Turning around the research grant system

Published as "Applications 'are going the wrong way'," Australian, 5 February 1992, p. 16. This is the text as submitted.
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Brian Martin

It's research grant application time -- yet again. As harried academics aim at yet another deadline for grant applications, some begin to wonder whether it's worth all the effort.

Sometimes it seems as if more time is spent applying for money than actually doing research. Surely there must be a better way!

And perhaps there is a better way. Perhaps research applications should be made to academics rather than by them.

Here is the basic idea of a quota system. Each university would be funded, as part of its normal budget, to carry out a certain quota of contract research. Any individual or organisation which wanted a particular project done would make an application to the university of its choice. The applications would be assessed in terms of their social and intellectual value and the capabilities of university staff and facilities. The 'best' applications would be chosen and the research carried out.

This is not as unorthodox as it may sound. Consider students, for example. They apply to universities. Universities select which ones to accept in which faculties. Universities are funded on the condition that they accept and teach a certain number of students.

Imagine the alternative of universities applying to students and getting paid on an individual basis (by the students or by voucher money). This would be an administrative nightmare. Even private universities let the students make most of the applications. Only a few students are sought out and courted.

So why shouldn't the same type of process apply to research? Let those who want research done apply to the universities they most want to do it. Heavy industry could apply to engineering faculties, banks to accountancy departments, hospitals to medical faculties, and so forth.

Of course, the best research universities and researchers would be highly sought after, so the successful applications would have to be very good. But, if the demand for research were high enough, other universities and researchers would receive bids as well.

This doesn't mean that all research would be client-driven. There would still be the usual opportunities for research following academic intellectual agendas. The difference is that additional funding would be available for client-oriented research.

Now you may ask, "If this is such a good idea, why hasn't it been taken up before?" The reason is that there a crucial difference between the systems.

In the present system, money speaks. Those corporations and government departments with lots of money are able to call the tune for academics in search of a research dollar. In the alternative system, research projects would be judged by their social value, not by the wealth and power of the funding organisation.

In a research quota system, any individual or group could apply. This means that the local women's centre, Rotary Club or community group could apply for research to be done. Such groups do not have the money to fund substantial research even if it is manifestly in the public interest.

Who would choose the successful applications? It shouldn't be left solely to academics, since they could give undue emphasis to their own career agendas. More suitable would be a series of committees for different subject areas, each having representation from academics and from relevant corporations, government bodies and community groups.

In the quota system, groups would be wise to liaise with the researchers most suited for their proposal, developing an application that is sensitive to what university researchers can do and would be interested in undertaking. This is the same sort of process that occurs with the present system.

No doubt there would be problems with a quota system: unsuccessful applicants, wasted investments in research infrastructure, talented academics working on trivial or impossible projects, new bureaucracies. The quota system is not a magical solution to the problem of orienting research to social needs.

Monied groups would still have a large advantage in being able to prepare persuasive applications. Furthermore, they could continue to fund their own in-house research. But the quota system would open up the research system, to some extent, to groups that are currently excluded from bidding for large-scale research.

Perhaps things would not be so much better for academics. Instead of complaining about the never-ending task of preparing grant applications, they might be moaning about the task of poring over another giant pile of grant applications -- made to them rather than by them.

Dr Brian Martin is in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong.

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