Funding system of research: changes, yes, but don’t distort reality

Beatrice Plazzotta, in her contribution to EuroScientist Journal, claims that in trying to fund “the best research ever” we “are trying to be way too meritocratic and way too perfect”.

Apart from the fact that funding agencies don’t claim to fund the best research ever, there are certainly good reasons for criticisms of many research funding practices. There is too much competition; success rates are too low; career advances are too much linked to success in getting large research grants; writing and evaluating proposals take too much time; and so on.

But Beatrice Plazzotta describes a reality that does not really exist. Yes, there are certain prescriptions as to how to write a proposal. But I would not know about a 3000 page manuscript of prescriptions. And it is true that commercial companies as well as university faculties have discovered that there is business (in the form of money and increased success rates) in helping researchers to write proposals. But isn’t the author taking the EU’s collaborative research programmes, which she must have in mind, as a symbol for all the EU’s funding programmes, let alone for all the funding schemes of national funding agencies which account for more than 90% of Europe’s public money for research?

That is not justified at all. Writing a successful proposal for the European Research Council does not benefit from the help of a commercial consultancy of “funding experts”. The same is probably true for most national funding schemes. For sure, many researchers are asking their colleagues (that is researchers like themselves) for feedback, certainly when they apply for grants from one the more prestigious funding schemes, such as the ERC programmes or advanced national schemes linked to a person’s past achievements. That just makes good sense. The core of a good proposal is a good scientific idea, a good hypothesis, and instrumental techniques or a methodology to investigate and test those ideas. Those do not come from “funding experts”. 

That there is a lot of bureaucracy in writing especially EU proposals cannot be denied and that is the basis for the ‘funding experts’’ consultancies.  But the reality that Ms. Plazzotta describes of a vicious circle of ever more standardization, ever tighter criteria and controls, forged proposals and concentrating money in “super-hyper-mega experts” (which by the way, now apparently no longer are the “funding experts” but the real scientists) largely does not exist.

It is good to experiment with simplified funding schemes, including based on lotteries. In the Netherlands a committee established by the minister of education, science and culture recently proposed to reduce competition by increasing the share of institutional research funding for universities.

The EC would do well to change its system of review based on self-nominated experts without significant vetting. Trusting more on the judgement of experienced researchers on the one hand and taking more risk on the other hand by allowing young researchers with bright maybe unorthodox ideas to try them out without elaborate proposals and vetting is also one direction to go. But a distorted view of the reality of funding research is not a good basis for such modifications.

Peter Tindemans

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5 thoughts on “Funding system of research: changes, yes, but don’t distort reality”

  1. From this comment of Tindemans, I can understand three things:
    – he is not a scientist, in the sense that he does not now at all what is really needed by a scientist to advance knowledge (for your information it is not writing beautiful pages for an application)
    – he has not answered to what Beatrice Plazzotta wrote, since he replied to unsignificant details, but he does not explains why the proposal of Beatrice should not be better than the current system
    – he has not shown a real interest in making the system for funding research more efficient and fair.
    I’m personally disgusted by the system for funding research in Europe, and I think the solution of Beatrice is the only one that should be adopted (and that will be adopted one day).
    Thank you Beatrice, for letting us know that smart people capable of free thinking exist

    1. Dear Vincenzo,
      thank you very much for your support! To be honest, I feel Mr. Tindemans is possibly right in saying that I was a bit too “over the lines” with what I wrote, and is mainly condemning my tone for being too provocative and easily misunderstood (I did exaggerate some parts, and I didn’t realise they could have been interpreted as true figures rather than hyperboles) . I would say is opinion is very close to mine, just written in a more serious and less provocative style 🙂
      Also, you are giving me too much credit mentioning the lottery system as my solution, there are people who really put some hard thinking in developing it and what I did was just bringing it to the attention of the Euroscientist public. Thanks again nonetheless! If you hear of any other interesting ideas on how to address funding issues, please share it!

  2. I am a young researcher struggling to get a position in academia. Last year I wrote a proposal for Marie Curie funding but the project got refused. None, litterally none of the comments on the project concerned the actual scientific content of the project. All of them concerned the proposal’s form. Did I make a right distinction between “disseminaton” or “communication” activities in my project proposal? Well, yes, but according to some reviewers I put some of them in wrong sections. Why doesn’t the calendar for “professional training” give exact months ? Because how am I supposed to establish a calendar for a project whose starting date is not yet fixed. There is no way to answer these criticisms, even though many result from a complete misreading of the project.
    Only after the project got refused, I was contacted by my host institution that had a special section devoted specifically to MC proposals. Basically a section devoted to outsmarting evaluating experts with clever ambiguous statements that are hard to attack. The new version of the project is devoid of any scientific honesty. I overpromise, but apparently this is a good thing since no one genuinely checks the accuracy of the project’s initial promises with the results obtained.
    This is pure insanity. Like if every one knew that these projects are dishonest and oversell their results and yet we accept this for lack of a better system. It is easier to attack a proposal on formal grounds than actually evaluating its scientific content, so the evaluators focus on these formal parts, and we are left with language games between the project’s authors supported by university experts, and the MC evaluators. Each side trying to outsmart the other.
    I cannot judge the entire EU funding system, but in my experience it is very much like Beatrice described it. Perhaps for older more established researchers, where there is less competition, the system works better, but all my colleagues who recently obtained PhDs have as negative outlook as I do.

    1. I fully agree that the situation you describe is outrageous. But I do think it reflects, as I mentioned, a basic flaw in the EU reviewing system, which is that with the exception of the ERC, and probably a few other very visible programmes such as the flagships, there is insufficient vetting of reviewers. Moreover, there is no way to provide feedback to the EU. Because I would feel that the EC should discontinue working with reviewers who act like the one you describe. Maybe it is something EuroScience could pick up?


      Peter Tindemans

      1. Dear Mr. Tindemans,

        thank you very much for your response to my contribution. My main goal was to stir a discussion on the topic, as I do believe the way we fund and review research is not as good as it could be and as I feel those topics are not discussed enough, at least not publicly and openly.
        I know that in my contribution I was too generalistic and possibly too negative – I did want to cause a reaction, and I may have been a bit over the lines here and there . I spoke in broad terms as I did not want to point fingers at any specific organisation, but rather to prompt a general debate.
        I did not meant to deny the existence of good practices and great entities, universities and institutions, and I did not want to belittle the work of the ERC or of any other organisation. If you felt that was the case, I apologise as that was not meant to be.

        That said, I would kindly ask you if next time (if there will be one) you could refrain from addressing me directly so many times in so short a text. Seeing my name repeated so often, I had the feeling you reply was an attack to me as a person rather than to what I wrote. I do understand this is not the case, but if you could avoid giving such impression it would be much appreciated.

        Thanks again