Applying for Grants May Be a Waste of Time

Applying for Grants May Be a Waste of Time
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Most researchers view applying for federal grants as a necessary burden, a task that's simply a part of the job. But a recent study published in PLoS ONE suggests that grants may not even be worth the effort.

Researchers Ted von Hippel and Courtney von Hippel, respectively from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Queensland, surveyed 113 astronomers and 82 psychologists actively applying for federal grants from NASA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The survey gauged the effort subjects invested into grant applications, their feelings about the process, their success rate, as well as their grant history.

The survey revealed a number of interesting findings. First, on average, a principal investigator spends roughly 116 hours working on a grant proposal. Considering that faculty at public and private universities report spending 10.7 and 14.5 hours per week on research and scholarly writing during the teaching semesters, respectively, a typical proposal takes at least 8 weeks to complete, the authors estimate. That's a significant time investment.

Despite the effort scientists put into federal grants, and the obvious drudgery of asking for money, the survey did show that applicants report some benefits of grant writing. Both psychologists and astronomers mostly agreed that applying for grants "fine-tunes" their scientific thinking and helps them organize research efforts. Psychologists also noted that grant writing spurs generation of new ideas.

But "fine-tuning" scientific thinking is not why researchers apply for federal grants; they do it for the money. Sadly, due primarily to dwindling budgets, it's getting harder and harder to receive grant money. Only about 20% of grant proposals are successful each year. The survey found that most respondents applied for one grant per year, which means that roughly 51% of applicants receive no funding after three years of efforts.

Wow. So after 348 hours of work spread over three years, the average psychologist or astronomer has a coin flip's chance of having one federal grant proposal accepted.

That brutal reality prompted a frank recommendation from the study's authors.

"We suggest that individual investigators should consider avoiding proposing to programs with funding rates at or below 20% unless they are confident that their research program has a greater-than-baseline chance of success or they are willing to write two or more proposals per year."

Indeed, when funding rates for federal grants are as low as 20%, they may not even be worth the effort, the authors say.

"20% funding rates impose a substantial opportunity cost on researchers by wasting a large fraction of the available research time for at least half of our scientists, reducing national scientific output, and driving many capable scientists away from productive and potentially valuable lines of research."

Source: 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. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118494

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