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The perils of applying for research funding

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Guest Author Perspective The perils of applying for research funding Monica Mastrantonio, PhD An image of a woman, Monica, in a purple sweater at right

Preface: Throughout 2022, we at scientifyRESEARCH, listened intently to the challenges researchers are faced with when applying for research funding. Time is wasted on research funding applications that are rejected – time that ultimately could be used to conduct research and find solutions to our world’s most pressing problems. We all agree that researchers’ time should be dedicated to achieving the UN SDGs and not sending funding applications into an abyss. There was a recent piece on The Scholarly Kitchen from Phill Jones: “Unnecessary Research Bureaucracy is Killing Academic Productivity, But it IS Fixable” if you’re interested to see some alarming numbers about “The perils of applying for research funding.” One researcher we spoke with recently, Dr. Monica Mastrantonio, shared her personal account of this situation and the many facets of research funding applications. Below is Monica’s perspective.

The challenge of applying for research funding

Applying for research funding can be difficult, time-consuming, and stressful, besides the fact that it has, now, become an increasingly competitive and demanding job. There are many challenges that an applicant needs to address to keep oneself competitive, and that is much beyond motivation.

Anyone can have the best research idea in the world, choose the appropriate methodology, outline clear objectives, develop convincing arguments, yet, without funding, none of these matter much. Securing research support and funding can be a very daunting, uncertain, and complex journey. An awesome and compelling research proposal is indeed an essential key to this process, but not only that. Without a road map of procedures, great ideas tend not to leave the paper. Lack of transparency, time management, difficulties in finding collaboration, and available training resources are some of the topics that I will address on the perils of applying to funds.  

Competition and rejection with research funding applications

Of course, everyone knows that a well-drafted proposal increases the chances of success dramatically, but no one speaks up how incredible projects are refuted every day. Usually, a well-crafted email arrives and reads like this, “Dear XVZ, the selection process for ZVX fellowships has now been completed. I am very sorry to inform you that the Scientific Advisory Board did not support your application so that we are unable to offer you a Fellowship at the ZVX. We had an unusually high number of applications this year, and with limited resources available at the institute, your proposal could not be considered. Although this will certainly be a disappointment, we hope that it does not discourage you from pursuing your work and wish you all the best for your future. Best regards, ZVY.”

As it can be seen in the letter above that I received after one application, no further data or meaningful explanation is given. I still have no idea about the total number of applicants, topics of funded projects, number of scholarships given, individual characteristics like ethnicity and religion of the applicants. Most funds set their own selection rules internally, and although manuals, regulations and deadlines are made public, there is no follow-up to the selection process. Candidates received no clue on how they could improve for next applications. The fact that no feed-back is provided leaves applicants without any knowledge about their chances of being successful. This shows the discrepancies of the whole system, from the lack of transparency in the selection process to the access of funded candidates [1].

A plea for transparency with research funding applications

The article ‘Research funders should be more transparent: a plea for open applications,’ from Horbach and Tijdink [2] clearly shows how different what one preaches is from one’s practice. Chawla [3] shows the success rate in Engineering and science is double the success rates in economic and social sciences, which again shows the discrepancies in the system. For Chawla [3], the unknown criteria and unconscious biases are at the base of the selection procedure and calls out to revamp the grant-funding process. If the success rate is taken and crossed with the time spent on applying, seventy to ninety percent of the researchers lose a year or two in the process, and without standing a chance.

 
Researchers’ time wasted

Adding to the lack of transparency, another difficulty that is rarely addressed is the time-length spent during the application process, and the long-time frames to receive the results. It can take from one to two months to develop a competitive proposal and apply, or even more. Nevertheless, it can take up to a year to receive the results of an application. No one counts that many things can change in a year. Besides that, the researcher will need to find a short-term job to survive until then, even though no one comments that it is hard to find such pocket activities in academia.  

Then, there are the ‘picky-notchy’ requirements. At one fund, there was a requirement to provide the acceptance letters of the published articles. Not only had I dropped from the selection, but I also requested they just click on the DOI link. There should be a limit between requirements and making the life of a researcher more complicated than it already is. Accepted articles do not issue a formal acceptance letter, they are peer-reviewed ones, and usually everything is done within a journal submission portal. The proof of a published article is the published article itself. And in case of accepted, not yet published, or under revision, there could be multi-criteria being considered.

