Time to take researchers’ emotions seriously!

How the conditions of grants shape researchers’ experiences

For too long, research funders may have taken scientists’ intrinsic motivation for granted, not  regarding it as their responsibility to consider emotions. However, reports on declining job satisfaction, mental health, and talent retention in universities are becoming increasingly common. Scholars of science systems warn us about growing numbers of alienated hired-hand researchers who have lost ‘their calling.’ Such negative emotions are not only undesirable for the individual, but also for the progress of science, because how scientists feel affects the research they do. Researching without passion is routinely assumed to infringe on its quality and novelty. As external funding directs ever more research, it is time for funders to take scientists’ emotions seriously.

The unsung potential of initiatives that replenish excitement in scientists became evident to us during a study of a new type of starting grant that demands risky and anonymized research proposals (double-blinded review): The Villum Experiment (VE). It was remarkable how different from most other available grants the 28 interviewed grantees experienced this grant to be. Although we asked them specifically about their experiences of doing their individual VE projects, they repeatedly juxtaposed them with mainstream grants. This juxtaposition reflected the interviewees’ strong feelings about grant conditions that had either impeded or supported their curiosity and creativity. The aspects of VE that excited them invoked the aspects of the mainstream grants that frustrated them. The interviewees were aware that not all grants can be like VE, since different types of grants serve different modes of science, but they certainly felt a deficiency of initiatives that replenish professional excitement – not least because it results in novel research. 

The following unfolds the mentioned juxtaposition between the experienced drawbacks of mainstream grants and the excitement-inspiring features of the VE grant.

Frustrated with the mainstream grants

Our interviewees felt that mainstream grants are conservative, as they require projects to either build on established fields of study or new areas which have promising preliminary results. While our interviewees are confident they have great ideas for novel projects, they say ‘we just did not have those two years of preceding work to get funding from the traditional agencies’ (male professor)​. They generally assess their chances of being funded as very low in cases of novel, risky ideas, and therefore often abstain from applying.

The interviewees were frustrated with how much importance is attributed to having the ‘right CV’. They believe that people with no experience in a given area sometimes have great ideas. They further see having a long and impressive CV in one specialized area as a potential obstacle, if researchers would like to branch out to a new research focus: ‘because you have to go out there and say “I want to do all of this, but I’ve never done any of it before.” The mainstream funders will never accept that, when the CV is such a big part of the equation’ (male professor)​.

The interviewees are also fed up with how mainstream grants often require detailed project plans and timelines that leave little room for ad hoc experimentation and creativity. Timelines and pre-specified milestones and deliverables reduce the researchers’ experiences of autonomy and scope for playfulness and fun. 

Finally, they felt that the need to form teams or consortia in advance makes the eventual research process less flexible due to promises and compromises made early on among diverse team members. It also created narrowly defined roles and often a hierarchical division of labor. Some senior interviewees were frustrated that when they get funded as ‘principal investigators’ (PIs) of a project, they become personnel managers, because the ‘actual’ scientific work is done by the postdocs they hire – and that is not why they became researchers. They miss getting their hands dirty in the lab. 

Excited about the Villum Experiment grant 

By contrast, the interviewees were very excited about the VE grant and their projects.

First of all, the Villum Foundation has designed a short template which delimits what the applicant should write. As such, an application takes a lot less work to complete compared with other grants. The focus of the application should be the merits of the idea, not the applicant, and there are no requirements to specify expected milestones or outcomes, which one interviewee celebrates as a relief from ‘the Gantt chart tyranny’ of other grants.

Being double-blinded, applicants can apply for funding on topics that they have not worked on before. This way, the VE grant can have an impact on the careers of the researchers it funds by opening up new avenues of research for them.

However, the biggest source of excitement comes from the projects themselves. The interviewees may have had their ideas stashed away in a drawer for years, because it was too risky to be funded by mainstream funders. Therefore, they are extremely grateful to the Villum Foundation and feel a strong ownership of their projects. They feel that the Villum Foundation has trusted them to try their hands at their ‘pet’ projects, therefore, they are deeply committed to the projects and appreciate the freedom afforded by the lax conditions of the grant to take risks and experiment. 

This is what the researchers appreciate mostly, they can be playful and creative, and they are tenacious in trying to make their experiments work. To the interviewees, this is what science is all about, which they articulate in emotional terms, for example: ‘Wow, right now I really feel as Ørsted must have felt’ (male associate professor).

Happy academics

Our interviewees’ contagious excitement convinced us that the VE grant was experienced as a genuine welcome escape from the everyday production line of big science. They felt a relief from persistent frustrations with the conservatism, focus on CVs, and rigid plans and roles of mainstream grants. The VE grant’s unusual conditions were experienced to replenish scientific excitement and that which initially led them to become scientists: Curiosity, exploration, and passion. The double-blinded review process and focus on unorthodox ideas freed them from self-promotion and the path-dependency of their previous work. These conditions enabled our interviewees to pursue quirky ideas or shift to new areas of study that they were passionate about, resulting in highly committed scientists and playful research processes.

It may be banal that scientists love an opportunity such as VE to explore a risky idea, but why is it then that the interviewees experience VE as so much of an exception, constantly juxtaposed with mainstream grants? We believe our findings illuminate the growing number of scientists who feel that their general funding and working conditions are unsatisfying, likely exacerbating the observed thrill of VE. If experimentation with new ideas was common-place in their everyday work lives, the thrill of VE would likely subside. Hence, the noteable relief and replenishment that the VE grantees experienced may inform us about the state of academia more broadly.

Therefore, to be or become ‘happy academics’ concerns more than winning a VE grant. A two-year respite, in which the recipients can imagine they are H.C. Ørsted, does not change the fundamental structures and working conditions of academia. This is why not only funders, but also policymakers and university leaders should take researchers’ emotions seriously. They should assume a level of frustration among their employees and consider how they can communicate and lead in ways that spark excitement.

Nonetheless, funding, and the generally restricting conditions of mainstream grants, is just one element affecting the declining work satisfaction and mental health of researchers. But funding can still be part of the solution. Alternative grants are already emerging in the Danish funding landscape. Since the launch of VE, other grants have appeared that diverge from mainstream options, applying different forms of anonymization, lottery, and/or golden tickets (e.g., Novo Nordisk Foundation and Lundbeck Foundation). While the lax conditions of VE were a key factor in fostering autonomy and flexibility, and through these excitement, conditions of these new grants may differ. Nevertheless, new grant types may provide relief simply by being different to the majority of funding options. Therefore, the solution probably is not to replicate VE one-to-one, because there rarely exists one simple solution to complex problems.

Still, it will be interesting to see what conditions other funders pose, and how these new emerging grants fare over time in fostering not only scientific breakthroughs but, especially, happy academics. Because, we believe that happy academics ought to be a success criteria and scientific outcome equivalent to ‘excellence’ and publications in elite journals.

Read more about this here.

Authors: Andreas Kjær Stage & Ea Høg Utoft

Andreas Kjær Stage is a postdoctoral researcher, Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, Denmark. His scholarly interests revolve around the governance, organization, and management of HEIs, specifically in terms of staffing, funding, and formalizing the widening range of activities taking place within academia.

Dr. Ea Høg Utoft is a postdoc from Aarhus University (DK), but soon-to-be assistant professor of gender and diversity at the Department of Anthropology and Development Studies, at Radboud University (NL). Ea has a background in languages, organisations and Human Resource Management. Her research covers systemic inequalities in knowledge-intensive organisations including universities, and gender dynamics in knowledge-production.

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