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BureaucracyGrant fundingResearch on Research

The NHMRC have an unhealthy obsession with appearances

By July 29, 2015 No Comments



The NHMRC has rejected a Project Grant application because a header was in 13 point font rather than 14 point font. That’s a difference of a pixel or 0.2 mm. So around 38 days of hard work was discarded over the most minor technicality.

This must have been heart-breaking for the researchers. We know from our research that writing grant applications is the most stressful and least appealing part of a researcher’s life. To go through all that pain and see your potentially ground breaking ideas tossed aside because of a missing pixel is simply wrong and totally unscientific.

What’s worse was that the grant was sent for external review, wasting even more scientific time. Then there’s also the bureaucratic time of the poor person (or department) whose job it is to measure the fonts in every page of all 3,800 applications, although this may have just been an overzealous reviewer.

A difficult job made more difficult

Awarding millions of dollars of research funds to the best research is an incredibly difficult job, and the recent increase in competition and tumbling success rates have made it even harder. Many researchers are quick to complain about the system, especially when they are unsuccessful. The NHMRC often look like the bad guy, as they deliver the gut-wrenching news to a lot of very good projects and researchers.

But just because awarding funds is a difficult job that doesn’t mean it needs a difficult solution. Long and complicated forms that are full of rules and regulations make everyone’s job harder not easier. It also increases workload, and universities have to employ staff to check the forms and fonts.

A colleague once got a frantic e-mail from his university checking department on deadline day telling them that a font size was wrong and that the grant would not be submitted. The trouble is that getting into the online submission system (RGMS) on deadline day is about as easy as getting into the MCG on grand final day without a ticket. They stayed up till midnight and just got it submitted, and then got the grant.

Open canvas

Why not let researchers write whatever they want in any font they want on nine pages and simply submit that? If a researcher is foolish enough to use 10 mm margins and eight point font then all the better. That researcher has revealed themselves as someone who cannot present their work and probably does not deserve funding. Making everyone conform to a vanilla style will deliver lots of vanilla.

The focus should be on the content not on the appearance. That’s exactly what motivated Elsevier to switch to a “Your paper, your way” submission process for its journals, which has likely saved centuries of scientific time around the world, as we can all spend less time formatting citations and more time crafting our ideas.

Perhaps the motivation to exclude grants is because they do not then appear in the denominator of eligible grants, and hence the success rate, which was a record low 14.9% last year, will look slightly less horrific. The exclusion of this one grant will improve the success rate by just 0.003%, a tiny bureaucratic gain that cost a lot of scientific sweat.

Adrian Barnett