When more with less might just be possible

Stephen Moss has just written an excellent post on the impossibility of fulfilling the government’s platitude that we should ‘do more with less’ – good science requires a certain level of resources, in terms of equipment, consumables and personnel, and if you reduce them, your will inevitably get less. It’s impossible to argue with this logic, and I don’t intend to; generally, we’re all working just about as efficiently as we can. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other cogs in the great machine of science administration that are not as effective as they might be. This suggests that there are ways in which we might be able to make more from less. In particular, I’m thinking of the whole unwieldy process of applying for funding through the UK research councils. My main experience is with the NERC, but I gather things are similar with the other main councils. Now, any post moaning about science funding has to tread a fine line between legitimate gripes and sour grapes, so let me state at the outset that of course I understand that more grant proposals are submitted than will ever get funded, that success rates typically hover between 5 and 20%, that many of those which are unsuccessful fall well within the ‘fundable’ bracket in terms of quality, and that one should expect disappointment when submitting an application. This is not a whinge about not getting funded. What comes below is rather a distillation of conversations I’ve had with numerous colleagues at differing career stages, and with varying levels of success in winning funding.

The gripe is more to do with the time involved in chasing these unlikely pots of money. As Bob highlighted recently, we tend to be obsessed with the question, ‘Am I wasting my time?’ In terms of writing grant applications, when you add up the amount of time potentially involved, this becomes a really serious question. At a rough estimate, writing a full standard grant proposal probably takes a month of more-or-less full time work (that’s in addition to having the idea, and following initial discussions with potential collaborators, any preliminary work, etc.). This will involve not only preparing a detailed science plan (generally 8 pages for NERC), but also calculating an exact budget, securing letters of support, writing an impact plan, and so on and on. Given that your typical academic will be expected by his or her employer to hit most deadlines, this adds up to perhaps 3 months in the year being dedicated to writing applications, at least 4 in 5 of which will not be funded, and perhaps 2-3 in 5 will not even reach external peer review.

This seems to me to be a colossal waste of time, both for those writing the applications, and for those who have to read and review the damn things. Given last year’s success in persuading the UK government that science is vital, the economics are also ludicrous: up to a quarter of the working life of UK scientists is spent on a fruitless activity. (As a cynical aside, the commonly-voiced belief that you generally only get a proposal funded if you’ve already done most of the work suggests that there’s a certain amount of wasted time involved even with a successful application.)

Two obvious routes seem open to reduce this wastage. First, reduce the amount of work involved with preparing an application. Does the council really need to know the minutiae of my proposed budget, experimental methods, and so on, in order to make an initial assessment of whether or not the core idea is a good one? I don’t think so, which is why I favour the idea of pre-proposals: a couple of pages with an outline of the question to be tackled, very brief methodology and a rough outline budget. You could get rid of 50-60% of proposals at this stage – which still wouldn’t be fair, but would massively reduce the amount of time required to produce a proposal whose fate is to be unfairly binned. Some organisations (e.g. the Leverhulme Trust) already use this system.

Second, reduce the number of submissions. Various means have been proposed to this end, perhaps most notoriously the EPSRC so-called blacklist, whereby researchers with a certain number of unsuccessful applications would be barred from applying for a set amount of time. I actually favour the opposite approach, whereby we have a full accounting of the time committed by academics to research projects, with a limit at perhaps 30% (which would equate to, say, being PI on one project, at 20% of your time, and Co-I on a couple more). There would be some flexibility, in case you were unexpectedly successful in concurrent schemes; but once you hit or exceed that limit, the (reasonable) assumption would be that you had insufficient time left to devote to any further projects, at least in a costed capacity. Such a scheme is quite common in organisations like government research institutes, but I’m not aware of it being prevalent in Universities at all.

Together, these measures would, I believe, allow academics to focus more intensively on a smaller number of projects, and would result in the quality (if not the quantity) of scientific output increasing. So with fewer resources, less would certainly get done; but with a few changes in how we chase the diminishing resources, it just might get done better.