Radical ideas required to cut research grant waste, funders told

New head of Science Europe says he hopes for experiments with grant lottery system and even a basic income for researchers

March 1, 2018
Lucky dip
Source: Alamy

Europe’s research funders should experiment with radically new ways of giving out money to academics, according to the new head of their continent-wide lobbying body.

As concerns rise over the amount of time researchers waste applying unsuccessfully for grants, Marc Schiltz, the president of Science Europe, has said that he would like to see trials of a universal basic income for researchers, and the giving out of money by lottery.

I very much would like funding organisations...to experiment with new and alternative schemes and then give feedback to others,” he told Times Higher Education.

The problem of wasted effort and low success rates is particularly acute at the flagship European Research Council (ERC), where the success rate in 2016 for advanced grants – the highest in value – stood at just 9.7 per cent.

The European University Association warned in 2016 that with each application costing an average of €50,000 (£44,000) to put together, the amount of money wasted amounted to about a quarter of the value of the grants dished out by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme – potentially costing the research system billions of euros.

Many applications are good enough to be funded but are rejected simply due to a lack of money. Last year, the EU gave more than 2,300 researchers, who were above the required quality threshold but nonetheless narrowly missed out, “seals of excellence” to help them win funding from national sources.

The ERC had become “heavily oversubscribed” and was a “victim of its own success” because it had become so prestigious, said Dr Schiltz.

But success rates at the UK’s research councils and funders such as the US National Institutes of Health are only marginally better than those at the ERC, which has driven some in the sector to radically rethink how to give out money.

One option mentioned by Dr Schiltz was a lottery scheme started in 2013 by the Health Research Council of New Zealand. Applications for explorer grants – aimed at supporting “revolutionary” research – are designed to be short and anonymous, and are distributed randomly – although only among the roughly 20 per cent of applicants who fulfil the necessary criteria. Random allocation is a “fair and transparent way to choose between equally qualified applicants”, the council’s chief executive has argued.

“It would be very interesting to find out about these experiences,” said Dr Schiltz.

Even more radical is a proposal put forward last year to simply give researchers a universal basic income in addition to their salaries, largely relieving them of the need to bid for funding altogether.

With this idea, all tenured faculty would receive a slice of competitive research funding – although they would have to club together if they wanted to carry out larger, more expensive projects.

Dr Schiltz said that he was not aware of this idea having been trialled anywhere before, but trying new ways to distribute grants was part of his larger agenda to reform academia to make it more attractive “for the most talented people”.

This was “hampered” by “legacies” in the science system that put younger people off, he said. “In a number of fields, excellent researchers are being hired away from universities to companies like Google.”

Universities “still have these linear career structures in mind” where you “go through the steps” before “a minority” eventually get a faculty position, he said, and added “that doesn’t make it very interesting for young people”.

Dr Schiltz, who is also executive head of the Luxembourg National Research Fund, acknowledged that he does not have any formal power to force members to trial new, less bureaucratic grant processes.

But he said that there was now a “strong drive” among Science Europe’s 43 members – which include the UK’s seven research councils and have a combined annual budget of about €18 billion – to strike out and try new approaches to fix problems within research.

In the past, the organisation had suffered from “seeking too much consensus” and waiting for all organisations to come on board, he said. But now, a handful “can take the lead” in trialling new ideas from which others can learn, he said, adding that he would “very much hope” that members – which include practically every major research funder in Europe – toy with new ways to distribute their money.


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