The cost of lost academic dreams: A personal learning journey, peer review and research waste

Dr. Gemma Derrick reflects on her own personal experience of grant rejection.

When my last grant application was rejected, I cried. 

Academics miss out on funding more often than they succeed so really, what was the point of crying?  Why did I let it affect me so much? Shouldn’t I be used to this by now?

It wasn’t just that I had missed out on a grant – and that the competitive side of me hates missing out – but that the rejection of this opportunity also meant that the positions of the research fellows that I employed, and valued, were to suffer further precarity.  I felt for the people side of the loss.

I also felt the loss of an academic dream, the loss of the idea: a grant rejection meant that to keep this dream alive the same idea would again need to be repackaged, readjusted and shoe-horned into a future thematic call.

The idea had been excellent; of course I think that, but all external reviewers had also stated as such.  But by the time of the latest rejection, the idea had been regarded as excellent no less than 3 times, in 3 separate funding applications, having reached the final stage in each competitive round and each time coming within a hair’s width of being successful.  That is 6 distinct reviewers; experts in the field and my peers who all thought the proposal excellent and worthy of funding.  But as each of us know from personal experience of the peer review process, success in funding is not guaranteed solely on the proposal being labelled ‘excellent’.

I had also, over the previous 5 years, invested a lot of time, energy and intellectual head space towards developing this idea.  This involved the initial steps involved in constructing a new research questions and design, theoretically and conceptually framing it correctly, aligning it with developments in the academic literature and societal needs, attracting stakeholder partners, and planning its academic and wider dissemination through a complex dance of academic books, articles, blogs, policy reports and in-person performances.  This stage was essential just to convince the internal institutional powers-that-be to allow me to submit[1]

After this came the grant writing narrative supporting the idea that the project would revolutionise the field; fulfil the objectives of the call; needed to be funded urgently; the addition of necessarily spicy adjectives and academic buzz words (decorative); the negotiation of budgets (sometimes with external, non-academic partners), estimates of staff workloads, and then the struggle of writing it in the form, and character limits, required by the prospective funding agency.  This was all even before I pressed submit!

I was, obviously, exhausted of rewriting, rethinking and attempting to inspire anonymous reviewers of the idea’s academic and societal merits. In fact, I estimate that during the five years prior to this point I had submitted no less than 10 grant applications – with a fraction of those applications being successful.  Think of the amount of work described above times ten and then balanced with everything else an average academic has to do as part of their job – paid and unpaid, rewarded and unrewarded. 

Typically, an idea can only be submitted for consideration by the team to one funding agency at a time.  This means that in addition to any loss associated with the rejection of an excellent research project, comes a further delay of resubmission that can result in excellent ideas taking years to attract funding, potentially losing academic potency, urgency and therefore scientific and societal relevance as time passes.

So, yes, let’s talk about research waste, shall we? To date, my initial idea and research project remains unfunded, sitting ready to be picked up again when the (funding) opportunity arises. 

A lot goes into submitting a grant application.  In fact, studies estimated that the average grant application takes about 171 hours (116 PI hours and 55 CI hours) of work to complete and submit (von Hippel & von Hippel, 2015).  Another study estimated that preparing a new proposal took an average of 38 working days and resubmitted proposals taking 28 days (Herbert et al, 2013).  This is regardless of whether it even worthy of funding and successful or not.

However, can we estimate what is the cost of lost/delayed academic dreams?  Thousands of applicants miss out on funding every year; so, what is the cost to the system of these as yet, incomplete research ideas?  What is the personal cost, the cost to knowledge production, the cost of answers to societal problems that could have arisen if only these great ideas were funded initially? There is no counterfactual to this question of what might have been if all great ideas were funded.  There is a limited pot to go around and an endless number of eager academics with ‘great’ ideas, it is not feasible to fund all great ideas.  But since over a quarter of UK research conducted is unfunded (Edwards, 2020), the question remains what proportion of research simply does not go ahead because of a rejected grant application?

We may never know.

In spite of this, I don’t believe that a lottery approach to finding allocation is the answer, or that peer review should be replaced.  Despite peer review as a model operating in much the same way since the 1950s and in my view, its need for an overhaul, it still maintains a number of benefits that are not necessarily quantifiable or amenable to a simplified input-output approach.  Instead of remodeling it, we need to think about how we can have peer review work harder for applicants – not against them – so that academic ideas and dreams are not lost completely.  Together with the Wellcome Trust and Proposal Analytics, we are working to find out how we can alter the existing peer review system in a way that retains its organisational and political benefits, but yet reduces waste by adding value to the outcomes of peer review for the applicants.  Encouraging applicants to rethink, re-strategise then re-apply thus increasing the chances of academic ideas being funded, quicker.

My idea will eventually find a home – I am a research phoenix.  The number of knockbacks I have had in the past has granted me the ability to view this as a matter of faith rather than certainty.  Not all are in the same boat however[2], and it is these experiences from which we can learn the most about how our peer review system[3] serves our needs, and not the other way around.

By the way, I still have an excellent idea and research dream just waiting for funding if anybody is interested? 

Call me.


[1] In the UK many funding agencies require that potential grant applications undergo an internal selection process before being submitted.  This is to reduce waste, and the amount of applications to undergo the individual and group peer review process.  There is currently difficulty for funding agencies to attract sufficient reviewers per application which, for the large part, remain an unpaid academic ‘duty’.

[2] This is a matter of social justice in research and academic culture, of which I have spoken about before. In a way this is one motivation towards creating a system that works for everyone and not narrow associations of what ‘success’ looks like for research careers.

[3] I say “ours” because we all participate in it in one way or another eventually.


References

Edwards, R. (2020) Unfunded research: Why academics do it and its unvalued contribution to the impact agenda.  LSE Impact blog. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/08/13/unfunded-research-why-academics-do-it-and-its-unvalued-contribution-to-the-impact-agenda/

Herbert DL, Barnett AG, Clarke P, et al (2013) On the time spent preparing grant proposals: an observational study of Australian researchers. BMJ Open: 3:e002800. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002800

von Hippel T, von Hippel C (2015) To Apply or Not to Apply: A Survey Analysis of Grant Writing Costs and Benefits. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0118494. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118494


Published by Helen Greaves

Helen is currently completing her PhD research which aims to assess the value of pond management for biodiversity conservation. Her work focuses on macroinvertebrate community assemblages and water chemistry analysis. Helen acts as secretary and as a co-organiser of the Norfolk Ponds Project meetings and sits as a student member on the European Pond Conservation Network’s steering committee.

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