German public funder trials first-come, first-served grant call

Approach will aid those who are already able to get ahead, critics warn

March 15, 2022
Source: Getty

A German funder’s decision to admit project proposals on a first-come, first-served basis has been criticised for favouring those already able to get ahead in a fiercely competitive sector, but those behind the call say they cannot fix the system.

The Foundation for Innovation in Higher Education Teaching, a public innovation body created by Germany’s federal and state governments, began operating last year. Among the first grant programmes it rolled out was an “open space” call, offering up to €625,000 (£524,000) for any innovative teaching-related project. As the foundation had the capacity to process only 600 applications, it chose to allocate funding to eligible applications on a first-come, first-served basis: intended to run from 18 January to 15 March this year, the 600-application limit was hit by 17 February.

“Our idea really was to find innovative people and to provide space for development,” said Evelyn Korn, the foundation’s director of science, explaining why it decided against limiting the number of applications from a single institution, a typical way to throttle applications. “Is it a reasonable assumption that we have a uniform distribution of innovative thought across all universities?”

The Volkswagen Foundation, Germany’s largest private research funder, pioneered the use of lotteries to help award some of its money in a bid to reduce the influence of unconscious bias and nepotism in peer review assessments, and reflecting growing concern over low success rates for competitive research funding.

Professor Korn said her foundation also discussed using a lottery to pick a subset of 600 applications to take to committee but decided that this would be a waste of unlucky applicants’ time. But they reckoned that those who could move fast might have the strongest ideas. “Our idea was that those who already have some skeleton of a proposal and can be pretty fast actually do have some quality in their backpack,” said Professor Korn.

Under the first-come, first-served approach, office staff conducted a basic eligibility check to ensure that documents were complete and correct, including a sound financing plan. But the relative merits of proposals were not assessed.

That approach has drawn the ire of those campaigning to make research a more stable and predictable career path in Germany. Kristin Eichhorn, a researcher at the University of Paderborn and one of three mid-career researchers who launched the #IchBinHanna campaign against academic precarity, said the first-come, first-served format “will just help people who are already privileged [and] who have time to work overnight”. Instead of selecting good proposals based on an existing seed of an idea, she said, it “probably leads to a whole lot of rushed work”.

It was “a very telling excuse”, she continued, that the publicly funded foundation did not have the resources to process the full volume of applications it could attract. “You can totally see how underfunded the whole system is,” Dr Eichhorn said.

While Professor Korn and Cornelia Raue, who sits on the foundation’s board, acknowledged that the approach could disadvantage those already struggling, such issues were too big for the funder to tackle, they argued. “We can’t heal the contradictions of the science system with a funding call. This is a challenge we couldn’t handle,” said Dr Raue.

The foundation said it was too early to know how the first-come, first-served format would affect the demographics of applicants, but that any disadvantage against early career academics would be considered when preparing for the next round.

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