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.