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

Advisor to the President at EuroScience
Peter Tindemans is well-known for his contributions to science, technology and innovation policy in the Netherlands, Europe and globally. A founding member of EuroScience, he sat many years on its Governing Board. He was as chair and member involved in ESOF Governance an Supervisory Committees and he has been EuroScience Secretary General from 2012 to May 2019. He is a director of the Hollandsche Maatschappij der Wetenschppen.
Peter Tindemans

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

  1. 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