I don’t need money to do research

Photo by Zack | www.flickr.com/photos/zackschwartz
Photo by Zack | http://www.flickr.com/photos/zackschwartz

There are some fields in academia that don’t need funding for research to happen.

Sure, I know no research is ‘free’ to produce and share – there’s the salary of the researchers, organisational infrastructure (e.g. tech, desk-space), libraries, and the costs of presenting at conferences for a start.

But to do the research itself doesn’t always need a lot of money.

It may need just a little bit of money or, sometimes, none at all. It does always need time, and that’s the commodity that’s probably in shortest supply.

I come from a humanities (specifically, literary studies) background. My PhD research could have all happened through me finding the time to sit and do a metric tonne of reading and synthesising of materials that I access through my university library and on the internet. I can do my literary studies research and writing without needing to talk to a single other person or having to travel.

It’s not just the humanities. There are many other fields of research where buckets of cash are not what it takes to make the work happen.

I know it’s the kind of thing you’re not meant to say. I have been publicly shamed for saying it in work meetings in other professional incarnations. When colleagues have talked about it, they get shushed – sometimes seriously – because naming such a situation runs counter to the dizzy fiesta of funding that our institutions and research sector crave.

I had the opportunity recently to pose the question about ‘what if you don’t need money to do research?’ to an extremely well-experienced, policy-savvy, down-to-earth professor. He acknowledged that there were areas that could indeed carry out their research without having infusions of funding. He also acknowledged that it would be folly to bang on about this if line supervisors or those for whom research funding levels are a KPI are within ear-shot.

Then he said something that I’ve been sitting with ever since. He said that the attitude of declaring that you don’t need funding could be indicative of a failure of the imagination. Maybe you can’t think of a research project of a scale and complexity that needs funding to happen.

This was a challenging thought. I’ll need to talk to a few academic buddies about this. Humanities researchers are too used to accepting crumbs from the funding table, and making an absolute feast of it, so maybe it is a case of not knowing how amazing projects could be. That said, it’s not like I don’t know how to write things up so a project spends money but is it necessary, for the good of the research, and in the spirit of furthering a field? It could be. But it could also be a very shiny, trendy taco of multi-site, multimedia, multi-nation amplification of the project with a raft of partners that looks great and will make a big splash but…yeah.

In our current academic world, you cannot say you don’t need money for research. You can’t say it because it’s a career-limiting move. Because, if you say that, it means you don’t intend to apply for funding and funding is now a heavily calculated part of our academic lives. It’s a promotion benchmark – ‘Level C academics in X discipline are expected to bring in Y amount of funding each year’. What? You’re producing more than your benchmarked number of publications, presenting at conferences, collaborating with partners and colleagues across the world, doing public engagement to within an inch of your life? But you don’t have any grants? BAH-BOW!

What if you need a bit of funding, but it’s nowhere near the amount that’s necessary to make a major research project grant eligible? What if you are the one who has to do the work and you can’t (or may not want to) delegate to a stable of postdocs, research assistants, or PhD students because this may compromise the work?

This latter point, especially, is another contentious one in our age of grantseeking and collaboration. Research team collaboration and co-authoring is absolutely the new normal, and there are many benefits to be had from these contexts. But not if it’s at the expense of all else. Not if it’s compulsory.

Some institutions try counter the ‘I don’t need research money; I just need time’ attitude by declaring that grants can buy you time. Sometimes, yes. Often, no. Many grants don’t allow buying yourself out of teaching or other duties.

If you don’t apply for grants, you are seen as a lesser researcher. You may as well leave now. Or so it can often feel.

If you don’t research and publish with others, you are seen as hide-bound, socially challenged, and/or naive.

Is this yet another instance of metrics skewing academic endeavour and scholars finding that we’re losing the point of why we do research?

The very jaundiced part of me thinks that universities often don’t see the point of their people doing research that doesn’t need money because it means you can’t boast about the megadollars that are coming into your university from Prestigious Funding Body. What if your researcher is publishing top-shelf books, has a fabulous international reputation, gets invited everywhere, and doesn’t apply for major funding because they don’t need to? This is not an impossible thing, nor an improbable thing.

