The Cost of Writing a Project

Overhead costs are taking a high toll from science funding. How can they be reduced?

It’s already halfway through 2017 and I have the feeling I still didn’t do any science myself. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been dedicated to writing projects. Projects for getting research funding for personnel, equipment, bilateral collaborations, computer time, and all the stuff I need to do… science.

I just checked my files, I counted the projects I started to write this year; they are seven. Seven projects spanning five different topics, with eight other principal investigators in three countries, amounting to a couple of million euros to be spent over the next three years.

A rough estimate tells me I dedicated about 34 working days to discuss, prepare, and submit these projects; that’s about 1/3 of my working time so far this year. And that’s not bad, a 2007 report based on responses from over 6000 faculty scientists indicated that the time spent with project administration may consume 42% of the working time.

To write projects is a never-ending job—two new projects are already in the pipeline, with submission deadlines within the next two months. And it’s an inefficient job too. Rates of success are crazily low for any call, rarely above 20%; usually near 10%. This means that most of these nearly 300 hours of work will be simply wasted. (I’m not even adding my co-workers’ hours to this estimate.)

I’m not alone in my frustration. All my colleagues are fed up with such situation, as any informal talk between scientists quickly reveals.

From an institutional point of view, this may not seem to be too troubling: the university is spending few tens of thousands of euros of my working costs with an expectation of return in the order of few hundred thousand euros. Economically, it’s not so bad.

But from an academic point of view, things are disturbing. In principle, the university pays me to squeeze the best out of my expertise, that is to do science. But the funding system is arranged in such a way that one-third of my time is spent doing things that I may be overqualified to do (secretarial work) or not trained to do (project management).

And there is still another aspect to add to this conundrum: a monstrous bureaucracy must be kept by funding agencies just to deal with thousands of projects flowing in for each call, mobilizing armies of referees to deliver qualified reports; everything summing up to increase the overhead costs of the funding system.

At the end, the science-funding Leviathan is itself consuming a substantial part of the resources it was supposed to be distributing and pushing the scientists away from the activities it should be stimulating.

And I didn’t even talk about the high toll it takes in terms of scientists’ mental heath and family stress.

Is there any way out of it?

People have been thinking about that. A lot.

Just to give an example, about one year ago, Johan Bollen and colleagues from Indiana University proposed that the science funding model could be reformulated by a system of peer-to-peer funding. The basic idea was that the science funds would be directly partitioned among researchers, under the condition that a certain fraction of all funds they received were individually donated to other researchers.

Using citation data as a proxy for such self-organized funding network, Bollen’s team showed that their funding scheme would result in a distribution of resources similar to what we have today but at a much lower cost.

Although intrigued by their idea (especially by the concept of funding scientists, rather than projects), I’m deeply skeptical about it. I have no doubt that in no time, instead of writing projects, we would be wasting our times lobbying for donations.

There have been many proposals to reform the funding system, from random allocation to open-population reviews. But reasonably assuming that no revolution is on its way in and still thinking within the conventional project-funding box, there are few things that could help to get the money at scientists’ hands, at a lower cost than we are paying for right now:

  • First, institutions should fund the basic operation of their staff. Coordinated with national agencies, they could grant that a fraction of the national science funds would reach all scientists, just to keep the machine oiled and running.
  • Second, funding agencies should simplify procedures for submission, management, evaluation, and extension of projects. Simple things could do wonders: simplified resubmission of rejected proposals in the next calls; full-proposals requests only from short-listed candidates; flat-rate payments of routine or small expenses; direct extension procedures for previously funded projects.
  • Third, research institutions could have professionals dedicated to identifying funding opportunities, and writing, submitting, and managing projects.

I know, this last one sounds weird. Scientists should write their own research proposals, shouldn’t they?

But think twice: when we publish a press release, we count on a journalist, who knows better how to communicate our amazing findings to the public. There’s nothing wrong with it.

To optimize the scientific work, we should consider that such specialization should reach new levels. To manage a project, we should count on a professional who knows better how to deal with funding agencies.

You may be wondering that to cut overhead costs I’m proposing to add a professional layer to the system, with additional costs. Do you remember when I said that I’m spending 1/3 of my time managing projects? Supposing that this figure is a typical value, it means that if a project manager works with at least three project leaders, this already evens out the costs of this professional. Not to say the obvious advantages of having a professional management of the projects.

I even guess that given the harsh struggle for funds, any institution counting on professional project managers would have a competitive advantage to attract external resources. Many universities and research centers are already aware of that and provide consulting services for their researchers. But it’s mostly a passive advising work, not really project management.

In fact, the role of a project manager goes much beyond to simply apply for research funds. This point goes into a deeper discussion I already raised here: academic scientists are expected to play a double role as project leaders and project manager and they systematically play one of them poorly.

This ambiguous role has been the ultimate source of many of our troubles in contemporary science. Turning scientists into bureaucrats, keeping them away from the labs is just one of them.


  • Thanks to Eliot Boulanger for bringing Bollen’s work to my attention.

Categories: Science Policy

Tags: , , ,

2 replies

  1. I agree with you, but I’m more optimistic on the idea of Johan Bollen

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