Chasing the grant dragon

November 21, 1997

Are academics going GAGA (suffering from grant application gambling addiction) in their quest to escape drudgery, asks William J. Keenan

"Eleven 'goes' since July. Three hits - one bonanza and two small fry; eight misses but seven of these were near things." Not a spotty adolescent boasting of his scratch-card performance or a holidaymaker caught up in the euphoria of the bingo parlour, but a leading-edge internationally renowned scientist describing his record of attempts to secure research funding from the grant-awarding bodies. Are scientists and scholars falling victim to Grant Application Gambling Addiction (GAGA) in quest of the one big win that will release them from the drudgery of life at the teaching coal face? Is research grant bidding the respectable, responsible gamble, the intellectuals' lottery played for high career stakes?

Pathological repetitive behaviour and stigmatised habit formations that characterise harmful addictions in downtown betting shops, sleazy casinos and among obsessional lottery users are actively encouraged in higher education. The hunger to "score" a research grant becomes a central life preoccupation, straining every nerve and sinew to secure the next award fix without which a tolerable quality of academic life would be unthinkable. Hectic rounds of desperate and anti-social grant hunting come with increasing frequency. The anxious process of bragging, blagging and bulling to feed the grant-user habit kicks in again before the current high subsides. Induction into neurotic research gambling culture is part of becoming a bona fide grant user, a normal aspect of postgraduate socialisation. This now occurs earlier in the academic life cycle among undergraduate dissertation tutees as experienced adult pushers convert grant virgins into mature fixers with a voracious appetite for cash awards. Who knows what temptations to cut pure scientific method the new grant addicts suffer and what insider deals with syndicates of academic cronies transpire in the long, lonely, dark nights when scurrying round for the next grant rush?

Is the academic grant-head strung out on a cocktail of charitable and government awards to be pitied or admired? Is the downward slide of academic dignity associated with the unseemly scramble, cap in hand for handouts, too high a price just to keep a semblance of a research reputation afloat? Is gambling the careers of individuals' entire departments and the reputations of universities themselves on the relatively slim chance of a series of project-sustaining "lucky strikes" an acceptable way of life? Are the stakes here too high for a cash-strapped higher educational system investing more and more of its "takings" on the elusive grant dragon? Small pickings attract still more punters to the pitch with all the harsh and aggressive symptoms of a feeding frenzy such unintended consequences entail. As my colleague, Mark Griffiths, has shown in relation to "heart stoppers" in the privatised areas of youth scratch card and Internet "new addictions", the "just missed" or "near win" experience elicits the repeat response. But whereas such commercial enticement to frenetic, craving behaviour creates widespread moral panic, in higher education it is affirmed and celebrated by devotees in quest of the grant grail as part of a necessary neo-Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest.

In the public domain of academic grant gambling, such positive, if impecunious, feedback from the payers-out - the equivalent of two cherries and a banana - is decidedly "morish" as increased effort is expended in this gigantic exercise in operant conditioning. Being heroically short-listed, highly commended and otherwise "close" serves as an intermediate reinforcer validating the extra stake in the diseconomies of proliferating grant application specialisation (GAS): collegiality-destroying hierarchical differentiation between hyperactive ace grant gamblers, actual active researcher workers and teaching service drones; sweeteners for remote hands-off star-billed signatories; buying-in job lots of cut-price agency tutors leaving a trail of offload administration and student support work behind them; loss of subsidy as big grant-holders on campus hightail it for the golden uplands of premier division outfits. Twin pearl-handled Colt 45s and a star-spangled waistcoat she may not display, but when a research grant high roller sashays into the SCR toting a Greek gift grant award there is a hush of recognition sadly likely to exceed that for the research results themselves.

It is in the self-interests of the grant award dealers for whom a lengthening queue of hooked grant dependants sustains the vaunted bidder-winner ratios to actively encourage addictive gambling behaviour through the promotion of a "near miss" culture. For every "Dear John/Jean" letter that leaves a research council, charity or government agency "cooling the mark out", another trace of faint hopes surges through the veins of some research unit director chasing the dragon of further funding. Profiteers in this opaque system are not going to complain and losers are caught by the short hairs as there are few other pedlars on the block. Little wonder that every research gambler's dream is to secure friends at court, to have an inside track to the award barons and - the grant junkies' nirvana - to get on to the board of this or that fund -dispensing body.

If funders are transmuting into proposal consulting services, the rules of the game need to be clarified and reconstituted. As it stands, gamblers unlucky at table X simply move on with much the same multipurpose script to table Y, the grant gamblers' equivalent to the each-way bet. One thing that could help reduce grant addition frustration syndrome (GAFS) among serial losers on the great research roulette wheel would be a meet of the various research grant "families" (under the "godfathership" of, say, Richard Branson or the chair of the Tote) with the single purpose of carving out their respective intellectual territories which have become exceedingly blurred (as distinct from truly interdisciplinary) of late. As one academic "mob" muscles in on the patch of another, "good order is jeopardised" (as one of the Als - Pacino or Capone - put it).

Before any radical changes are made to the funding of academic research, it is essential that greater transparency be established in the complex network of relationships between the various institutional income streams - government and non-governmental - and their conduits to and fro between different research active players in and out of the universities fully mapped out. Only thus can the suspicion of a rigged game on an uneven playing surface be dealt with properly. The new universities and university colleges, in particular, need the reassurance that the grant-gambling game is based on equal access and scrupulously fair dealing, clear universal rules and strict even-handedness at every turn. Having made considerable effort, often against the odds, to equip themselves to enter the research ring in good faith, they deserve that much.

Meanwhile, the spasmodic bouts of irritability and the occasional eruptions of inexplicable laughter and seraphic smiling seen in the corridors between RAE rounds may well be the telltale signs of academics becoming seriously "GAGA". Or even more disturbing, perhaps, for academic life proper, withdrawal symptoms among those lured out of the research habit into post-Dearing cold turkey by the quick-fix promissory note of a Pounds 500 scholarship voucher.

William J. Keenan is senior lecturer in the sociology, crime and social research unit, department of social sciences, Nottingham Trent University.

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