let’s just burn 20% of our research dollars

Plummeting grant funding rates are back in the news, this time in the U.K., where success rates in the Economic and Social Research Council—a rough equivalent to NSF’s SBE division—have dropped to 13%. In sociology, it’s even lower—only 8% of applications were funded in 2014-15.

I’ve written before about the waste of resources associated with low funding rates. But this latest round prompted me to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Disclaimer: these numbers are total guesses based on my experience in the U.S. system. I think they are pretty conservative. But I would love to see more formal estimates.

How long does it take to write a grant application? Well, NSF applications are what, 15 single-spaced pages, plus a zillion supplementary pieces? 100 hours seems like a conservative guess of how long it takes to put one together. I don’t think I could do it in 100 hours, to be honest. Maybe you all are faster. And that’s not counting resubmissions, or more complicated applications that involve, say, multi-institutional collaborations.

How much is faculty time worth? Let’s say a tenured/tenure-track sociologist at a research-focused institution costs $100,000 a year on average. This may be high, but I’m including benefits here, and remember, I’m spitballing. Despite the nominal 9 or 10-month year, I’m guessing the annual academic workweek is about 2400 hours. That means our time costs someone $40+ an hour.

So we’re at $4000 minimum for the faculty time involved in submitting a grant application. Note that I’m not including any of the infrastructural costs—all the folks in Sponsored Projects who help guide the application through the submission process. Nor am I including the time of the people at the funding agency who process them, or that of the faculty panels that evaluate them. But on the other hand, there’s some intellectual benefit to the process of writing a grant application—at least the first time. So let’s say the infrastructure costs and the intellectual benefits roughly counterbalance each other.

Now, NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences currently has a funding rate of 19%. It looks to me like the median sociology grant is around $200,000. That means that even with this relatively “high” success rate, each grant awarded costs at least $20,000 of faculty time. 10% of the grant is solely supporting the writing of grant proposals.

Then imagine that success rate declining, as pressures to bring in grants increase or Congress cuts social science funding in half. The funding rate is already well below 20%—sometimes below 10%—at sociology-friendly NIH institutes like the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Suddenly you’re looking at throwing away 20% of the amount spent on the grant itself.

Maybe these estimates are too high. The ESRC grants making the news in Britain have a £350,000 minimum, after all. And the NSF grants I’m using as a reference point are typically smaller than NIH grants, so perhaps less money is wasted on grant-writing relative to grants awarded, even with the lower success rates. On the other hand, NIH proposals typically involve more collaborators and thus presumably take more faculty time to prepare.

The exact figures are debatable. But one thing is not: in a highly competitive funding environment, we waste an awful a lot of resources writing grants.

Written by epopp

July 16, 2015 at 12:01 pm

10 Responses

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  1. @gabrielrossman I know, I know. But one, it took fifty years to get to this point, and two, how else would you propose supporting research? Or wouldn’t you?



    July 16, 2015 at 6:19 pm

  2. One factor that I think that you overlook in the cost/benefit calculation is the degree to which writing proposals helps focus research questions. Some proportion of the sunk costs of proposal writing can be recouped in publications that result whether or not the proposal gets funded. This would include preliminary studies or the realization that particular questions have been unanswered by current research. The same could be possible without a grant proposal, but I find that the mere act of writing the proposal helps me to drill down into questions at a deeper level than I would normally be able to do without the structure of a grant proposal.

    I am not arguing that grants are, increasingly, becoming a fool’s errand. Or that funding shouldn’t be increased. I just think that there are non-pecuniary benefits that should be factored into writing grants.



    July 16, 2015 at 6:49 pm

  3. Elizabeth,

    To a certain extent rent dissipation is inherent in disbursing resources, but it’s theoretically possible to avoid that. For instance, random assignment is a famous solution to avoiding the costs of rent seeking, though I wouldn’t want to see NIH or NSF grants awarded by lottery.

    Another way to do it would be that we could have the direct levy of taxes on human capital formation (or better yet, signaling of human capital) and use that as an earmarked revenue stream for research. I call my plan “subsidize student loans and then give R1 faculty a base load of 4 courses per year.”



    July 16, 2015 at 9:56 pm

  4. @Mike, you’re right, and I tried to gesture toward that in the post, but perhaps it should be played up more. It must vary a lot from project to project (and maybe field to field?), though.

