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.
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