The Australian | 14 November 2012
A survey by Queensland University of Technology of 285 applicants for National Health and Medical Council (NHMRC) research funding reveals applicants spent an average 34 working days writing an application. The Australian suggests this adds up to an estimated cost in salaries of $66 million and a seemingly astonishing 550 work “years” in research time.
The NHMRC received 3727 applications, of which only about 20% were funded.
Another way of looking at it is that it takes about 7 weeks to prepare an “average” application and costs $17,700.
Is this unreasonable, given that funded projects extend over a number of years, often at a cost of millions of dollars?
Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt thinks it is and has ramped up his campaign for a review of the research granting system and its reliance on time-consuming peer review of projects, which he describes as questionable and cumbersome. He complains that key people with specialist knowledge of research projects are too often excluded from review panels for perceived conflicts of interest.
After panel discussions, decisions still ended up being based largely on a researcher’s track record.
It isn’t at all clear this cumbersome process is actually able to judge good projects from bad because of what is ultimately a lack of specific expertise in the subject area of each grant.
While Scmidt is lobbying for a review of the Australian Research Council that funds non-medical research, the issues are relevant to the NHMRC, where grants are also based on peer review.
ARC chief Aidan Byrne defended the role of peer review as one of the “core tenets of the academic process”.
Byrne says he is open to considering longer grant periods, but warned such a move would further reduce already low ARC application success rates of 22% (and the NHMRC’s 20%).
And low success are probably the real issue because, with such low rates of success, picking “winners” will be more art than science and many projects of prospective value are simply going to miss out on funding.