Babies versus science

Babies versus science

A razor sharp line determines funding success and a bit of luck helps avoid the cut

Waiting for a successful grant application outcome – stressful, drawn-out and in the end, probably down to luck. Adelie Freyja Annabel/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

This week saw the awarding of the 2014 “Future Fellowships.” The Australian Research Council (ARC) scheme totalling A$115 million provides 150 mid-career researchers with four years of salary and an annual research budget.

Last year I wrote a piece about my own unsuccessful application for funding highlighting the plight of the 80-85% of people that missed out on such funding.

This year I was extremely happy to discover that my application had fallen on the other side of the funding guillotine. This year I was one of the lucky few to receive funding.

I found out from a friend who called to congratulate me after seeing on Twitter that the outcomes had been announced. At the time the list had not yet been uploaded to the main ARC website so I figured I should wait before getting too excited.

When the list did come out, I have to admit it felt a little surreal to see my name there in print. My emotions were an odd mixture of disbelief, elation and relief.

Because I missed out last year and I knew this was my second – and therefore final – shot at applying for one of these fellowships, I had basically resigned myself to the likelihood that I would be unsuccessful again.

I also realised that the next opportunity to apply for alternative funding schemes was early 2015 which would coincide with my impending maternity leave. So I was facing the formidable task of trying to convince reviewers to fund me in 2016 after multiple years of apparent absence in the “research game” (a game in which productivity and competence is often judged by one’s capacity to secure research funding).

It is impossible to know how this fellowship will impact my career, and how the future would have panned out if I had been unsuccessful again. All I know is that as a parent trying to juggle career and family, I feel extremely lucky to have 4 years of research funding waiting for me when I return from maternity leave.

Deserving or lucky?

It has been interesting speaking to family and friends outside of academia about this award. Generally if I make any reference to luck people assume I am conforming to society’s expectations for modesty and they reply with a quick rebuke and affirmation that I did indeed earn and deserve the award.

Sure, I think I “deserved” the fellowship. The problem is that in every grant/fellowship round there are a lot of other people (and research projects) that are also “deserving”.

The need for a bit of luck is no secret to anyone that has previously applied for research funding, but I think it is hard for others to appreciate the degree of variability (some would say “noise”) in the system. Most would assume that science is by definition objective, and any assessment of merit in this system would similarly reflect that objectivity.

However, with the allocation of all funding based on peer review, it can be startling the degree of variability that exists between reviewers reading the identical document. In my case this was particularly extreme in my application last year where one reviewer commented:

The candidate has been very productive, constantly publishing high-quality papers at high-impact journals […] This is impressive given the two periods of maternity leave.

A second reviewer viewed exactly the same facts in a very different light:

In terms of publications, the output is on the low side (even when the periods of maternity leave are taken into account).

It is because of this degree of variability in the review process that people often advise you to resubmit unsuccessful applications in the hope of hitting a few favourable reviewers in the future.

In my own case this advice rang true. Last year I was ranked in the top 11-25% of unsuccessful proposals. With a few minor edits and tweaks to the proposed research program (based on the 2013 reviewers) I was lucky to hit three positive reviewers this time around.

While this system of peer review is clearly not perfect, unfortunately I don’t see anyway way to avoid such variability in the system. The alternative is to have a computer formula (which has been proposed by some) that will no doubt miss plenty of deserving people for other reasons.

So the taxpayers of Australia can rest assured that the vast majority of research funding goes to those that are deserving of support. It is just unfortunate and extremely frustrating that “close” counts for nothing when the funding guillotine falls.