tisdag 19 mars 2013

Young faculty & research financing

Our vice-dean organizes regular "Young Faculty" meetings. Since it's the time of the year for writing applications to the Swedish Research Council's (VR) General Call, she organized a "project proposal writing workshop" three weeks ago that I attended.

I did hand in an application to VR last year, but to no avail. As part of the preparations for this workshop, we read the "testimony" of David Sands, professor of computer Science at Chalmers and chair of the VR Computer Science Panel 2011, 2012 and 2013. As part of the preparations for the workshop, I decided right before the workshop not to hand in an application to VR this year, but I still went to the workshop.

This text is not about that workshop though, but rather the add-on, follow-up lunch meeting one week later, where I discussed my experiences of preparing five research grant applications last spring and the conclusions I drew. To prepare for the lunch meeting, participants were asked to read two earlier blog posts of mine:

Do read them if you haven't already! I won't repeat what I have already written, but will rather touch upon a couple of conclusions that I drew last year but never wrote about at the time. The two blog posts above really should have been followed by a third blog post but that blog post never got written.

Conclusion 1:
I estimated that I had spent between/at least 200-300 hours working on/writing these five applications during the last (academic) year. In the last (and smallest) application, I asked for money to finance a pilot study (344 hours). That still becomes a lot of money since my time is expensive (calculations show that I (someone in my position) cost more than 700 SEK/hour when I apply for research money). My own price for my own time, i.e. the hit I take in my wallet (taxed salary) when I ask for a leave of absence is only 150 SEK/hour. An alternative to applying for money is thus to work less than 100% and do the research you really really want to do (but can't get financed) on the side. This opens up very sticky questions about the proletarianization of university teachers, but having to spend 200-300 hours of non-financed time writing research grant applications could also be discussed in the same terms, right? And it would be a hell of a lot more fun doing the research in question, rather than just writing about doing the research in questions...   Still, this is an issue I find very interesting, and I would want the local university teachers' union (SULF) to do a panel on the topic - perhaps I should get in touch with them and suggest so...?

Conclusion 2:
Any applicant should spend more time and effort thinking about the strategic level rather than just the tactical level of the application. An application could be excellent but still not get funded because 1) there are more excellent applications than there is money and 2) the excellence (or not) of the application in questions is also a function of who (what person) judges the excellence of the application. It's thus a good idea to try to find out as much as possible about the application process, about the criteria for evaluating the application, about the persons who will judge the application etc. Perhaps add a reference or two to people likely to evaluate the application since no one is immune to flattery... Perhaps there is a need for a co-applicant not because he or she has a huge amount to contribute to the project in question, but because that person('s CV) will "look good" and "fit" the application? I stop short of hiring a private detective to find out everything there is about the people likely to judge the application... :-) Although it doesn't really sit right recommending people to "waste" their time doing these "irrelevant" tasks (playing a meta-game of sorts), I still think this is a much better investment of 20 or 40 hours of time rather than yet-again polishing and already-polished application.

Conclusion 3:
The application process is in itself pretty bankrupt. I spent massive amounts of time together with my co-applicants writing these applications and truth be told, I couldn't get away with giving such poor feedback to my students on a seminar assignment as I got on the majority of the applications (i.e. no feedback at all except for the binary decision that I didn't get funding). That is unreasonable and it shows a remarkable lack of consideration for applicants' time and effort. There really should be some kind of balance (and respect) between the time applicants spend writing applications and the time and quality of the feedback they get in return. Was my application "close" or "far away" from getting funded and if so, why? Was there something missing or was some part in particular considered weak? I understand that the process of reviewing numerous applications is a drain on qualified researchers' time, but this then points at an inherent weakness of the current system. Perhaps research grant money should be allocated in some other way?

Conclusion 4
The grant application system is "overloaded" - there are just too many applications. There is thus a decreased or even negative marginal return of even more competition for limited research funds. A larger number of applications would mean less time to judge each application and an even lower proportion of applications getting funded - without any apparent gains at all in terms of quality. I here assume that even filtering away 75% of the applications, there will still remain a larger number of "excellent" applications than there is available funding. Chance as much as anything else will thus in the end determine who gets funding and who doesn't (much like at an employment interview where many applicants could manage the job). It would be interesting to know (to study?) how many hours or researchers' time the different grant agencies fund, how much they pay for administration of their funds and how many hours researchers (applicants) in total spend on writing applications. What is an acceptable tradeoff in terms of time and money? At what point would the system become absurd (i.e. agency X funds Y number of hours research every year, but applicants' together spend Y/2 (or 2Y) number of hours every year writing applications to the agency). Complexity costs, and those costs cannibalize whatever it is you really wanted to do in the first place (i.e. "worthwhile things" and good research). I believe this is a case of decreasing returns of increased complexity (á la Tainter). This line of reasoning supports conclusion 1 above; a viable alternative could be to decrease the time I officially work in order to be able to do some of the research I really want to do. That is the no-complexity, no-filled-out-forms (no-taxes-paid) "informal economy" solution (also used when taking care of ailing parents, exchanging services with your neighbor, baking cookies for the school sale, a grandmother taking care of an ill grandson (so dad can go to work) etc.).

To end this blog post about research financing, I found a suitable quote from Boltanski & Chiapello's hefty "The sprit of new capitalism". It's about winners and losers in modern society, but equally well fits this blog post about research grant applications:

"what we have is [...] winners and losers at the end of a series of tests which were largely invisible, barely specified, poorly supervised and far from stable."

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