Under the diktat of paperwork

Funding from Europe has attracted a reputation for its bundles of form filling. So have we gone over to the dark-side with a ruinous mania of needless paperwork? Or is more accountability necessary and fair? In years gone by, scientists thrived on core funding handed out by their institution awarded directly by the State, but nowadays most have to raise funds by engaging into competitive funding tenders.

Accountability has a cost

Greater accountability and professionalization in science are needed in the view of Ralf Dahm, director of scientific management at the Institute of Molecular Biology in Mainz, Germany. “It is needed for institutions to compete in an increasingly global environment, for funding bodies to be able to identify the best proposals and ensure the projects are well run,” he says.

Other scientists agree. “Much of this originates from the wish to see more accountability and more evidence to support statements about the need/usefulness of spending” and “attempting to ensure quality and comparisons of quality globally,” comments Jeremy Frey, physical chemist at Southampton University, UK. Its not that previous practice was slack, but more was assumed and overall activity in universities was smaller, he says.

Often bureaucracy is a way of avoiding taking responsibility, counters Susan Greenfield, brain physiologist at the University of Oxford, UK, and former director of the London-based Royal Institution. Rather than making a decision, thereby dicing with attracting blame or making a gain, there is a tendency for people to play pass-the-parcel with responsibility. “It’s the mantra that you mustn’t get blamed for something if it goes wrong,” says Greenfield.

But there may also be a silver lining in putting thoughts to paper, say proponents. “Paperwork can be very painful, but having to sit down and think about what you want to do, why and how is also great to focus your ideas and thereby increase the likelihood that your project will work out,” Dahm argues. Perhaps it depends on personality or one’s views on what politic best suits a global research enterprise.

Room for serendipity

Some believe that accountability does not necessarily require as much paperwork as currently required. “People feel they must show everyone including the taxpayer that money is well spent and that means you are definitely going to get results. And in science you are not definitely going to get results. Things can come through serendipity and it is only by making mistakes that you really push the boundaries,” says Greenfield.

What constitutes the appearance of a more efficient, systematic approach does not necessarily guarantee results. “With everything so systematically evaluated, you feel much more bureaucratic yourself and more like an operative in some kind of industrial enterprise, rather than someone who could spend the morning brainstorming or following some crazy idea that might or might not pay off,” she says. Looking back to brilliant scientific discoveries, they often came from small institutions or serendipity. It very rarely comes out in an industrial way, she adds.

Remedies

Scientists concur that less paperwork is warranted in certain circumstances. Dahm argues for a tiered system, where funding bodies trust scientists with smaller, short-term projects: “The larger and longer-term a project becomes, it becomes more important to explain what is proposed and why it is significant, to justify the budget and monitor progress.” Another suggestion is that science managers could take away some of the paperwork. But others would be loath to hand over grant writing to someone else. They do not mind doing it, but would ask for just less pages. And fewer repetitions and endless forms of what appear to be the same line of questioning. Electronic forms seem to have exacerbated this illness.

Some of the foundations and trusts supporting science point the way forward, through simpler and less onerous evaluation systems. Greenfield cites the Dunhill Medical Trust’s positive attitude to serendipity, or chance discovery, in science. Dahm is impressed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its courage when awarding initial funding of $100,000 in its Grand Challenges in Global Health programme. This is awarded within four month of submission of a two-page proposal, with no preliminary data required.

Greater stress placed on face-to-face interviews, which would allow scientists answer questions and explain their thoughts, could be another option, according to Greenfield. Nothing replaces human judgement. It would be quicker too, she argues. But would this introduce a personality bias? Almost everyone agrees that two-step systems involving an initial short proposal are a positive development.

Part of the remedy could also come from technology and new ways of measuring scientists worth. “It is the duplication of information in slightly different formats that causes most annoyance, but things like DOI’s and the ability for systems to draw down the information they need from this is a great improvement,” says Frey, adding: “A wider appreciation of use and re-use of research and teaching outputs via less conventional means, such as altimetrics, is starting to come.”

Balancing act

Overall the need for accountability and a rise in bureaucracy is a balancing act. Those with the money want it well spent but they want their scientists doing science too. Scientists differ in their views and are swayed by career position, lifetime experiences and of course personality.

Why not have your say and let your views be known by commenting to EuroScientist through the dialogue box below. Let’s start the debate!

Featured image credit: Kasaa

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Anthony King

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Anthony King is a freelance science writer based in Dublin, Ireland. He has contributed news and feature articles to the Irish Times, and science magazines such as New Scientist, Cosmos Magazine, Discover, Chemistry & Industry and Chemistry World, as well as journals such as Cell, Nature and Science. He writes primarily about the biological and chemical sciences, but also has an interest in policy.
Anthony King

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One thought on “Under the diktat of paperwork”

  1. Oh, well written. I can back most, if not all the calls for improvement mentioned in this article. Incidentally, does H2020 have calls that aim at improving the EU research spending, e.g. from one FP period to another? Or is this done internally in the DG, while (undoubtedly) consulting, ah, experts?
    It is certain that some motivation for bureaucracy is cogent and clear and that we cannot do completely without paperwork. It is also clear that lower paperwork MIGHT open up the doors to unethical spending of public money, depending what rule is taken to simplify. But are we really not advanced enough to actually separate the good from the bad and to scrap the clearly disadvantageous??
    Take this as an appeal of a natural scientist to the social scientists… 😉 For me, one crucial lessons in education was that a small change in rules (there is no lower limit to insignificance: in English replacing ‘a’ with ‘the’ can be all it takes) can make a completely new system, where the “laws of nature” are completely different from the old. So, simplification is just a word: done in the wrong place it can do more harm than good.