The funding ‘lottery’: how many grants should we be applying for?

By Siouxsie Wiles 04/11/2012

I’ve just read a great post on the blog Serious Piffle about grant funding. The post is inspired by a paper just out in Science about the performance of “poor” and “rich” players in a set of tailored computer games. The authors suggest their results demonstrate that poor players concentrate too much on the short term, to their own long term detriment.

‘Serious Piffle’ applied this thinking to academics applying for grants. When times are hard and success rates low, people will put in more applications to try to succeed. The upshot?

” …this paper suggests that scientists who regularly compete to secure funding (because they lack it) might concentrate excessively on obtaining grants, to the exclusion of other pressing needs, beyond the net gain of actually obtaining the grant.”

I feel I’ve been massively guilty of this since arriving in New Zealand in mid 2009. I came with a four year fellowship from the NZ Health Research Council (HRC) that pays my salary and a modest consumables budget. But no money for a technician or any studentship stipend. As I’ve not had a teaching profile until recently I’ve not been able to attract students so instead I’ve been writing grants to try and re-establish myself (I had a fairly successful start to being a PI in my two years as a lecturer at Imperial College London but left my post-docs and student behind to follow my husband home to his homeland..).

In the last three years I have written 48 funding applications, 20 in 2010, 8 in 2011 and 20 so far this year. These include travel grants, grants-in-aid (for consumables), internal university grants, applications to charities and societies to support my animations, as well as what my employer refers to as the ‘prestigious’ funders, Marsden and the HRC. Both the Mardsen and HRC are now two-stage applications and this year, I got thrown out at the first hurdle for both. The success rate for the Marsden biomedical (BMS) panel was apparently about 5% this year and I think the HRC is less than 8%.*

Last year I got through to the second round of the Marsden, got great reviews but didn’t make the cut. Instead of not doing the research, I’m getting imaginative. I’ve managed to get some internal funding to start the project (thanks to the Auckland Uni’s Faculty of Medical & Health Sciences, and the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery), and am supplementing this through crowdfunding with the fantastic SciFund Challenge, a donation link on the University’s web page, and encouraging my students to apply for whatever money they are eligible for. Last month we got lucky and John Boikov, who will soon be joining my lab to do a summer studentship and his Honours project, was awarded NZ$10,000 an AMP ‘Do your thing’ scholarship from Advice First. Excitingly, this whole project, which we are calling Evolution in Action, will be our first open science project. I hope to have the students blogging our results in real time by the new year.

So of my 48 applications, how have I done? Breaking it down by funding type I’ve found that so far I’ve been good at getting everything but the ‘prestigious’ grants! Travel grants = 90%, science communication grants = 67%, internal grants = 75% and external grants (but not Marsden/HRC) = 20%.

I must say I’m exhausted and feel like I really need to concentrate now on writing papers and doing some research and, to paraphrase ‘Serious Piffle’, stop worrying myself to death about money. Saying that, with my fellowship coming to an end in 8 months and no permanent job yet, what’s the chances I’ll find myself back on the funding treadmill come January?!

Reference: Shah, Mullainathan & Shafir (2012). Some Consequences of Having Too Little. Science 338:682-685, DOI: 10.1126/science.1222426

*As an aside, it is interesting to see the HRC experimenting with a new funding mechanism through it’s Explorer grants, NZ$150,000 for up to 2 years allocated essentially by lottery:

“All proposals that meet the eligibility criteria will be assessed for compatibility with the scheme’s intent; proposals won’t be scored or ranked. All proposals that are considered eligible and compatible will be considered equally eligible to receive funding, and a random process will be used to select the proposals to be offered funding.”

Surprise, surprise, I’m working on my application, as is every other biomed researcher in NZ I imagine!

0 Responses to “The funding ‘lottery’: how many grants should we be applying for?”

  • Buckets of empathy…. I hope you get the Explorer (annoying it won’t pay salaries of PIs so I’ve decided not to put the effort in and get another paper finished instead).
    (ps I’m too jaded to calc my success rate)

    • Thanks John. As they say they are going to give up to 3 Explorer’s, I imagine the success rate is going to be even lower than normal! Bizarrely it won’t pay PhD studentships either. Sadly it’s not enough to be able to employ a post-doc and also pay for comsumables either. If only they had made it 100K per year!

  • Nice blog Siouxsie. I also have buckets of empathy and admire the way you combine your science communication with your “real” science! Kia kaha!

  • First: whow, you have got some persistence! Second: persistence is the key to success. Good luck.