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Earma 2023: Winning funding isn’t the job

Universities should be exploring non-competitive ways of allocating resources for research, says Arne Vandenbogaerde

Academics generally win jobs at universities because they are excellent researchers. Once appointed, though, they generally have little or no means to perform research­—funding for this must be sought, applied for and won in competition. This was not always the case; the shift from a system dominated by core funding to one based on competitive grants has taken place over decades.

Evidence is plentiful that the competitive model is not working well. There is, though, little evidence for what should replace it and few models of good practice in non-competitive research funding.

What’s needed is research into research funding, aimed at ensuring a healthy mix of competitive and non-competitive options. A good first step would be an overview of which non-competitive methods are already in use, and how well they work.

As competition for research funding intensifies, causing success rates to fall, the flaws in competitive models for allocating resources become ever more glaring. While peer review may weed out substandard proposals, there is little evidence that it identifies the best projects, and plenty of evidence that it is biased against junior scholars and underrepresented groups. 

Intense competition favours risk-averse, incremental and short-term fundamental research over disruptive science. It also puts pressure on researchers’ integrity, incentivising grantsmanship and irresponsible research practices.

Time wasted 

Applying for funding is an onerous and inefficient process. Applicants in each discipline face a multitude of funding channels and compete against more or less the same group of colleagues in each of them. Estimates of 200 hours per year spent on failed applications are common, not to mention the work of reviewing others’ proposals. 

Many of the research managers and administrators at (resource-rich) universities support funding applications, as do private contractors. Researchers who receive such support have a better chance of winning funding, but this arguably only increases the system’s biases, in particular making the rejection of very good proposals common.

Faced with the burden of applying, the small chance of success and the sense that decisions are essentially subjective, researchers may become frustrated and cynical, lose faith in the system and possibly give up altogether.

The evidence that competitive funding has become bad for research and researchers has driven many to advocate alternative methods to allocate resources. Ideas range from structural provision of research funds—analogous to a universal basic income—to various forms of lottery. Such methods are largely untested, although lotteries are becoming more common, but there are good reasons to think they would be an improvement on the current system. 

Many academics would welcome a rebalancing in favour of core funding so that a research position comes with the funds to do research. Such a system puts trust in researchers, sending the message that if you’re good enough to get the job, you’re good enough to do the job. (It also makes recruitment decisions even more important, as there would be less ex-ante quality control.)

Non-competitive models could reduce internal competition and increase cooperation. They could help cut the number of academics who abandon research; make long-term research agendas more feasible; and encourage more risk-taking. It would be easier to carry out interdisciplinary projects, which tend to fall between the cracks of existing funding streams. Non-competitive systems would also have far lower transaction and overhead costs. 

The feasibility of such a shift would depend on certain conditions. One is the amount of funding that researchers would receive. At a minimum, it should be enough to actually perform research—although this level would vary by discipline, creating additional questions about how to divide resources.

Uncertainties abound 

Resource-intensive disciplines that rely on expensive infrastructure may be uncomfortable about seeing funding spread more evenly, and blue-sky projects may seem more deserving of core funds than applied work closer to the market. Another issue is how funding should relate to a researcher’s employment conditions, such as the mix of teaching and research, and whether they are full- or part-time. 

Research policy would be affected, as professorial staff would have more—or even absolute—control over what or whom to fund. How would this hit employment of postdoctoral researchers, for example? 

It will take courage for any university to choose to go down what is still an uncertain road. But it is certain that the current system has serious disadvantages that need to be addressed. 

Research Professional News is media partner for the Earma 2023 conference, held this week in Prague.

Arne Vandenbogaerde is research policy officer at the Faculty of Law and Criminology, Ghent University, Belgium. He writes in a personal capacity

This article also appeared in Research Europe