How the funding system is keeping researchers out of their labs

Materials World magazine
7 Jan 2019

The research funding system makes researchers spend too much of their time applying for grants in STEM fields, keeping them out of the labs and teaching, according to researchers from USA. 

The researchers – Carl Bergstrom professor of biology at the University of Washington and Kevin Gross professor of statistics at North Carolina State University – believe that the application process has turned into a game of who is better at writing rather than who has the best ideas and that this system might be tying as much as 50% of researchers’ time down to only perfecting the perfect grant application.

Since the 1970s, the number of applications to agencies such as, the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health, that successfully receive funding has dropped dramatically. In the 1970s, the top 40–50% of applications to such agencies got funding, according to Bergstrom. In 2003 only 20% of applications to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases were funded and in 2013 the rate of successful applications was only 8%. 

Bergstrom said, ‘When agencies only fund the top 1020%, they aren't just separating bad ideas from good ideas. They're also separating good from good.’

Bergstrom and Gross use the economic theory of contests to highlight how the competitive funding-system is inefficient and won’t hold up in the long run. In contest theory teams compete with each other to either complete a task or create a product for a specific agency. The agency picks a winner that receives a prize ­– often cash – while the agency receives the team’s product of innovation and creativity.

‘If we were to apply contest theory to grants, then professors are the ones competing to create a product  the best grant application  for the agency. That's not a particularly good system, though, because the funding agency doesn't want grant applications for their own sake. They want to fund research,’ Gross explained.

Using the theory, the researchers showed how an alternative method – a partial lottery to awarding grants – could possibly free up professors’ time to enable them to get back into teaching and doing their own research bringing science forward. If this method was used grants would be awarded randomly amid a pool of already high-ranking applications, top 40% as an example. Because this process would allow applicants to aim for a lower bar and then a smaller prize – giving them a shot at the lottery instead of a guaranteed pay-out for winning proposals – the contest theory model anticipate that less time would be spent on perfecting applications keeping applicants out of the lab.

A different approach to make the funding system more efficient is to award grants based on merit, like past records of excellence. This system, however, will need to have systems to aid early-career professors from underrepresented groups earn grants.

‘There are many potential routes out of the current hole,' Bergstrom concluded. 'What doesn't change is our conclusion that the current grant-application system is fundamentally inefficient and unsustainable.'