The way funding agencies allocate money is damaging scientific research [part 1 – prelude]

It’s not difficult to become disillusioned with academia after unsuccessfully spending a couple (and many more!) of years struggling to secure research funds from competitive grant calls. Many (good) scientists who become frustrated by the large amounts of time wasted and the extreme unfairness of the process end up leaving academia and research all together. This post series is an attempt to summarize the deficiencies of the system and propose (partial) solutions to the main problems. It should be mentioned that, despite being angry, bitter and cynical about the whole funding situation, I have ironically been kind of blessed by the gods of luck in terms of getting my proposals funded.

The bliss of the ignorant

When I finished my Physics degree in early 2009 the only option I had in mind was to become a scientist – it is what I loved (and still do) and the decision to pursue an academic career was very clear to me. The obvious step was to get a PhD. Through a series of coincidences and mostly by accident (as most things in life) I ended up getting a PhD student position in Ireland (the first and only one I interviewed for). My position was fully funded, and my PhD supervisor was very good at getting research money, so I lived blissfully for 4 years without worrying about where funding comes from and how to secure it, until I graduated as a doctor in 2013. This is the academic equivalent of leaving your parents’ home and finding a job to support yourself, after being provided for and spoiled during your entire youth.

First contact with reality

I had met my partner, who is Finnish, in Ireland already back in 2010, and so looking for postdoc positions in Finland, where also my partner would have an easier time finding a job, emerged as the obvious choice at the time. Through some connections I made right before graduating (and which eventually offered me a postdoc position which I still hold today) I was encouraged to apply for a postdoc scheme which funded 3-year research projects. At the time it looked like an interesting opportunity and I had not yet been slapped in the face by the gigantic and mean hand of Grant Application Rejection, so I decided to give it a go. I spent about a month doing background research, securing collaborators and in general putting together a nice research project on the topic of “discovery of new piezoelectric materials”. I was eventually shortlisted for a Skype interview, which went reasonably well. After that, my application was rejected. I felt the natural disappointment at the time, but after being told that only 1 in every 100 applications got funded I was led to believe I should feel good about having made it to the interviews, which roughly meant my application was among the top 10%.

Realization of the evil

It is only now that I recognize in this episode the presence of the two great evils of modern research funding allocation: the 10% random-sinkhole and the high pain-low gain syndrome. We will delve into the gore details of each great evil in successive posts. There is at least another evil besides the main two, which is the politics of funding. My first attempt at winning competitive funding also suffered from this issue, which can be very frustrating if one is in the dark, but can be understood and prepared for once one becomes familiar with the research environment and the culture of decision making of the agency involved. For instance, during my year of application, only Computer Science projects got funded, which means that I possibly had a worse than random chance to get my project into the winning pool, since it was in Physics.

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