What to do when applying for research grants is a waste of time for almost everybody

By Prof Adrian Barnett

Adrian Barnett Applying for Research Grants

Researchers have a dark sense of humour when it comes to research funding. One of my favourite sneers was from the ecologist Terry McGlynn who said, “instead of writing this grant, I should walk the whole country and get a penny from each person. Same amount of money, but less hassle.”

Applicants to last year’s early- and mid-career Medical Research Future Fund fellowships may be wishing that they had gone on a long walk rather sitting at their computers, with speculated success rates at under 5 per cent. Whatever the success rate turns out to be, it’s a fair bet that applying will have been a waste of time for most applicants. And it’s fair to warn applicants to the 2023 round that they may well be wasting their time.

Research grant success rates have been falling in Australia for decades, as researcher numbers grow and funding remains static in real terms. But they have rarely fallen below 10 per cent, and I can’t remember any national scheme with a success rate under 5 per cent.

Schemes with such low success rates have enormous opportunity costs. The MRFF scheme had around 600 applications, if 95 per cent were unsuccessful then that’s 570 unsuccessful applicants. Assuming these applicants spent around 30 days each on their proposal, then that’s 17 100 days of scientific time down the drain. This time is equivalent to over 65 one-year fellowships (assuming 260 working days per year), which is more than the 30 fellowships awarded. So this scheme may have cost more than it rewarded. And there is also the costs of the peer reviewers and the administrative costs of the institutions.

What can be done, apart from the obvious and much-repeated answer of dramatically increasing funding for research?

One option is to cancel the 2023 round and use that funding to award additional applicants from last year. That’s tough on those who were planning on applying in 2023, but given the massive amount of costs sunk into last year, it may be the best use of funds.

Another option is to greatly restrict the eligibility criteria. The scheme received so many applicants because it was suitable to so many researchers. Whilst it may provide a warm feeling to be rewarding all fields and career levels, you can only do this if you have the money to back it up. Additional restrictions will be tough on those researchers who are made ineligible, but with limited funding we must be cruel to be kind.

Such low success rates are cruel. I often think about this comment from an anonymous Australian researcher about funding;

“my family hates my profession. Not just my partner and children, but my parents and siblings. The insecurity despite the crushing hours is a soul destroying combination that is not sustainable.”

This MRFF scheme has been a crushing experience for many early- and mid-career researchers, especially as the bad news was delivered to them just before Christmas.

This article was originally published in Campus Morning Mail, February 2023