Sometimes, funding schemes ask for recommendation letters to be sent directly to them. That is okay, although recommenders sometimes do not have all the availability to follow-up on a candidate application. There was one fund that required the recommenders to adopt a letter model that they had provided. This would demand that the recommender adapts the text to the fund requirement, which can also be tough. My honest opinion is these are trickery endeavours. These little stones inside one’s shoes will provide an excuse for someone not to receive the funding.

 
Collaboration requirements with research funding applications

On top of all that, collaboration has become a key factor to the application process. There are match-making platforms like Euraxess and MSCA, among others. This demands another level of involvement. There are interviews to be booked with multiple stakeholders, getting to know other scholars and researchers, and finding the right partners. Although time consuming, these activities can bring strong networking opportunities to a researcher, and further collaborations may arise. It is important that scientists leave their tables and desks and go into the world – interact with their fellow colleagues and interlocutors. This is an activity which I personally enjoy in the process, as I have met wonderful people. However, it can be challenging if the candidate is not so outgoing and social, or the recipient organisation has little experience with funding schemes.  

 
Balancing academic responsibilities

Also, more and more funds require some training in their own platform, and small specificities before application. This is the case of ERC and MSCA funds. Besides deep commitment and project training though videos, calls, and training sections, sometimes even 1:1 coaching and individual reviews are necessary. Another point I must state is the difficulty in coping with semester activities, while preparing an application. Apart from stress and tiredness, it is important to keep up health and not succumb in case of rejection. Another strategy I have adopted is to ask funded candidates to review my proposal and make comments on how to improve it. This has been extremely helpful in making the project crystal clear and addressing critics.

 
Navigating the research funding pre-selection process

Another issue that is rarely addressed is the pre-selection process that many funders installed. To be considered, affiliation and eligible criteria are firstly screened by a local committee. If the candidate passes it, hints and directions on the application platform will be provided. Therefore, I surely recommend looking up the email in the call and asking for elucidation on the application process. In this case, although the funding portals are relatively open to anyone wishing to apply, only pre-screened eligible candidates will be considered. Well worth reaching out. 

Work-life balance and improving the evaluation of academic efforts 

Now, I bring another relatively stressful situation in my case. I have teenage children and they are not willing to relocate. I trust funds can do a lot towards equality, diversity, and being more accessible on short-term funded projects in a fast-changing world. There is so much more that can be done to make the complexities of everyone’s lives considered and assorted, especially women in science. A six-month science project would be ideal to cover such gaps and help academics shine over their career.

Perhaps a wider combination of data could be considered, from personal struggles to how much one has achieved within the given resources to make the whole procedure more equal and diverse. Teaching jobs, side jobs, midnight articles, book writings and seminar presentations are all part of a candidacy. Still, efforts and dedication are not measured, even though they are leading skills in completing any research goal.  

Finally, candidates must overcome rejections, keep themselves strong and optimistic in the long run. Science needs to go on. Whenever giving up projects come to haunt my future dreams, Ruth Itzhaki inspires me, together with all other women in science from Laura Bassi to Marie Curie. ScientifiyRESEARCH is here to help, as well as multiple funding resources available online. Notwithstanding, I still go to bed at night reflecting on why war does not lack funds, and our survival does…

References

[1] von Hippel, T. and von Hippel, C. To Apply or Not to Apply: A Survey Analysis of Grant Writing Costs and Benefits. PLoS ONE. 2015, vol. 10(3): e0118494.

[2] Horbach, S. P. J. M., Tijdink, J. K. and Bouter, L. Research funders should be more transparent: a plea for open applications R. Soc. open. 2022, sci.9220750220750.

[3] Chawla, D. S. The peril of proposals. Phys. World. 2018, vol. 31(6): 40.

Acknowledgments

We thank Dr. Monica Mastrantonio for writing this realistic and comprehensive account which clearly depicts the struggle of applying for academic research funding. Talking about this problem is the first step in working together to find solutions to improve this system and give researchers more time to focus on what matters – the research.

About the guest author

Dr. Monica Mastrantonio is a visiting Professor at the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York (UK), and a guest researcher at the Justus-Liebig University in Germany. She is a psychologist and holds a Ph.D. in Critical Social Psychology. She has studied time narratives in a variety of projects from working hours in a factory to the year 2000 millennium turn in a national newspaper. Now, her research interests are future narratives and mental health. She is a post-doctoral candidate at the MSCA fund 2023.

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