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Making Research Funding More Efficient

By January 9, 2019No Comments

As scientific funding becomes increasingly scarce, professors in STEM fields spend more time in their offices writing grant applications: by one estimate, as much as one-fifth of their research time. That takes time and energy away from teaching students, training young researchers and making discoveries that boost our collective knowledge and well-being.

Two scientists believe that, with professors vying for such a small pool of funds, the grant-application process has become a competition not over who has the best ideas, but who is the best at writing grant applications. In a paper published Jan. 2 in the journal PLOS Biology, co-authors Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, and Kevin Gross, a professor of statistics at North Carolina State University, use the economic theory of contests to illustrate how this competitive system has made the pursuit of research funding inefficient and unsustainable. They show that alternative methods, such as a partial lottery to award grants, could help get professors back in the lab where they belong.

Funding thresholds for grant applications have tightened steadily since the 1970s. In 2003, only the top 20 percent of research project grant applications to the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases were funded. In 2013, the success rate had plummeted to 8 percent. Gross and Bergstrom argue that the funding pool has grown so small relative to the number of applicants that the nature of the grant-application process had changed.

“When agencies only fund the top 10 or 20 percent, they aren’t just separating bad ideas from good ideas,” said Bergstrom. “They’re also separating good from good.”