Grants in academia: pay people for what they do, not what they say they’ll do

By Joern Fischer

Once upon a time, whether you were a good researcher was measured by your research. Seems kind of sensible. But those times are long gone. Depending on the country you work in, being able to produce good research is no more important than being an entrepreneur. Running teams of over 10, preferably over 20 people (what, you have a lab of 30? WOW). Those will produce stuff that is, let’s say “normally distributed”, meaning every year there will also be a number of excellent papers, very likely with your name on it. To get and keep all these people, you need money. And indeed, having money has become an essential performance indicator at many institutions around the world.

Something is pretty odd about this.

What if you were the kind of researcher who produces really good work, but you choose to work in a small group? Or what if you like to work with Master’s students, and they actually publish papers in your group (but didn’t cost anything)? What if you routinely lift the quality of your colleagues’ work (e.g. because you advise them on statistics), but you end up having few big projects yourself?

In sum: what if you produce excellent stuff that doesn’t need a lot of money? — You might argue such cases are rare, but I know of several instances like that.

I assert: Raising money has become an end in its own right, when it used to be a means to the end of producing good research.

What this suggests to me is that our funding system is all upside down. I think we need more “awards” where people get money for what they have already done, and less massive funding proposals where people say what they will do.

Some really great projects have been done on a shoestring budget, and some multi-million dollar projects have produced a flood of just “average” quality science. And the treadmill of writing grant proposals is stopping people from actually producing good work.

So, suggestion to funding agencies: give out a larger part of your money as (largish) awards for what people have already done. Chances are, those who have produced great work in the past, will continue to do so. Get academics off the treadmill again, so they can do what they ought to do: produce excellent research.


6 thoughts on “Grants in academia: pay people for what they do, not what they say they’ll do

  1. Many researchers put on CV how much money they attracted. Besides the amount of papers (and impact factors), the amount of money may be a good qualifying indicator for performance. For example, throught this: ‘in times when there is less and less money, and place in journals to publish, MY team raise a huge amount of money and produce a huge amount of papers’. Familiar no? Tits, fish and many organisms have the same message when searching for a mate (how strong, big male I am, in times when resources are scarce e.g.). And, as in natural populations, quantity will produce some quality (with the specification that what quality is actually, is always dependent on the current knowledge, social/economical context…which itself always change). I therefore see nothing wrong with that. In animals also work, therefore it should be a good strategy I guess…

  2. ps: I dont want to say that we (with our funding systems and research and everything) are…animals…just tried to touch the apparent similarities with our strategies and an average vertebrate strategy:) Ours seem to be more packed with various buzz words (which always change with time…) fut the fundamental story seem to be the same…

  3. one may even think that it is not about research and sustainability and conservation but fame, monopol and money…(is extreme i know but one may see it in this way…)

  4. I agree with this. I believe that there is something terribly wrong with academia when raising money becomes an end in itself… “Publish or perish” has its own downsides but “bring money or perish” appears pretty dangerous. It would certainly seem to favor those more skilled in self-promotion and marketing… One potential (and in some cases demonstrated) pitfall is when research results are ‘tailored’ to suit donor interests.
    I would venture to say that it has something to do with an erosion of values and the neoliberalization of academia…?

  5. Errosion of values, interesting (and I agree). Look to every aspect of life, from art, music, architecture, literature (poems etc.) and why not, science too. It seems to me that closer we come to present, more commercial and ‘cheap’ these become. Kind of de-evolution from something beautiful, complete and full with meaning to something quick, cheap and short lasting. Anyways, quite interesting to think about these…

  6. Recent Natural Science/Engineering Canadian research funding appears biased to large labs too: Discovery grants like those discussed here provide a flexibility and leverage to researchers that allows quick response to new ideas and serendipitous opportunity (and has, incidentally, no corollary in the commensurate Social Science and Humanities national funding scheme).

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