Forcing needless grant applications is a waste of public money

But journals’ open access fees are suddenly increasing researchers’ need for funding, says Adrian Furnham

August 4, 2021
Man creating trees out of bank notes as metaphor for not all research used requires public money
Source: Getty

At last, I have worked out what grants are for.

Like a huge number of academics, I have been deeply frustrated over the years by universities’ doublespeak about why they take grant money into consideration for appointments and promotions. I know that research requires money, sometimes a great deal. Some research is labour-intensive, and often this labour is highly specialised and, thus, very expensive. Other research necessitates sophisticated technical equipment or a lot of travel. And there are costs associated with offices, computers and data processing and storage.

Yet money isn’t everything. A friend of mine had on his wall the famous phrase attributed to the physicist Ernest Rutherford: “We have no money, so we have to think.” Moreover, some research, especially outside the sciences, needs little more than access to an electronic library. This was my situation throughout my career, and, as the most productive member of the department for two decades, I had, I thought, a good excuse not to submit myself to the drawn-out agony of grant application.

But the powers-that-be kept rattling my cage. So, in the absence of any answer to my repeated questions about why I needed grant income, I wrote a blog (it was not called a blog then) titled Taxpayers’ Value for Money. I suggested that there were various ways of measuring research output, and I chose citations as an example. I suggested that everyone be given a score calculated by dividing their total citations for papers published between years x to y by grant income achieved between years x and y minus three (the minus three to take account of the fact that it takes time for research to be done and for papers to be cited).

I then calculated this number for select members of the department: hugely successful and unsuccessful grant getters. You guessed it: there was a fairly large negative correlation between grant income and research success. Unwisely, I showed the blog to a few colleagues and it soon got into the hands of a very senior academic who regularly got grants of more than £1 million. You can imagine the outrage.

The backlash started with a few ad hominem attacks and proceeded to a demolition of my simple formula on the grounds that it was biased, inaccurate, misleading and altogether misguided. In response, I asked my critics for alternative measures of value for money in research. None were forthcoming.

I worked out decades ago how much I personally needed to keep my research show on the road (call it a “lab” if you are pretentious or a “cottage industry” if you are more honest). I offered various assistants with particular skills (such as data gathering or processing) an agreed rate of pay per assignment and/or co-authorship of the resulting paper. It gave a number of people a taste for research; some worked with me for over a decade and at least a dozen went on to do PhDs. A few are professors now.

The amount I needed varied between £10,000 and £20,000 a year. And having had some experience of grant applications, I decided that it was far better for me to do a spot of consulting to raise the cash. Some projects needed more money, so I did more consulting. And they fed off each other: more money led to more papers, which led to more and better paid consulting. A virtuous circle. As I got more established, I found that I could raise the money I needed in a week or two: less time than it takes to work up a grant application that, several months later, you are told was rated alpha star but wouldn’t be funded because they have run out of money.

This approach was not popular with the university administration, however. Why? The real reason is that they did not get to take a cut of my consulting income. They would have been contractually entitled to, of course, if I’d told them about it – but I didn’t. Grants, by contrast, are impossible to protect from the central office taxman, who typically takes about 40 per cent of what you bring in.

That is what grants are for, as far as the universities authorities are concerned. And I don’t actually have any problem with this except for their unwillingness to admit it. Some have a “bums-on-seats” model of primary income generation, others have the research model. But it still strikes me as a very inefficient use of resources if those with a genuine need for a grant have to go without one because my application has been funded even though most of the costs I claimed are invented.

All of that said, I have recently been hit with a sizeable new cost that I haven’t previously had to worry about: journal fees.

I recall a journal in my area started 30 years ago by an entrepreneurial New Zealander who said authors should share publication costs with publishers and demanded money. We were outraged. But now it is not only the “predatory” journals that take the pay-to-publish approach. There is raft of respected mainstream journals that have some preposterous processing charge of up to £3,000 per paper.

I do not want to enter the debate on open access except to acknowledge that it is the future. But I do question the author-pays version of it. It has meant that my research bill has gone up enormously. Covering it with consultancy is no longer so easy.

Things have got so bad that I have even thought of applying for a grant.

Adrian Furnham is an adjunct professor in psychology at the BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo and a former professor of psychology at UCL.


Print headline: Why force those who don’t need research grants to apply for them?

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Reader's comments (3)

I can only concur that as in many walks of life "cash is king" in HE these days. I have not been that successful in recent years in obtaining grants so am heading towards retirement as a Reader whilst seeing many others proceed to professor despite my better citation record and overall profile. It no longer bothers me much given my age but I am concerned for some younger colleagues since there does not seem to be any push from UKRI to measure the return on grants. The increasing open access charges are also an issue and you can bet your bottom dollar that some countries will not share their data in contrast to the virtue-signalling UK, where members of our ruthless self-centred profession suddenly express concern about the community at large.
Excellent. Let’s reform the REF so that grants are not double counted (Income and outputs). And maybe count research productivity. Small grants are way more productive in social science.
Excellent. Let’s reform the REF so that grants are not double counted (Income and outputs). And maybe count research productivity. Small grants are way more productive in social science.


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