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Are lengthy grant applications ‘fair’?

In a previous post I looked at how long it takes to write for a major national grant and the strategies I use to get the application done to a decent standard.

In this post I’ll discuss specifically how the complex process of writing ARC grant applications can impact equity in scientific careers and individual career outcomes.

ARC grant applications are very complex, because there are a large number of sections you will be evaluated on. There’s project design, institutional support statement, budget, budget justification, industry partner support letters (for some grants), investigator career opportunities, investigator career impact, investigator citation metrics, … it goes on and on.

I can see how applications have become so complex. All the sections are there to make sure the assessors fairly consider all aspects of your project design and career track record. They are also there to make sure that spending of public money is well justified.

For instance, in an ARC you’ll write a ‘research opportunity performance evaluation’, where you can talk about your best research outcomes, but also how breaks in your career may have slowed you down.

How complexity becomes unfair

But all this complexity makes for a very lengthy and time consuming application, which I think then makes it an unfair process in a different way.

Across all of my applications I was employed full-time on a university position with time specifically allocated for grant writing. I had tenure for some of these application.

I have a young family, so my time outside of work hours is significantly constrained. This meant I had to be very organized. But I did have the luxury of a job that paid me to write grants.

Many early career researchers and researchers who are trying to return to science after a career break don’t have this luxury. This may mean they need to write the application on their own time, either because they’ve don’t have an academic job, or their present job doesn’t allow time for grant writing.

I’ve also seen the process suck the soul out of people. Here’s a common situation: a postdoc’s research contract is ending soon and their supervisor doesn’t have ongoing funding for their position. So they write for an early career fellowship.

But chances are the postdoc won’t win the grant (the overall success rate is about 15-20%) and the time invested in the application is time lost from chasing up other higher probability job opportunities.

The stress of this situation is amplified by uncertainty about when the grant will actually be announced.

So, if you are going to play a high stakes game, it’s a good idea to have a reliable plan B.

Is there another way?

Grant applications could be simplified. This would save researcher time (also often paid for by public money!) and make grant writing more accessible to those who are disadvantaged by not having sufficient time.

From what I’ve seen of the Discovery grant applications in Canada, they are far simpler than Australian Discovery grants.

This year a petition from ARC tracker was signed by hundreds of researchers. Some of the recommendations in the petition included simplifying the grant application process.

Of course, the simplification would have to be done carefully so that other types of bias aren’t amplified (like those relating to performance relative to career opportunity).

Another approach is to use ‘grant lotteries’, where funding is allocated randomly to a pool of grants that are deemed fundable. That way you can have a shorter application that has to tick off on some minimal standards. Then leave the rest to an unbiased lottery.

To sum up, as grant applications become increasingly complex, it increasingly favours people with the time and support networks to develop the application. This means good researchers with great ideas who don’t get the time will be at a disadvantage. That isn’t in the interest of high quality science.

Contact: Chris Brown

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