23 Oct 2012

Is funding a threat for critical science? Scientists spend more time applying for funding and reviewing applications while success rates decrease...

Not long ago we had a research review in which current challenges of science were also discussed. One of these was the necessity to gather funding. On the one hand, funding was seen as the only way to increase (or continue with) the number of researchers currently engaged. On the other hand, funding was also considered to be a threat for critical science. Or is the way in which the funding system is currently used the problem with its ever rising numbers of applications for decreasing budgets?

        Funding is often associated with research assignments with a narrow focus and short term perspective, paid by organizations that have related interests which may hinder critical research and not help much to build long-term expertise. Funding by EU or national academies offers more possibilities to build expertise over a number of years, investigate critically and contribute to problem solving in society. In that way funding and critical science can go together.

        However, currently almost all of the research needs competing for funding. The university budget includes less and less budget for research, so it has to be applied for. This development has been going on for some decades and resulted in a loss of academic freedom. Many researchers feel pressured by the competitive climate to get funding, all the rankings and counting publications in ranked journals. They cannot spend research time as they see fit. Society wants scientists to be accountable for how research budget is spent and this has led to a funding system that also has its problems. One problem is that there are few open calls and not all topics are ‘popular’ and gain attention this way.

        Another growing problem is that nowadays so many proposals are send in that the time invested in writing and reviewing the proposals grows out of proportion, while the chances of gaining funding have decreased, for example, to just 10 per cent. Thus, more time is invested in writing and reviewing proposals, which leaves less time available for research. Many proposals will not be implemented and just add to the bureaucracy. National academies should not give greater quota to universities that send in more proposals, and faculties could better focus on good applications, so success rate rather than high numbers of proposals.