This week, the journal Nature published a short article with the headline: “Funding: Australia’s grant system wastes time.” Here is a link for those with access. Scientific journals aren’t known for their sense of humor, but the understatement of the title is so extreme that it must be an attempt at a joke. From the article:
“We found that scientists in Australia spent more than five centuries’ worth of time preparing research-grant proposals for consideration by the largest funding scheme of 2012. Because just 20.5% of these applications were successful, the equivalent of some four centuries of effort returned no immediate benefit to researchers and wasted valuable research time.” (emphasis mine)
Having directly experienced the grant process here in America, I can attest that the Australian system is not an anomaly in its ability to waste time. You should also consider the unseen waste. In addition to the time spent the scientists writing the grants, other highly trained scientists then need to spend their time reading and evaluating the proposals. This adds even more scientist-time to the gruesome casualty list of the grant system.
One could argue that writing grants helps scientists to spread their ideas, and refine their communication abilities. However, in terms of these benefits, grants are far inferior peer-reviewed papers, blog posts, verbal presentations, or other ways that researchers share their ideas. Grant proposals are only seen by a few individuals and don’t become part of a larger body of knowledge. Additionally, the feedback to the writer in the grant system is far inferior to other communication methods.
Explanations written for a journal paper can be reused in a talk or subsequent papers. However, grants often require many components that cannot even be reused for subsequent grants, let alone useful applications. Specific budget proposals (that are just meticulous bits of hand waving which probably will change anyway) are one example of these non-reusable components.
This list of inefficiencies is far from complete, but the point is that the side benefits generated by writing grant proposals are tiny compared to the amount of time wasted.
Coincidentally, I recently had an excellent email exchange with Duke economist Mike Munger on this very problem. The same inefficiency issue caused by grants occurs in almost any case involving bidding for government money. He suggested some solutions that I found very intriguing and will discuss in a future post.
I believe that some of the few things that truly improve the human situation are scientific and technological innovations. If you agree with that sentiment, it is clear that the grant system wastes hundreds of thousands of arguably some of the most important man-hours in the world. If we could change the system, think of the time that could be spent actually producing results and changing lives (or just as productively, getting some sleep) rather than grinding out funding spreadsheets destined for a government filing cabinet.