the grant economy as tragedy of the commons

Grants, grants, grants. Every academic likes getting them. And every administrator wants more of them. In some fields, you can’t be an active researcher without them. In all fields, the search for grants grows ever more competitive.

PLOS recently published the results of a survey of the grant-writing process in the U.S. Drawing on a nonrandom sample of astronomers and social & personality psychologists, and asking about their applications to NASA (astronomers), NIH (psychologists), and NSF (both), they reported their researchers having applied for four grants in the past four years, on average, and received one. Proposals took an average of 116 hours to write.

While respondents did note some non-pecuniary benefits to grant-writing, comments suggested that many researchers simply gave up after repeated failures, judging it a poor use of their time. In the words of one respondent:

I applied for grants from the NSF in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007….Most of the reasons given for not funding were that funds were too tight that particular year and that I should reapply the next year since the proposal had merit…I finally just gave up.

The authors, who start with the certainly-debatable-but-not-totally-baseless assumption that funding is fairly random (see these cites), make some rough calculations to come to the conclusion that when the funding rate is at 20%, half of grant applicants will be forced to abandon their efforts after three failed attempts, with a rate of more like 2/3 for previously unfunded researchers.

Now, this is a limited study and there is plenty of room to argue about the data it uses and the assumptions it makes. But few would disagree with its conclusion: “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 20% is the good scenario these days. The National Institute on Aging, one of NIH’s major funders of sociology research, recently announced paylines at the 7th (for under-$500k grants) and 4th (for over-$500k grants) percentiles. That’s incredibly competitive.

Yet at the same time, universities, desperate for revenues, are pushing harder and harder for researchers to bring in grants, with those sweet, sweet indirect costs. I know mine is. When I arrived at SUNY Albany seven years ago, I was happy that the university seemed to treat grants as a bonus—something nice to have, not something required by them. This was a contrast with at least one other place I interviewed.

But that’s less the case now. I won’t go into details here. But suffice it to say that the pressure on the department to bring in grants is steady and increasing. And while this may not be happening everywhere, it’s certainly common, particularly at cash-strapped public universities. It’s even worse, of course, in the soft-money parts of higher ed, like med schools.

The thing is, it’s simply not a viable strategy. Unless the pool of grant funding is massively increased at the federal level—a remote possibility—this is a zero-sum game. And so we’re left with what is basically a variation on the tragedy of the commons problem. Rational individuals (or individuals responding to their employers’ rational demands) will write more grant applications, since doing so still probably increases one’s chances of being funded. And if everyone else is working harder and harder to secure grant funding, maintaining constant effort will likely result in a decreasing payoff.

But what a collective waste of resources. The PLOS article cites research suggesting that university faculty spend an average of 10.7 (public universities) to 14.5 (private universities) hours per week on research during the semester. Even assuming grant-writers are finding somewhat more time for research, grant-writing still takes half a semester’s research time or so. Yes, there’s some intellectual benefit to the grant-writing process. But probably not so much to writing multiple unfunded grants.

My modest proposal is to cap the number of applications—either at the individual level, or the institutional level. Or perhaps establish a lottery for the right to submit in a given round. I can think of disadvantages to that—why should the best (or at least most fundable) researchers not be able to apply as often as they want? But the goal here isn’t to share the wealth—it’s to waste less of our collective time.

In the meanwhile, the ever-growing pressure for external funding in an environment of flat-at-best resources is itself throwing money out the window. At a time of intense pressure to do more with less, this is the biggest irony of all.

Written by epopp

March 16, 2015 at 12:30 pm

Posted in academia, research

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. @epopp: Your post provokes some quick responses, though I am in agreement with the first 50%. Most universities, including mine, suffer for the failure to understand that the academic researchers are REALLY interested in the grant funds to support direct costs (data, assistants, travel, publications), while vice-chancellors for research and other administrators care ONLY about the indirect cost recovery funds that they use to plug gaping holes in general operating budgets. This leads to the usual sophistry that ICR covers the costs of doing research on campus – patently absurd. Herein lies a true tragedy of the commons. As a social scientist, 45% of your grant award goes to ICR. The overhead associated with social science work is quite small compared to projects in the hard sciences, engineering, and health sciences. So you are subsidizing the projects of engineers, since the 45% they pay fails to cover their costs, particularly lab establishment, equipment, and energy. And you are subsidizing a number of other activities that take your ICR funds and distribute to programs that are not overhead.

