Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Grant Funding Should Be a Lottery

A lottery system for research funding has been suggested after a study found that the time Australian researchers spent applying for National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) project grants last year blew out by a collective 67 years.

Lead author of the study published in BMJ Open, A/Prof Adrian Barnett of Queensland University of Technology, said that applicants spent a collective 614 working years on their applications in 2014 compared with 574 years in 2012. This was despite the NHMRC cutting the number of data fields in its online form from 180 to 68, which reduced the length of applications from about 100 pages to about 50 pages.

“While 75% of applicants preferred the streamlined process, the changes obviously didn’t have the desired effect – the average time an applicant spent on a publication went from 34 days in 2012 to 38 days in 2014,” Prof Barnett said. “Those applicants may be spending a set amount of time on their applications based on their expected return on investment, or it could be driven by increased competition for funding.”

The paper’s authors said that reducing competition was achievable by either increasing the funding pool or decreasing the number of applications, which was possible using methods like cooling-off periods for unsuccessful applicants or levying a submission fee, both of which are unpopular with researchers. They believe a better solution would be to use a lottery to select applications that attain a certain standard.

“A lottery significantly changes the incentive on the researcher, as applications could be judged solely on the grounds that they are considered fundable,” Barnett said. “Randomly allocating funds among these ‘fundable’ applications reduces the incentive to spend more time preparing.

“The New Zealand Health Research Council is using exactly this approach for its Explorer grants, so there are opportunities to study how applicant behaviour changes with this approach.”

Barnett’s team is calling on the NHMRC to fund research into the best alternative funding processes. “Spending a tiny proportion of the national research budget on improving the funding process will make the system more efficient,” Barnett said.