Academia: research funding

As described in a previous blog post, most of the jobs in academia are temporary positions. Only the person in charge of a group, the principal investigator, and sometimes the technicians have permanent positions and thus only their salary is paid for by the institute or university that they are working at. All other positions are funded by grants.

The types of grants
Grants come in many different forms and are awarded by many different institutions. There are grants for visiting a lab in a foreign country for a short period, grants for an entire PhD or postdoc project and grants that supply enough money to pay several PhDs or postdocs. Grants in the Netherlands can be paid by the NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research or by the European Union, such as the Marie Curie grant for a Postdoc abroad or the European Research Council (ERC) grants for researchers aiming to start up their own group. Grants can also be (partly) funded by charities, such as the Hartstichting, which supports cardiovascular disease research, or by companies, such as the many breeding companies in the Netherlands that support plant research. In all cases, scientists judge the applications and decide which of their colleagues get the money. Care is taken that the people in the decision committee are as objective as possible, for example by not letting them judge people they have worked together with. In this way, at least in theory, the grant applications are judged solely on the quality of the researcher and the proposed project.

Who applies for the grants?
The visiting scholar and Marie Curie grants are personal grants, which means that they are written and defended by the person who will do the work. These kind of grants also exist in very small numbers for PhD projects – that is how I got the money for my project. In general, though, most grants are written by the principal investigator of a lab. Once the money is granted, the PI will interview people and hire someone to perform the work described in the grant.

Critique on the system
Without grants, research cannot be performed in the lab: while there is money for the salary of the principal investigator and a technician, there is generally no money for research supplies. Moreover, without PhDs and postdocs there are simply too few hands to get anywhere. Thus, to keep a lab going, principal investigators spend a lot of their time writing and defending grant applications to hire new people. In addition, they spend time to review the grants of other people. This is part of the reason that there is quite a lot of critique on the current funding system. Another critique is that it doesn’t always select the best science. People who have already gotten grants in the past have a higher chance of getting grants again because of those previous grants on their CV. Likewise, people with one or two papers in great journals are much more likely to get grants for a long time afterwards. This leads to vicious circles with those lucky enough to have received grants or a good paper early in their career getting more and more money afterwards. Currently no good alternative has been found yet, though.

Further reading
Since there is much more to be added to this discussion, but I do not want to make this post way too long and do not know everything myself, here are some sources for extra reading:
More about the procedure of deciding which grants get funded (in this case by the National Institutes of Health in the USA)
More about who pays for research, again in the USA, and how that might influence how the research is carried out
More on why it’s sometimes hard to see immediately why certain research, especially fundamental science, is ultimately beneficial for society – and thus to convince the public and politicians why funding is needed
More about the critique on the current EU funding system
More on a recently proposed new funding system in the Netherlands

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