Gifting of research funds by politicians undermines quality

Pollies don’t have the expertise to pick the right researchers for the job - leave that to the experts. AAP

I have worked as a health researcher for over 30 years. During that time I have made numerous applications for funding. The majority of these have, to my frustration, been rejected.

This does not mean I am a poor researcher. Success rates for research grants in Australia and other developed countries are typically around 20%. Compared to these success rates, I do better than average.

The difficulty in getting a grant is one factor that makes the quality of research in this country so high. So when politicians skip the peer-review process to allocate research funding ad hoc, the whole process is undermined.

Undermining quality by gifting

Let me give an example to illustrate. At a past election, a political leader announced, in response to lobbying, that a major piece of research infrastructure would be built within his electorate if he was elected to government. His party was successful at the election.

Soon after the election, I was on a panel to assess competitive grants for research infrastructure. Members of the panel were informed that the prime minister had instructed that the funds for the promised item of infrastructure were to be taken off the top of the funds for this competitive scheme.

In essence, the prime minister had bypassed competitive peer review and selected the top-ranked applicants, without them even having to put in an application. Some other applicants, who would otherwise have been funded, missed out, but will never know.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated example of gifting, but is particularly instructive because I witnessed the undermining of peer review that occurred outside the public eye.

Quality is undermined if governments decide that a particular research group or organisation should get the funds and peer review is bypassed. This is becoming a regular feature of political life in Australia, particularly at election time.

Politicians and their advisers do not have the expertise to decide who the best researchers are. Public funds are being allocated based on political influence and success in lobbying rather scientific quality and merit.

The importance of peer review for maintaining quality

While rejection is the common experience of researchers around the world, and a frequent source of complaint, it is universally acknowledged to play an important role in maintaining the quality of research. Every application for funding undergoes a process of peer review. Other anonymous experts review the application, note its strengths and weaknesses, make suggestions for improvements and give an overall rating of its quality.

Peer review of this sort is important to maintain quality in research. Poor work gets weeded out and researchers get feedback on the weaknesses of their work and how it can be improved. Rejected applications can get reworked based on this feedback and eventually they may be successful.

In order to make peer review fair, there is an extensive system of checks and balances in funding bodies like the NHMRC. Reviewers are approached based on their standing in the area being reviewed, multiple reviews are sought so that no one opinion dominates, conflicts of interest are declared and applications are ranked in quality compared to others in the same broad area.

Who should set research priorities?

Unfortunately, there is not enough funding to support all worthy applications, so priorities must be set. Ranking by quality is one important way of allocating scarce funds. However, scientific quality should not be the only criterion.

Funds typically come from taxes or philanthropy. The providers of these funds should have some say in how they are spent.

The community can be directly consulted about what issues they see as most important to research. This has recently been done in Australia, for example, with priorities for mental health research.

Governments, as representatives of the nation’s citizens, also have a legitimate role in this area. For example, the Australian government has designated nine disease areas as national priorities.

The setting of research priorities does not have to conflict with the principles of peer review and quality in research. If the government determines that a certain area is a priority, researchers can compete for funds openly and the best applications supported.

A plea to politicians

My plea to our political leaders is: by all means listen to the community’s priorities for research and make promises about areas for funding where there is a need. However, don’t pick the winners. You don’t have the expertise, you are undermining competition and quality in research and you are making poor use of scarce funds.