Open discussion – funding people or projects, how to assess jobs or grants

By Grant Jacobs 30/06/2015

A busy twitter discussion on research funding has followed from The Conversation piece, Science funding should go to people not projects.

I’ve opened this short post for those that might want to try discussing in a medium more suited to longer remarks.


This is a huge topic, one of great concern with pressure from all directions.

Factors that might be considered include:

  • Career breaks – allow movement in/out of academic (v. ‘continuous career model’)
  • Different types of contributions, e.g. publications (and citations), grants, talks, students, mentoring, teaching, science communication roles, etc.
  • Diversity of staff (incl. approach to research)
  • Switching fields

Marguerite Galea ‏has suggested an eTrack record, a ‘report card’ of sorts. She also suggested writing software to help process these.

I’ll step back and let people offer their thoughts! If it’s your first time commenting here, I’ll have to approve your first comment; after that you can comment at will. I’ll stick around for a couple of hours, so you’ll get approved promptly — besides I want to see the leap second in!

Best to read The Conversation piece and the articles it links first, if you can, but plow anyway on if you haven’t time!

Other’s thoughts (available on-line)

I’ll try add related links at the end of this posts as this progresses, below:

‘Drugmonkey’ opposes Ronald Germain’s suggestions to fix the NIH (which The Conversation piece is based on), arguing that it would narrow who gets funded in a ‘locked-in’ way.


Michael Hendricks was asked by Ethan Perlstein for his views and offered them as a letter in Google Docs. (See tweet above.) Discussion followed his tweet.

Mel Thomson has created a Storify account of the twitter discussion that prompted this post. (I suggested blog comments might offer people a chance to elaborate on their tweeted ideas; that was ‘favourited’, which, at the time, I took to be an indication that setting up this would be useful.)

Other articles on Code for life:

From science PhD to careers outside academia: what might help?

Science PhD career preferences surveyed

Career paths, redux — the academic research career is the exception

On alternatives to academic careers and ’letting go’

Advice for students heading to university

Study of where academic careers lead

0 Responses to “Open discussion – funding people or projects, how to assess jobs or grants”

  • My experience is that while there is wide recognition—at least, now—that things should change, there are many different ideas of what might be done.

    At present there are many students who have aspirations of an academic career — far many more than academia in it’s current form can support.

    Similarly, there is a strong reliance on post-doctoral workers in most research laboratories.

    Breaks from an academic career can be very difficult to manage. (These will most often be parental, but could also be from serious illness, injury, time spend in commercial science, and so on.)

    My own views at the moment tend to follow from two main observations –

    – the ‘continuous career’ model academia has developed (and how grant assessment, etc., practices re-enforce this)

    – comparing with how businesses hire staff

      • James Ryall has written his thoughts from the twitter discussion, A quantitative analysis of track record?

        I should read his thoughts first (!), but just taking my leave from his title: during the twitter discussion I asked if a purely quantitative measure wouldn’t be just taking things back to metrics. I also expressed that I felt that three is a point past which metrics don’t distinguish different people well. This might be more applicable in the setting of job applications, but it partly stems from a point that statistics for one grant in NZ the second round of screening apparently added little and might as well have been a lottery. I also said that I thought scientists were often guilty of trying to quantitate everything! (Not always a good thing.)

  • Hi Grant,

    First off, thanks for collating a lot of the links above, its a great collection (really enjoyed the letter from Michael Hendricks). Also, thanks for the link to my post. Perhaps I need to retitle my post? The point I’m trying to make in the post is that maybe we could shift to a combination of quantitative and qualitative measures to assess track record. We could use quantitative measures to separate competitive versus uncompetitive investigators (If you score a 4 or below for track record on an NHMRC grant, it doesn’t really matter how good your idea is, you just won’t be competitive). We could also use a quantitative score for the initial ranking of grants, and then readjust scores as necessary and the GRP level.

    I am frustrated by the discrepancies in the scoring of track record by external reviewers, and the lack of a coherent way to apply ROPE to assessments.

    The Conversation piece yesterday, I think, illustrated the exact opposite of what we should be trying to do.

    • Loose thought (will reply properly when I’ve got dinner sorted and am less distracted!): you might want to expand on those Australian academic acronyms, e.g. what is ROPE. Ditto several in your post. (I can remember CIA coming up in the twitter discussion – expanding on these is actually one of the reasons I thought the blog might help!! – it’d give more space for people to explain stuff, including what those mysterious letters mean…)

  • I have advocated for People First, Projects Second approach for grants. My conviction that there is a current imbalance is for two reasons (i) projects funded for 1-3 years (typical) are unlikely to be completed within the time period let alone allow for exploration into “unexpected” areas. Science just doesn’t work well by constraining to short term projects. (ii) my personal experience, which I shall elaborate on.

    I had a 15 year break between post-doc (overseas) and an academic position. The first 4 years of so were entirely by choice to do some voluntary work. The next decade, in New Zealand, was because of the lack of available positions. I was fortunate enough to be able to develop another career in international education (mainly pastoral care) which had many rewards. Nevertheless, it was not my “first love.”

    I got back into academia with a two-year contract put together from industry funding and an HRC grant. I was fortunate that a Professor “took a gamble” on me because he wanted not just some academic skills but some “pastoral” skills to work with patients and staff. That was ~8 years ago.

    A few things that with a little thought by grant funding bodies and employers that could have helped the transition back into academia:
    (1) I found several grants excluded me because I was >~10 years post PhD (despite having only ~2 years post-doc academic work). The Marsden Fast-start was not one of those grants, and I was fortunate enough to obtain one. However, they changed the rules the next year, so others in a similar position would be excluded!
    (2) My first attempt at promotion was turned down because my prior academic work was discounted – hmmm.
    (3) I have been promoted a couple times since based on the success of my academic work (the last time a matter of a month before I was told I had run out of funds to be paid!). Promotions, though, are a double edged sword as they require raising more money. I know of someone who won’t apply for promotion because of this issue & the thought certainly crossed my mind.
    (4) For HRC and Marsden grants the killer is the overheads for the likes of myself. I have to compete against other academics whose salary is already covered because they have a teaching position, therefore any grant the bulk of $ must be my salary + >100% overheads. Others may put the equivalent $ to other aspects of research.

    I managed to last Full Time 6 years with multiple small grants and some “left over” money from group commercial activity. Just as I was promoted to Associate Professor I had to drop down to 0.2FTE with my university. That is the bad news. The good news is that thanks to the advocacy of someone who wanted me working with him and the vision and generosity of the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation, The Emergency Care Foundation, and the Canterbury District Health Board I now have a 5 year 0.8FTE fellowship (not before having no income for several months though). The general area of research & expectations are set out in the contract – not one specific project. This model is fantastic & one I’d like to see emulated. I’d like to see such fellowships in place with the likes of the HRC. The only additional factor to be added is that I’d like to see them to be renewable based on good performance (needs defining). Only in this way could we really say there is an academic career path for the researcher who is not also a lecturer.

  • “Qualitative measure” is an oxymoron! You cannot quantify quality, which is precisely why metrics are used. The situation is made worse by the fact that although a scientist peer might have a feel for “quality”, managers do not. They only understand numerical measures.

    • A workshop at University of Wisconsin–Madison has lend to another proposal (for biomedical research), published in eLife by Kimball and colleagues. This takes a wider view than “just” funding itself, in particular looking at the issue of too many people competing for the available funding. (Open Access)

        • Another related piece is Post-docs re-imagined, at Science magazine, which offers a range of people’s ideas:

          My thinking is that many problems with science careers come back to the ‘continuous career’ model, including:

          – the over-supply of those at the earlier stages of the academic career path (this, in turn, relates to how to train students, their expectations, and so on),

          – funding (e.g. the strong focus on publication records ‘locks-in’ an expectation of a continuous career); this impacts on what you elect to fund – people or projects and how you administer researchers’ careers,

          – ‘re-entry’ after career breaks (which dominantly affects women from parental breaks, but also affects those who have suffered serious illness or injury, or have elected to take a non-academic avenue for a time but now have projects or interests that are better tackled within an academic research setting, and so on)

          Anyway, more food for thought.