Dr Ksenia Sawczak is the Director of the Research Services Office at the University of Canberra. She has extensive government and higher education sector experience, having held positions in academia, research policy development and implementation, and research management. This includes positions at the Australian Research Council and various universities in Australia and overseas.
This article builds on a presentation that she gave at the ARC/NHMRC Research Administrators’ Seminar in November 2013.
There is nothing like the Grants Season to bring out the eternal optimist in each of us. Could this be my year? Will I finally get my hands on the holy grail of the Australian funding world – an ARC Discovery Project grant? Will my brilliant idea be accepted at long last? And so begins a period of tremendous hope and stress for the researcher who, against a backdrop of the looming commencement of teaching responsibilities, struggles through the arduous task of preparing their grant application, often without a clue as to whether it will be worth the effort.
Why are grants so important? What would possibly drive time-poor researchers to spend huge chunks of their time, year after year, to seek funding from agencies which are often out of their league? In most institutions, researchers operate in stressful and confusing environments where they are strongly pressured to apply for research funding – sometimes regardless of whether they actually need money to do their research – and to seek out funding sources (that are often out of their reach) for reasons such as prestige, the need to demonstrate research endeavour, and performance review where grants applied for are one measure by which activity is evaluated.
But given the effort required to prepare a grant application, this doesn’t answer the question of what would possess researchers to seek a source of funding, unless there were some possibility of success. Chances are they do not know that they are out of their league or, more likely, that there are alternative sources of funding that may be more suitable for them at this point in their careers. Either way, there needs to be a shift in research management whereby academics are better informed of their likely competitiveness and universities are better positioned to lift their success rates through a strategic approach to grant submissions.
Every university wants to increase its slice of competitive research funding but submitting more applications year after year without consideration of their likely competitiveness is foolhardy. Who wants to be known as the university with a 5% success rate? In addition, this tactic of ‘submission overload’ does nothing to assist funding bodies such as the Australian Research Council. They receive close to 4,000 proposals each round for the popular Discovery Projects scheme, only 20% of which will ultimately be funded. Indeed, any university that has success rates below the scheme average needs to urgently rethink what applications are going forward. In other words, they need to cull.
What is culling and who should do it? Culling is about selectivity, namely picking from a mass what should be put forward. It is not about cutting researchers’ chances to compete for funding. Quite the contrary, it is about ensuring that they are better placed to attain funding by focussing efforts strategically through a balanced consideration of likely competitiveness and appropriate sources of funding. In other words, it is about ensuring researchers do not waste their precious time in preparing applications that have no chance of success.
The question of competitiveness is central to the act of culling. Identifying competitiveness requires a strong understanding of funding scheme selection criteria and familiarity with the characteristics of successful proposals. In the case of Discovery Projects, where the criterion for research track record is a whopping 40%, it goes without saying that no project, no matter how innovative or ingenious in design, is likely to be funded if the research team is weak. Hence, researchers who are still developing their track records should be given honest advice at an early stage that they should seek alternative sources of funding for their research projects, or wait until they are strong enough to compete in the Australian Research Council world.
In the case of my workplace, culling has been an accepted practice for two years now, during which time the success rate for Discovery Projects has increased from a little over 9% (2010) to 27% (2012). In addition, the number of ‘near misses’ has increased, indicating that the quality of proposals which the University is now submitting is much improved compared to previous years.
Introducing culling is not without its challenges. On the one hand, the university that will be hosting and administering the grant is in its rights to decide what should be submitted, as it is the university that is the applicant, not the researcher. On the other hand, recommendations regarding the lot of grant applications need to be justified and come from a credible source of authority. Tactics for doing so could include recruiting experienced researchers, such as ex-College of Expert members, to review grant applications. This is particularly advantageous for medium to large-sized, research-intensive universities which, from within their own academic ranks, are likely to find suitable reviewers, but challenging for smaller institutions which rely on the goodwill of externals to assist. Research Office personnel are also well-placed to assist in the process, although researchers will sometimes doubt the opinion of non-academic staff. This is a shame, because experienced research managers who have spent years reading grant applications are usually highly knowledgeable on the traits of a successful proposal, and well-placed to provide robust advice on competitiveness.
Nowadays academics and research management staff operate in highly-charged environments characterised by fierce rivalry for competitive funding, which is at once a source of support for research projects, but also a marker of prestige upon which the reputation of a university hinges. The challenge lies in being realistic in what is attainable and ensuring efforts are not wasted in this pursuit. After all, no one has time to squander, and culling could be an act of supreme kindness for the time-poor researcher.