One way to improve grant success rates is to limit the number of applications

Sep 08 2011 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review

When we last discussed the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) they had just instituted a penalty box for unsuccessful applicants.

The EPSRC says that scientists will not be allowed to apply for research funding for 12 months if, in the past 2 years, they have had three or more proposals ranked in the bottom half of a funding prioritization list, and also have less than 25% of all their proposals funded in that time.[source]

I missed a followup in which they modified their stance, after about two months of complaints:

the EPSRC now says that the restriction will not come in until 1 April 2010 — giving scientists more time to change their grant-submission behaviour so that they do not fall under criteria defining repeated failure. And instead of being excluded outright, researchers will be allowed one application during the year.

and

The EPSRC is keeping a policy introduced on 1 April, to refuse uninvited resubmissions of failed proposals, which it says will cut 20% of applications submitted for review. The exclusion policy had been expected to cut a further 10%.

Now that we are over a year down the road from this policy change, how is it going? A blog entry from Nature News shows "success".

It worked. Applications are down from about 5,000 per year in the 2005-06 cycle to under 3,000 in the 2010-11 cycle. Success rates are up, despite a declining number of funded awards.

Of course, success rates are a poor picture of what has happened to science funding and the conduct of the science that will be supported. The tough questions start from here. Who has managed to secure funding? Who has been shelled out of the system? Have existing labs been scaled back...or lost altogether? Has this been at disparate cost to newly starting faculty, mid-career faculty or the geezertariat?

There are many questions to be answered. I do hope any additional funding agencies that may be eying those success rate curves with envy stop to look behind the curtain.

11 responses so far

  • Glfadkt says:

    I would be SOL if I fell under the jurisdiction of the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Because of my recent low success rate, I feel pressured to submit MORE grant proposals rather than fewer or none at all. The latter scenario would mean certain shutdown of my lab and job loss for my highly skilled and dedicated staff...

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yeah, there are definitely times when I would have (and may in the future) trigger(ed) this rule, were it in NIH land.

    the vicious cycle it would invoke in putting labs out of business would be intense, if you ask me. That's why I'd really like to see the followup from this particular funding body. I don't have any sort of grasp on how important this one is in the UK, whether their typical fundees have alternatives, etc..

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh and this all started with a post from Prof-like Substance

  • odyssey says:

    The recent changes to the NSF BIO directorates submission dates may well have the same effect - reducing submissions and subsequent increase in success rates. But will the potential deleterious effects for new investigators be worth it?

  • Eli Rabett says:

    NSF Chemistry is only going to cut the submission window from twice a year to once a year.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It's clear that agencies feel they have to do something to deal with the 1-2 punch of rising submission rates and falling (or flatline) funds. No one wants funding rates of 7%, but that's where we are at in many NSF panels. There is no good answer, only bad and worse. I think the approach by this UK agency is pretty brutal, even the softened version. But it depends on their reasoning. If the goal is to reduce the number of labs out there (as CPP has been saying that NIH is attempting to do), then this is an effective way to do it.

    The problem I have with both the EPSRC and NSF approaches is that they will, in all likelihood, affect new investigators disproportionately. One of the keys to getting funding in the door is getting feedback on your proposal from the agency (yes, colleagues can do this for you, but it's a poor proxy for the real thing). Feedback leads to improvement in both the science and the grantsmanship. Both of these "initiatives" are geared towards reducing submissions, which also equals reduced feedback. The NSF changes are also going to drastically cut collaborations.

    Hopefully someone at each agency is going to keep the right data and make it available so that we can evaluate whether these changes have the intended effect or just a result that happens to jive with the course measure of "funding rate improvement".

  • Eli Rabett says:

    In NIH and NASAville especially, lots of scientists get most of their salaries from grants and contracts. This impels them to submit lots of proposals and in the case of NASA, to nickel (5%) and dime (10%) their support from networks of awards.

    The increase in the number of grants that have to be gotten means there are multiply more proposals that have to be reviewed, and, from what Eli has seen, that the quality of the proposals has shrunk. This is somewhat different in NIHtown where an entire lab can be supported on a single R01 (another big difference is support of technicians) and it pays to hand craft each proposal rather than copy and paste.

    A major driver for the agencies is the cost in time and money of reviewing. Then, of course, once an award is decided on, the contracts have to be drawn up, approved by the cardinals and more. All this takes time and people, and the agencies are not allowed to hire more. Since more reviews are needed, more reviewers must be found. Since reviewers don't want to review a proposal a week, it gets harder to find reviewers, which means that agencies are going to pre-proposals reviewed in house to winnow the field, narrower proposal windows and limits on submission.

    What is being administered is professional birth control. If students can't be supported, they won't be trained and that means the population overhang will decrease. It will be painful

  • drugmonkey says:

    It isn't birth control, ER. Unless the Dickensian nightmare or Irish potato famine qualifies as such.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    That, is, of course, up to the parents. If folk insist on having mega-groups it will be famine for the kids. The fact is that the serious overproduction of PhDs is at the top places where the groups are huge.

  • Grumble says:

    The ultimate effect *will* be birth control. My institution has already reduced the number of graduate students admitted to its PhD programs by about 10% because it's clear the number of labs with sufficient funding to pay a student has become too small to justify a program as large as it's been.

    I doubt we're alone. I would be very surprised if graduate programs at my college and elsewhere don't cut admissions even further in coming years - and even more so as soft money faculty are simply thrown out when they can't get grants. As painful as it will be to the ones losing their labs and enduring the shattering of their lifelong dream to play scientist, that sort of birth control might, in the long run, be a good thing: fewer PhDs and fewer faculty means less competition for grant money, meaning that maybe the system will adjust itself back to normalcy in 20 years or so.

    But is it good for us, as a nation, to produce so many fewer trained scientists, especially when other nations (China, India come to mind) are investing heavily in science and science education?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Exactly ER. Parents choosing to stop reproducing is birthcontrol. The govt tightening the support network is social engineering but doesn't actually mandate a reduction in reproduction.

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