Peter Lawrence's Kafka tale of research grant funding

By Grant Jacobs 30/09/2009

Recently a very readable perspective article Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research was published in the scientific journal, PLoS Biology (PLoS = Public Library of Science), by senior scientist Peter Lawrence FRS. (I mean senior in the sense of achievements, notwithstanding that his first publication was in 1965.) Peter’s concern at the state of the grant funding system no doubt stems from his move to Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology in 2006, after roughly 37 years working at the MRC LMB, based on the outskirts of Cambridge. (Disclosure: I was post-graduate student at the LMB.) As his article notes, he wrote his first grant application after 40 years as a scientist, which will startle many scientists on this forum!

Woven through this article is the story of a new principle investigator ‘K.’ who, like K. from Kafka’s The Castle, is eaten up by bureaucracy. For some (many?) scientists here, I am sure this story may have an all too familiar ring to it.

Key themes in Peter Lawrence’s article are how the system encourages dishonesty (of a specific sort) in grant applications, the gross inefficiency of the grant system and that this inefficiency by itself can damage, even destroy, careers.

I’m going to leave the first point (for now) and focus on the inefficiency of grant funding systems, a point can can be read as underlying some of the issues raised in some other articles I want to discuss later.

In policy-speak it seems that addressing this inefficiency translates to keeping “transaction and compliance costs to the minimum necessary” (see point 5 of New Zealand’s National Science Manifesto).

NZ’s grant funding process does try go some way towards addressing this and I’m aware that the funding agencies do take this issue seriously. For example, there is a trend towards short preliminary grant proposals, followed invitations to longer full applications for those who pass the initial screening.

Even with this in mind, substantial time is consumed applying for grants, most of which get rejected. I can once recall estimating that I’d spent about 20% of my time in one year trying to get a new grant. I’m sure others can tell similar stories.

So… should it be this way? Is this a “necessary evil” or would some other approach work better? What might work better? (It’s great getting a load of your chest whinging, but that doesn’t solve anything!)

A few starter thoughts for discussion:

Would there be more sense in giving a set number of people longer-term contracts, then assessing them every, say, 5 years on output? (I believe a number of research institutions are run this way, or at least were.)

Funding agencies want some sort of assurance or likelihood that the money will yield an outcome, a little like financial investors. While this is understandable from one point of view, is this appropriate? Does science research fall into too high a risk category (in the business or investors’ sense of the word ‘risk’) that trying to set a likelihood of an outcome is pointless, unless taken against the industry as a whole or some other large sector of the industry? Should granting agencies even be worrying about this?


1. Peter Lawrence PLoS Biology 7(9): e1000197 (2009) Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research

(Initially accessed on-line 15 September 2009; PDF copy downloaded 18th September 2009) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000197

The article is available for free download by anyone.

2. Franz Kafka The Castle; translated and with a preface by Mark Harman. ISBN:0805241183.

3. The National Science Panel (for individual contributors, see reference) The Science Manifesto: a plan for the recovery of New Zealand Science, available via a page on the Royal Society website (see links near top of their article). (Published April 2008; downloaded 17-Sept-2009).

[Updated to add ‘more’ line & error with book title.]

0 Responses to “Peter Lawrence's Kafka tale of research grant funding”

  • I’m mid-way through a PhD and I find this whole subject a bit terrifying. Working my way through undergrad I had no idea of the pressures academics face – being a grad student and committed to this career path its only now that I’m seeing the real situation for academics… a life of sitting behind a desk writing grants. That was NOT what I thought I was signing up for.
    On a different note – this whole approach that our science needs to be commercially profitable bothers me as well – for some of us, there are no possible ways to make money out of our reasearch – but does that make it any less worthwhile? I think more focus should be put on ways our research will help NZ save money – eg reducing disease burden costs, making productions systems more efficient etc. J

  • Thanks for highlighting this issue. Just a minor correction. As Lawrence explains in the Notes and References at the end of his article, K. is based on Kafka’s protagonist from The Castle, who, unlike the protagonist of The Trial, Joseph K., is not executed at the end, but then The Castle was an unfinished novel, so who knows what fate Kafka may have imagined for him.

  • lizag,

    Thanks for that. Interesting to hear that it’s an unfinished work. I know it’s no excuse, but the reason behind my inexcusable sloppiness was my browser was constantly crashing; I choose to rely on my faulty memory of what Peter wrote rather than face another re-boot! I’ve since tracked this issue to a faulty file system and am just about to do a complete wipe & re-install to address it. On that note, my apologies in advance if any comments get held up for a few hours while I resolve this.