We must free tomorrow’s scientific leaders from grant capture

The emphasis on bringing in money above all else is killing researchers’ passion for discovery, says Aymen Idris

十一月 9, 2022
Source: Alamy/iStock montage

Recently, there has been a debate on Twitter about whether it is really true that, as US court documents appeared to indicate, half of new trade books sell fewer than 12 copies. Was this, in fact, just a case of poor counting – or are academics genuinely far from alone in seeing all their hard work typically rewarded with minuscule readership?

The debate reminded me that, even among scientists, the exchange of frightening but dubious statistics is commonplace. The one I dislike the most is that a researcher must submit 10 grants to secure just one – because it feeds the so-called grant capture mill that is the bane of so many researchers’ lives.

With published success rates for most grant schemes well below one in three, it is true that most grant applications get rejected. Thus, universities encourage their academics to submit multiple applications. But this one-in-10 idea only makes them push harder. The problem is that grant capture threatens to become a full-time job in itself.

University-based researchers juggle writing grants with supervision, teaching, research and administrative tasks. But for any application to be competitive, you must formulate a scientific hypothesis and conduct a number of experiments to generate pilot data to support it. Even the most senior researchers struggle to test enough hypotheses to support several grant applications year in, year out. The situation is even more dire for early and mid-career researchers, who tend to run small teams on a limited budget. Nor does it help that funders all have different application procedures, requirements and forms.

So it is no surprise that most academics submit different versions of the same proposal to multiple funders. This strategy is at least unofficially supported by universities, and widely accepted by funding bodies, but it is flawed and hard to implement in practice for several reasons.

First, there are a limited number of relevant funding schemes available for any researcher, particularly as charity funders tend to specialise in narrow branches of science; in my field, for example, the majority fund research that focuses on a single disease.

Second, there are a limited number of funding calls per year. It takes funders time to review applications and notify applicants of the outcome, making it impractical to quickly recycle unsuccessful applications.

Third, it is too expensive for any researcher with a small team and/or limited research budget to generate a wide variety of data to support multiple applications. Researchers working on highly specialised fields establish collaborations across disciplines. Partnering with scientists who lead multidisciplinary, international research consortia has many benefits, of course. However, generating pilot data to support multidisciplinary grants requires even more time and resources.

Large collaborations can also disadvantage junior and mid-career scientists. Naturally, teams led by senior professors and based at prestigious universities tend to get the lion’s share of the acquired funding. They also dictate research directions and take the most prominent author positions in any resulting publications. In my experience, universities often underestimate or even ignore the impact of such network effects, but a recent study in Nature Communications clearly demonstrated that collaboration explains a large proportion of the productivity and prominence advantages of researchers at prestigious institutions.

Another important point is that establishing and cultivating a network of collaborators takes time and for some demographics, may require extra efforts. Here, too, there is evidence to suggest that collaboration across disciplines can be challenging for academics from minority groups.  

It is time for universities and scientists in leadership positions to recognise that submitting an endless number of rehashed, sexed-up grant applications is a waste of everyone’s valuable time. Moreover, it is just as much of an abuse of the scientific method as shoddy papers dressed up to catch editors’ eyes (and, thereby, boost chances of further grant funding) but that cannot subsequently be reproduced (on the rare occasions that someone has the time to try). It is much better to slow down and take the time to learn from rejections, generate solid pilot data, perfect hypotheses and hone grant-writing skills.

The consequence of the emphasis on grant capture above all else is that there is little room left for curiosity in science. Our passion for discovery is waning. Our research strategies are becoming disjointed. Our science is suffering – and so are we. In my experience, and from what l have learned from countless conversations with colleagues at all levels, conducting a diverse set of experiments, using different experimental models for multiple grant applications, disrupts the direction and focus of most research teams. I would go so far as to say that pursuing such a strategy can derail careers, particularly in early and mid-career.

In the post-Covid era, there is immense trust in science and respect for scientists. The public understands that it takes decades of hypothesis-driven research to make scientific discoveries. University managers must recognise that, too. We must free tomorrow’s scientific leaders from grant capture. We must give them the time to hone their talent and perfect their research ideas. We must teach them that taking endless shots while flying fast and blind is not the way to hit an arbitrarily imposed target.

Aymen Idris is senior lecturer in the department of oncology and metabolism at the University of Sheffield and founder and chairperson of the Africa in Science (AiS) thinktank.

On Thursday, Times Higher Education will be publishing the results of a major survey on work-life balance, which shows widespread dissatisfaction with current conditions.


Print headline: Grant capture must not restrain future leaders



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Reader's comments (1)

Sadly state owned Universities that are meant to be non-profit making are now run as big commercial conglomerates. It hurts, but money now rules and has become the tail that wags to dog.