateful (but incorrect) sense that the whole process is a lottery, and that we are simply buffeted by vague and even sinister outside forces.

Given the fact there is no magic formula for securing funding, I was surprised when a colleague from another university dropped by last week and cheerfully said: “I took your advice this year when I was writing my grants, and it really helped”.

Concerned that I might have led a good colleague astray, I scrambled for plausible deniability. “What advice was that?” I meekly enquired.

“That you should always write grants that you truly believe in,“ he said.

Shouldn’t all academics only trouble public funding agencies for money to fund research they truly believe in? Of course we should, but I reckon we often don’t.

The prospect of ridicule

Anti-intellectual halfwit columnists and shock-jocks enjoy few sports more than pot-shotting research projects – especially projects that appear esoteric or even a little eccentric. The prospect of ridicule keeps insecure politicians awake at night which, in turn, motivates funding agencies to weed out the more fanciful project titles. This sends intellectuals scurrying for the cover of some defensible economic or social benefit to their research.

Of course, translational benefits of even the most economically rational research project often manifest decades after the work finishes. Take the prototypical Australian research success story: the cochlear implant developed by Professor Graeme Clark and his team. Their first “bionic ear” implant in 1978 culminated more than 30 years of intense research in dozens of research groups across the globe. And it was based on a basic discovery almost 200 years earlier that electrically stimulating the inner ear can create the perception of sound.

The long haul

Most research – even research directed at a well-defined and obvious problem such as curing deafness – doesn’t bear fruit immediately, or even directly. Governments know that the first benefit of funding good research is, well, good research.

In my own field of evolutionary ecology, many scientists are motivated by a desire to understand and conserve the natural world. It’s the kind of research that elicits sneers from right-wing commentators and those who automatically suspect anything greener than the coleslaw at the local leagues club or RSL. Among the few suitable fox-holes for researchers in ecology and evolution, climate change is currently the most popular, and the most overcrowded.

I have no beef with climate-change science – it’s an important area in which Australia punches well above its weight. Indeed, I count myself firmly among those terrified of climate change and all its ramifications. But I’m also afraid of invasive species, pollution, food and water shortages and dry-land salinity.

Yet climate change is the issue of the day, and from the outside it looks like there’s plenty of money flowing that way. It doesn’t take a Nobel-winning economist to figure out that some young scientists will refashion their research into climate-change-shaped buckets in the hope of scooping up some of that cash.

This worries me. Great research on questions such as how plants and animals adapt at the edges of their ranges, on how genetic variation arises and the speed at which organisms adapt is being stretched to fit the idea that the world will warm by a certain number of degrees by a certain year. The result? Interesting research is often made eminently less interesting in the hope of catching climate change cash.

Force of habit

A few nights ago, I reviewed a fellowship application by a young researcher who seemed apologetic that her study organism is an endangered aquatic mammal.

Biologists working on charismatic or endangered species such as whales, elephants and even koalas often encounter a snobbery from folks who work on less appealing creatures; a prejudice that their research is all about the animal and not about an interesting idea. My colleague wanted to emphasise her interesting research question – so she downplayed the charisma of the species she works on.

Good biologists do this all the time, having learned early on that an interesting research question is the most important ingredient in good science. But many end up hiding their light under a bushel, failing to infect their readers with their enthusiasm – whether it’s enthusiasm for a beautiful animal, the desire to conserve rare vegetation, or the wish to make drinking water safe for people in the developing world.

Love is all you need

When I suggested to my colleague, the one from another university, that he write a grant application he believes in, I meant one thing only. He had to find the essence of the grant proposal that excited him and reminded him why being a scientist is the best job in the world.

Don’t try to sell the granting agencies what you think they want to buy; just try to sell the best idea you have – by presenting it on its own terms. We should not sell our souls – we should merely be asking the funding agencies to back our convictions.

A few years ago, I wrote such a grant. I rediscovered that I was most motivated to use biology to understand what it means to be human in the modern world. My grant wasn’t funded – it didn’t even come close. But that grant application became my manifesto. It then evolved into a proposal for the book I always wanted to write. And while I wrote that book, I had several great research ideas, effecting a complete renewal in my research program. Many of which you can read about on this site, or in my forthcoming book (now available for order from the publisher, NewSouth Books).

Rob Brooks

I am an evolutionary biologist who thinks about sex for a living. Things I have thought and written about include the evolution of mate choice, the costs of being attractive, the reason animals age and the links between sex, diet, obesity and death. Follow @Brooks_Rob on Twitter.

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