I know I’m talking about a relatively small slice of the academic world who can – and want to – do their work with minimal funding and just need the time. But they’re a part of our university systems and research sector, too. They’re there as good colleagues, supervisors and mentors, productive researchers, and contributors to new knowledge. They just don’t need to apply for grants for the sake of it.


  1. Dear Tseen, nice piece.
    It is challenging and touches issues which I have faced through my career since I finished my Masters in 2001.

    I don’t think that such thing exists as research without funding. Maybe the meaning of “funding” is where I do not share your point of view.

    I am a person with a PhD and I have worked inside and outside academia.
    I believe that like me, there others for whom Research is the way how we function in our lives. And we constantly apply research to assess situations. Now a different question is if sharing our assessments can support a way of living, supporting the project of having a family, paying bills and those things.

    In 2003 I applied for a PhD position just because it was an opportunity to be involved in a project with financial stability when compared with other options at the time. I didn´t have aspirations following a scientific path since I wasn´t a good student in my undergraduate years but I discovered that being free to follow my guts doing research through my PhD suited me and was worth of consideration for those in my field. So I discovered that sharing my personal analytical instinct played in my favour and performing research become a professional option as part of a “sustainable activity”.

    Does this mean that any capacity to perform research is linked to funding in academia?

    In the world of academia I found a sense of “untold” rules set under “unofficial” standards which drive the behaviour of many and tame the wildest and rawest of the spirits. Instead of finding in academia the space where it is rewarded the attitude promoting curiosity and imagination, the lack of autonomy in the research sector it has made it totally dependent on following external directives in order to perpetuate its own existence and survival. At the cost of overriding any “visceral” instinct following a path in research driven by the guts of knowing that it is worthy to do it. In the current times, Einstein would not have any funding based on the lack of experimental results unless his research would be applied to build weapons, again…

    Doing research with or without “funding” has become a situation which questions the mere meaning of what “funding” and “research” are. But moreover, it brings to the table the question of what researchers are aimed for, simultaneously, as social members of a community and professionally.

    Any person can perform research without economic and institutional support because its capacity to produce does not disappear. But, it becomes a huge restriction to become a functional member of a community engaging socially.

    Energy and time are not renewable sources without support.
    Science, scientists, researchers, policy-makers, and the rest of society. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla) November 28, 2013


    • Thanks, Diego, for sharing your thoughts on this here. You bring up some very interesting points about the nature of research and what is necessary to its processes. There have been several studies that point to the conservatism of research that is likely to be funded, therefore work that is enabled is not the most ‘wild frontier’ kinds of research. And, yes, it does draw us into considering what is the overall point of the research we do. It should not be about meeting a relatively arbitrary set of metrics.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello, this is phiona.Am requesting some help in writing my research concept paper.Am in Uganda, and my topic is the socio economic impacts of cassava brown streak virus on farmers in kasese district in Uganda


    • Hello phiona

      I’m afraid that we can’t give individual help. You will need to talk to someone at your university about this.



  3. Hi Tseen,
    Great piece – have been working through this issue in developing a new uni-wide research productivity index. Lots of battles around the grant funding issues:
    1. Should research funding be seen as an output or an input to research?
    2. Just because universities need to increase research funding, doesn’t mean that individual researchers need big dollars to do their research.
    3. Huge difference in funding quantum’s between STEM and HASS – I get excited about a grant of $50k, my science colleagues wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $500k – so should the dollars be counted equally across different disciplines?
    4. Unis want to encourage successful grant applications, but want to discourage unsuccessful applications so won’t recognize the work that goes into unsuccessful grants – but how do you get successful applications without trying a few unsuccessful goes – even the most prolific grant writers have success rates around 1/10.
    5. The highest rpi points were allocated to commercialization of projects – again just because unis need alternative income sources, doesn’t mean that non-commercial projects aren’t important or valuable.

    So many issues to deal with!


    • These are indeed the sticky issues, Larissa – thanks for reading and commenting so insightfully. I think it’s the perpetual (tiring) tension between the structures and processes that judge the value of what we do via all these proxies, and the reality of what the work is (or can be) and its appropriate resourcing (namely with time and dependeable staffing). The lack of differentiation among areas and what they might need/want pretty stark these days. The dire success rates of grants these days (rates that are tanking even further, it appears) does ask the question even more urgently: why is this a compulsory part of the workload? If that energy were channelled elsewhere, what might we achieve?


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