Friday, February 19, 2016

We need to tighten eligibility criteria and enforce them

There are several trends this post addresses:
  • declining success rates on grant applications due to decreasing funding and increasing numbers of applicants
  • desires to provide more opportunities for young people, women, and minorities
  • the desire of administrators to be seen to be providing more opportunities
  • the increasingly large amount of time required to prepare grant applications
  • the large amount of time and money spent processing, assessing and ranking grant applications
So who should be allowed to apply for a specific grant or fellowship program?
How rigorously will eligibility requirements be enforced? 
Will there be allowance for "special cases"?

First, it is important to acknowledge that any grant or fellowship program has certain eligibility criteria: type of institution, career stage, gender, nationality, number of grants already held, ...

A few things I have been recently been involved in that I thought were good.

Expressions of Interest.
Prior to a full application, potential applicants sent a copy of their CV and a paragraph or two about their specific proposed application. A committee screened these and then discourages or forbids some of the applicants from applying. The promising ones may get constructive feedback about the direction their application could take.

Rigid enforcement of eligibility criteria.
Given the opportunity it is amazing to see the reasons that people can come up with as to why they are "special" and "entitled" to apply. It ranges from personal situations (illness, career interruptions,...), family situations (e.g. childcare, the career choices of their spouse) to scientific claims (U of Mediocrity really is the best place in the world for my research, ..., I am just on the verge of big breakthrough, ..., my equipment broke,...).
Some would say we were "heartless" in throwing out almost all these claims.
Dealing with these claims, particularly when administrators write ambiguous eligibility criteria and allow for "compelling" special reasons, wastes a lot of time and can create ill filling.

Reducing the number of people who can apply by more exclusive eligibility criteria.
Significantly reducing the applicant pool for one program, by only allowing those with permanent positions to apply. The argument was that the university should only be investing scarce resources in people who they had made a long term commitment to.
Some cried this is "not fair". Maybe it isn't. But at least it reduced the number of applications to a "manageable" level. And there are other programs that people with permanent positions cannot apply for.

The political obstacles to making changes like the above can be considerable. It relates to the challenge of setting priorities. A concrete example is the controversy back in 2009 when the UK funding body, EPSRC, tried to ban "serial unsuccessful" applicants.

To me any program that has a less than 20 per cent success rate needs to be tightened up. Unfortunately, that is most programs!


  1. While I agree with the intent of the post in general, I have one remark, that is somewhat related, but also somewhat off-topic.

    Maybe this is more of an issue for the institutions themselves rather than for funding agencies, but I feel funding agencies should have a route to obtain funding for the following.

    The issue is this: there is no good way to write off experimental scientific equipment.
    Stuff gets old, and after 20 yrs or so the vendor does not support it anymore (which, BTW, is already a commendable period for support!), or there are no parts anymore.

    Example: we have a system that needs a computer. It's 15 yrs old, and the computer is failing. It is not possible to incorporate the interface between computer and equipment in a newer computer. The (hardware) parts are simply unavailable.
    The only option is to upgrade the equipment - to the tune of 80k$.

    That is not possible out of the operating budget of an experimental grant. And it's too small to apply for an instrumentation grant.

    Even if the cost would have been large enough for an instrumentation grant, promising "this is what we got out (demonstrating a good track record), and the upgrade allows us to move forward on our track with similar or slightly better capabilities" is not a winning proposal.

    I.e. replacing existing equipment too expensive for an operating budget is almost impossible. Note that writing off (i.e. saving) funds over the lifetime of such equipment, i.e. multiple grant periods, is not allowed either.

    Instead one has to write a big instrumentation proposal justifying something with new capabilities (and generally about 5 times as expensive as the appropriate equipment that was used).

    So, there's no good route for replacement of equipment, while there is a route for shiny new gadgets that do the old thing and many fancy new things (that will certainly produce shiny new science, when in the right hands).
    If this is the only way to keep basic needs in a lab, that seems to me like a waste of money.

    So, there should be a mechanism to fund capital equipment replacement.
    Either with funding agencies (who like "shiny new" more than "as you see our program needs this but it just died") or within institutions (where something between 50 and 100k$ is often too much to expect within the budgets).

  2. Some universities have "centers" that are federally funded that have discretion to allocate that funding as they see fit. For example, at my university they have an annual program for capital acquisition in the amount ranging from $10-150k. Short 2 page proposals are submitted and reviewed interally. I think this has been a great way to maintain tools.

    (To the posted above, you wouldn't happen to be trying to replace an old Veeco AFM would you...?)

    1. So indeed some institutions have a vehicle for this. Though only accessible to members of these centers, I presume.

      Not an AFM, but something similar...

  3. I don't think that's fair, and you appear rather cavalier about fairness in a context of the goal you seek being alongside whatever else it is, self-serving.
    There are essential methodological treatments that allow you to get effectively the same outcome, in away that removes or minims real or possible conflicts such as self-servingness. Likewise special circumstances. Let's bear in mind that the only criteria that matters is delivery of outcomes that change the game and improve the odds of more of that kind of science.

    We're currently living through an unprecedented drought in which fundamental progress =has all but seized & frozen lifeless for decades now.
    IN times ike that scientists are insecure they tend to club together, and come up with apparently reasonable well motivated barriers that protect their position and effectively progresses a process of claiming natural rights of ownership and exclusivity to study and come up with solutions in their field.

    So that's another control. Because being grossly desensitized and harsh to people that really should not be stripped of all chance and hope, and certainly not when untreated potential for corrupt motives are present.

    Why not eliminate the possibility of judging one life circumstance more worthy than another, and inform all them that they entered into a lottery in which 5 of them will be chosen at random and their ideas, their ideas, will be given serious consideration at the same level as anyone, and they'll get feedback even if they rejected.

    Why do it like that. That way you giving a chance and a hope. You're also encouraging people to aspire to be scientists which reconnects the various strata in society. And it doesn't really matter if applications of that kind go 10 fold or 100 fold. Do it that way. And consider overtly controlling for potential conflicts and corrosive forces of self interest. And don't ever be cavalier about justice and fairness.

  4. p.s. I appreciate handling requests even as I suggested is always going take a lot of time that a scientist like yourself but also in general, does not have. So money where my mouth is, I would be willing to have that handled for you. I don't know whether there are show-stopping regulatory barriers, but certainly there would data-protection issues. But they can be certainly be resolved. Or if doing that is impossible for reasons you are aware of, then please allow this to have expressed appreciation of the need to efficiently examine the most promising prospects at the highest level, and a gesture of preparedness to be more than a blog hit-and-run bitch :)