Will the government fund my research?

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 10 August 2017 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

A government cheque issued by the Chinese Emperor to fund his war against the Taiping Rebellion.
Providing funds for suppressing the Heavenly Kingdom, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Sometimes, researchers are worried that their grant application will not be successful because it does not align with a particular ideology or a policy direction of the government of the day.

My researchers, perhaps more than most, have a right to be worried about government interference in research granting processes. Before the last election, the Opposition promised not to fund any more ‘frivolous’ research. One of my researchers was in the cross-hairs, with her project listed as something that they believed should ‘never have been funded’. Then they won the election – it’s enough to make a body nervous, dontcha know.

So, it comes as no surprise when artists, environmentalists, indigenous researchers, people working with refugees, with minority groups, with renewable energy or anyone examining government policy asks ‘Will the government fund my work?’

tl;dr – they will.

In the Australian funding system (and many other national funding systems), the funding agency makes recommendations to the government. There is a convention that the minister accepts the advice of the funding body and approves their recommendations. However, it doesn’t always work that way. As far as I am aware, at least two Australian ministers have refused to fund specific projects in the past. So, it isn’t unknown, but it is unusual.

Because I was concerned about our current government’s performance in this area, I looked at the last two rounds of the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowships. These are the most prestigious grants that Australia gives for non-medical research. In the last two rounds, the Australian Research Council has funded things that seem to be, on the face of it, at odds with existing government rhetoric.

I know that this isn’t a robust method of interrogating this problem. I don’t know who applied and I don’t know who was on the list given to the minister. It may say more about my naivety than how the system is actually working.

However, it still gives me comfort that my trust in the system is not completely misplaced. It gives me faith that my researchers – even the one singled out by the government when it was in opposition – can get a fair hearing for their application.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t problems with the research funding system in this country. There are big problems! My point is that the government isn’t likely to single out your research for approbation when they have so many other ways to mess with your research.

They can defund your discipline

The National Science Foundation in the USA recently released a report, The Value of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences to National Priorities. I don’t know their exact motivations, but I’m guessing that it has something to do with the fact that, in 2013, the US Government defunded political science research, except where it was ‘vital to national security or the economic interests of the country’. Having your whole discipline defunded must come as a bit of a shock.

This was political, and it was specific to that discipline. I suspect that it was also peculiar to America at this period of time (although it’s a problem that may spread).

In Australia, the national government has dismantled the national tertiary Learning and Teaching research funding scheme. While there may still be funding available for research on vocational education, there is no federal funding scheme (that I know of) for research into how universities teach, and how university students learn. The policy is clear – we don’t want to emphasise this type of research at this time.

They can discourage your type of research

More common are changes to government policy that ‘shift the goalposts’; they change the way that research funding is distributed, measured, or rewarded.

The Australian government has done this recently, as part of their research impact agenda. It has announced changes to the way that it will reward universities for doing research. They are introducing “new research funding arrangements for universities that broadly balance success in industry and other end-user engagement with research quality”.

This is different from getting rid of a particular scheme or funding agency. The government has said to universities, “We will give you more infrastructure funding if you do research with industry than if you do research with other academics”. It has said that in the one language that every university understands: money. It doesn’t matter that the difference may be only a few cents in the dollar. With enough dollars, that will add up to big bucks. So, Australian universities are now encouraging their staff to change to more applied, industry-focused research.

They can fund other research programs

In 2012, the Australian government created the Industrial Transformation Research Program. As I understand it, it didn’t establish this fund with new money – it took funds from an existing program to the new fund. That meant that the existing program was effectively cut in half, and changed from two funding rounds per year to one.

If the government creates a new funding scheme, then the money has to come from somewhere. That often means that an old funding scheme suffers. If your research suited the aims of that old scheme, then you might find yourself with fewer funds as a result.

They can fund less research overall

In the USA, the National Science Foundation is set to cut 11% from its budget. The USA is not alone in reducing the amount of federal government funding directed to research. This is common to many countries at the moment (I just happened to have the US figures handy).

When there is less money in the pot, funding organisation generally have two choices: fund fewer projects, or give less funding per project. Often they do both, so fewer people end up with less money.

They can kill you with kindness

Restricting funding isn’t the only way that they can mess with your research. Sometimes, they can give you too much money. In the 2000s in the USA, there was so much money (from government sources and elsewhere) being pushed into biotechnology that it created a bubble of PhD students. When the bubble popped, the effect was so severe that people coined the term Postdocalypse to describe the huge number of people looking for research jobs that just weren’t there.

I suspect that this is a funding problem that most researchers would love to face. It still represents a structural problem within the system overall, and had provided one discipline with ongoing issues. Also, those resources put into biotechnology didn’t come from nowhere – somebody else suffered a reduction in funding, I suspect.

They can hollow out the underlying structure

At the same time that your government might be fiddling with how they distribute funding and how they measure success, they are probably also deeply worried about the hollowing out of their national research system. Most countries have an ageing cohort of senior researchers, and a dearth of mid-career researchers. They are concerned that when the senior researchers stop researching, there won’t be enough experienced people to take up their mantle.

This isn’t only the government’s fault. They have created the economic and industrial conditions that have allowed this problem to emerge. Universities have actually made it happen by hiring more and more contingent workers – paid by the hour, often on despicable zero-hour contracts, with few rights and no security. It is a systemic problem that has reached epic proportions in some places, with no relief in sight.

In short, don’t worry about whether the government will fund your specific project or not. That’s not the problem you should be worrying about.

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