The UK's great £19.5m lottery

July 21, 2006

Any idea how much cash is wasted in failed grant proposals? Tim Birkhead does, and suggests we could benefit from a lesson in falconry

The noble art of falconry involves manipulating the behaviour of predatory birds by controlling their food intake. Keep them hungry and they are keen to hunt. Overfeed them and they become fat and lazy; underfeed them and they waste away. Researchers are like falcons as they hunt for grants, something I first became aware of when I served as an assessor for a research institute whose lucky members did not have to compete for funding; they were simply given what they asked for. My naive expectation (and I presume that of the institute's directors) was that under such idyllic conditions researchers would be maximally creative and productive. The reality was that the quality and quantity of work these privileged people produced was no better overall than that of my colleagues who carried a hefty teaching load and had to compete for research grants. Being a little bit hungry is no bad thing: it gives researchers an edge.

That was a decade ago. Since then the situation in the UK has changed. Now there simply isn't enough money to go round, and too often top-quality projects fail to get funding. Many researchers are more than hungry; in some cases they are starving and in danger of wasting - literally - away. The effort involved in preparing and evaluating grant proposals is scandalous. In 2004-05, across all the research councils no fewer than 6,500 applicants' grant applications were rejected - or about 70 per cent. I reckon it takes about four weeks to write an application. At an average academic salary of about £36,000, this amounts to some £3,000 in time. Multiply that by 6,500 and you have £19.5 million wasted (not to mention the time spent evaluating those applications).

To add insult to injury, the spin-offs of this overly competitive system are demoralising. Many people I know who serve on research councils agree that the situation is in free fall and feel that who gets funding is a lottery. The research grant system is no longer a meritocracy but a randomocracy, and gives new meaning to the term "lottery funding". If the system amounts to little more than a lottery, why not make it one? But an efficient one. Allow anyone to submit an idea - one side of A4 - and draw names out of a hat. At the very least, this would avoid a vast waste of time and energy and allow academics to spend more time doing what they are supposed to be doing.

There's a better system, though. The Canadian model, in which researchers are funded not so much on what they intend to do but on their achievement in the recent past, seems to be a better overall system. Provided you pass a threshold of research quality (of which quantity is a component) and make a decent proposal, you get funding - and funding largely free from the bureaucratic strings of accountability and too much governance that further constrain UK science. As all researchers know, apart from funding, the main thing they need is freedom - freedom to swiftly switch direction in the light of new discoveries made by others or themselves. Important areas of research are often fast-moving, and researchers need the flexibility to respond to changes quickly. Most researchers who have been productive and creative in the past will continue to be so - provided they have the wherewithal to do so.

Falconers take great care of their charges and carefully monitor their condition, knowing that if they starve them or treat them unjustly they won't perform well and will not fly at all.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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