    FWIW, you prompted me to look up a UK study on the actual costs of the grant system (should have done this before writing the post)…it’s 10 years old but pretty thorough. At the time Research Council funding rates were 28%, and they estimated (including peer review and administrative time, but not discounting for the inherent value of the grantwriting process) that it cost 13% of the total distributed. If that’s right, and success rates are now half that, that means the UK is effectively spending a quarter of its grant money on grantseeking. Surely there can’t be *that* much value in grantwriting.

    @Gabriel, I’m not sure your plan is effectively all that different from the traditional way of supporting research (which of course is primarily done by subsidizing faculty time) — have state taxes appropriated for higher education, then use most of that to pay for teaching with some chunk paying for faculty research time at flagships. Or am I misunderstanding you?



    July 17, 2015 at 12:50 pm

  5. I thought Gabriel was being facetious =)

    What the current system does not account for with a 2/2 teaching load is, well a 2/2 teaching load for much of the professoriate, but also the costs of doing the actual research. Perhaps what we need are models that basically argue that faculty should not be able to use federal funds to support their own salary. Grant money should go to the direct costs of research endeavors rather than paying for faculty time. Awards could be devoted to data collection, staff to make data collection possible, and equipment. If a particular person needs time off to do field research, then that salary would be allowable, but should only include time to collect data, not write it up.

    Actually, his approach is not too far from NSF, which tends to demure from spending grant money on faculty time. In contrast, NIH funds investigator time to collect data. The expectation at most schools of public health is that faculty bring in most or all of their salary. This system of eating what you kill ends up a) increasing the number of applications, b) reducing incentives for long-term projects (because everyone is afraid that money tied up in a future project means that they are out of a job, c) reduces the quality of research overall, I would guess. The pressure to constantly turn out grants reduces the quality of grants that could fund truly innovative research.

    The reliance of administrations on indirect costs is one factor that you did not mention here, but have in the past. Talk about rent-seeking. There is no reason that the federal government should be supporting the operating costs of institutions with multi-billion dollar endowments that could support said operating costs.

    Of the grants that you mention, an additional 50-100% of appropriated funds go directly to the University. And, the more connected the university, the higher the indirect rates (Harvard and Yale’s are very, very high compared to other institutions, for example). Spread over the faculty, universities benefit if their faculty spend time on grant applications. If the overall acceptance rates hover around 10%, then you figure at a moderately competitive university, encouraging 30 faculty to apply ends up with three grants. The opportunity costs for the organization are low — they care very little about the research productivity of individual faculty — so they create incentives for faculty to feed the machine.



    July 17, 2015 at 2:33 pm

  6. Add in the time costs of dealing with IRBs (, and the situation is even worse.



    July 17, 2015 at 3:03 pm

  7. Thanks for posting this, and the subsequent discussion. One point not yet mentioned is that there are alternatives to NSF (and similar national government-based grants) which can sometimes offer as much funding and at higher success rates such as corporations or 501c3s.


    Siri Terjesen

    July 17, 2015 at 3:52 pm

  8. Elizabeth,

    I was in fact describing (and justifying) the status quo as if it were a fanciful proposal.

    Note that in addition to having lower transaction costs, there is another advantage to general subsidies to higher ed (both through student loans and state U subsidies) over research grants. Specifically, a submerged state in research subsidies will allocate more resources to the social sciences and humanities than explicit research funding, on the soft money model they already have in STEM. As is one of the motivating issues of your original post, the House Republicans have a “my kid could do that” attitude (with a healthy subtext of “these people are an increasingly hostile constituency, so fuck them”) towards NSF-SES, but are extremely fond of STEM funding, especially NIH. I think federal subsidies probably should be skewed towards STEM, but not any more than they already are, and my feeling is that the indirect model of subsidies is most likely to preserve this in the long-run.



    July 17, 2015 at 5:25 pm

  9. @gabriel — See, that was one step too clever for me. I agree with your points but thought you might actually be advocating eliminating social science research (at least that without an obvious link to, say, health or something with obvious bipartisan support). More generally, though, I think this is a really difficult issue. Hiding the costs of research is not great for the system as a whole (and feeds arguments like the one at UCLA about who is really subsidizing whom). But making the costs transparent is likely to be really bad for the social sciences and humanities in the current environment.

    Linking Mike and Siri’s points — yes, non-governmental grants can be easier to secure. But they typically don’t come with those big overheads that universities love so much!

    And one other unmentioned point — the system also discourages low-cost research. If buying out my time is off the table, I would have trouble spending >$10,000 a year. I could hire students, but it’s not clear that would really help me accomplish more (though it might train them). But the organizational incentives are for me to come up with larger, fundable projects, regardless of whether that contributes more intellectual value.

    Liked by 1 person


    July 17, 2015 at 7:41 pm

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