    I must disagree with your modest proposal to shut some potential applicants out of pools by lottery or otherwise. I REALLY need those direct costs to be covered by grant funds, especially the salaries of my RAs. I do not benefit from having my doctoral students paid for years out of departmental funds (typically TA funds). I have to pay them with external grant funds. Plus, I have to pay another tax to the university, euphemistically called tuition remission, that equals the tuition and fees that these students would be charged on a pay-as-you-go basis. My confrères and consoeurs whose TA/RAs are paid by departmental funds don’t have this tax. Lucky them. So I need to submit 2-3 grant proposals per year to keep my students’ rice bowls filled and to pay the taxes associated with having graduate assistants.

    You are correct that I contribute to a collective waste of resources. But I cannot do otherwise, except at the margin: I can stop funding graduate students and hire post-docs as RAs on grants. The latter are full-time indentured servants to the research and they costs about the same as a half-time doctoral student. So the incentives are against training the next generation of social science scholars. Now that’s irony!



    March 16, 2015 at 3:42 pm

  2. This is a special case of rent-seeking dissipating rents. The canonical cites are both by the recently deceased Gordon Tullock.

    There’s a good episode of Econtalk where they discuss the model

    Oliver Schilke and myself are some of the only sociologists ever to cite this model

    Liked by 1 person


    March 16, 2015 at 4:28 pm

  3. Gabriel — Nice, thanks for the links. Here’s also a column related to the Econtalk podcast that uses grant-seeking to illustrate rent-seeking.

    I suppose the extent to which you see rent-seeking as the defining aspect also depends on how much value you think the review process has. The PLOS article assumes little. I’m more inclined to believe it has some value, at least as a rough sort. But since no one thinks the review process is perfect, the more competitive the pool, the less value the review process would seem to contribute.

    Maybe we need a “Close but no cigar” for grants. I think the data is there.

    Randy — I have the luxury of working in an area where grants are extras, not necessities, which makes the proposal easier to swallow. The lab scientists, who can do nothing without grants, have it even worse. And of course as an individual you cannot opt out of this game. I have to admit, though, that I don’t see any good alternatives that seem remotely likely (have states restore funding to public universities? have half of research-focused universities abandon their research mission?). I guess once the returns are low enough, some subset of researchers stops applying. But wherever that point is, I’m sure it’s still one that is competitive enough to waste a lot of people’s time.



    March 16, 2015 at 5:46 pm

  4. And sorry for multiple comments on my own post, but Randy, you also touch on one of my other pet peeves, which is how bad university accounting is. Another topic for another day.



    March 16, 2015 at 5:56 pm

  5. What’s nice about your post is that nicely highlights a basic inefficiency of the grant system — grant writing activities are mostly a waste of resources for all unfunded applications — and how these deadweight losses increase as unconditional success rates decrease (because it is individually rational for grant applicants to write more applications). Note that this is true even if peer review committees are good at identifying good proposals (Danielle Li from HBS has great research using data from NIH showing that things are not as dire on that count as the PLoS article implies/assumes).



    March 16, 2015 at 6:14 pm

  6. Furthermore, the need to bring in grant funding has expanded to institutional types where it was not previously central, including institutions that do not have the resources to support successful grant-writing but still expect research productivity on a level not necessarily attainable without external funding (especially given very limited internal funding). This faculty population has even more limited research funding, so the grantwriting process make take up the entire time available for research in a semester, leaving us with even less to show for our time. Yet the benefits to the institution of the small number of successfully-funded grants is of sufficient magnitude to continue encouraging grantseeking behavior, It’s not only a tragedy of the commons, it is also a race in which a good percentage of the competitors are begin well behind the starting line and have forgotten which event they are supposed to be competing in to begin with.



    March 17, 2015 at 12:45 am

  7. […] post by Elizabeth Popp Berman originally appeared at the blog under the title “the grant economy as tragedy of the commons.” It is reprinted with permission of the […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: