From where I sit - Conservative casting

February 2, 2012

There is currently a lively debate in Germany about the potentially dubious impact of applying for research funding through committees. One cynic summed this up as "having to go through a casting process to get money".

Funding from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, or DFG) and the European Research Council is now commonly awarded through committees. Unanimous decisions are required from groups of as many as 12 people. This puts pressure on committees and researchers, influencing funding approval in a manner that is (or can be) divorced from the merits of research.

Such group processes do have advantages: for example, they are more interdisciplinary and invite input from people of different ages. Robert Paul Konigs, head of the DFG's department of scientific affairs, has pointed out that ever more complex applications are increasingly difficult for individual assessors to cope with. Indeed, it is beneficial that "the chemist and the physicist can confer with one another", but in large groups all manner of dynamics prevail, some of them negative.

There are serious practical disadvantages associated with funding committees. For one thing, simply getting everyone together is a substantial logistical challenge.

The processes tend to become ritualised, with lavish tea and lunch breaks. Small talk sometimes overrides academic discussion.

Another criticism is that in groups (as opposed to individually), academics become more cautious and conservative. Thus, mediocrity may prevail over more daring proposals with the potential to advance knowledge. One organisational psychologist complained that the "Platzhirsche" ("territorial stags") dominate proceedings and ensure that their preferred projects get the money.

Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, research on these issues is under way. The Institute for Research Information and Quality Assurance (Institut fur Forschungsinformation und Qualitatssicherung, or iFQ) in Berlin has investigated group funding and confirmed some of these problems. For instance, it found evidence of substantial divergences between committee members' opinions before group debates and the final funding decisions. The iFQ's results are expected to be presented this year and should make for compelling reading.

Given these findings, presenting oneself and one's work in such a way as to appeal to committees may be more telling than the quality of the research itself. But clearly, projects should not be funded simply because they are "sold" better than more methodologically sound rivals.

Although the presence of one or more of the researchers at the committee stage can clarify the merits of a case, it inevitably opens up the process to presentation skills of various kinds.

There is also the problem of getting the message across to a group comprising specialists from different areas, so it can become difficult to find the right level at which to pitch applications.

Solving these problems is not easy, but there are ways and means. A good chairman can ensure that consensus is not based on power plays but rather on genuine dialogue.

Likewise, neutral "reporters" have been introduced into some of the processes. Their job is to stay out of the debate, merely observe and subsequently present an analysis of the process.

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