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Babies versus science

Millions of dollars of research funding awarded … what about the thousands that missed out?

So much money, but still not enough for all.

With A$522 million of research funding announced recently from the Australian Research Council (ARC), I was hopeful they might have thrown a few dollars my way. Turns out you need more than hope in this research business…

It is easy to sound bitter – I am not bitter, but have to confess to being a little disappointed. Apart from not receiving funding I find it particularly frustrating to think about the many weeks spent writing the application that could have been used for other things. But I guess as the old saying goes “you have to be in it to win it” … or more importantly, as I argued in my last piece, you can’t complain about missing out on opportunities if you never actually apply for them.

I should also say that as I looked through the names of the people in my area that had been funded, it was reassuring that I knew most of the people and already considered them outstanding researchers that fully deserved to get funding.

In the latest round of ARC funding, major research projects, early career project and future fellowships were funded at a rate of 19.9%, 13.6% and 16.29% respectively. Together, this meant there were more than 5,000 unsuccessful applications for funding through these three schemes alone.

While it is comforting to my ego to know that I was in good company in missing out, it is a shockingly large number. On the other hand A$522 million is also a huge number, so it is ridiculous to entertain the idea that the government should simply quadruple its spending so that everyone gets the funding they request.

Talking to family and friends about the funding process, the common question is “so what happens to people that miss out?” To be honest, this is something that I have also wondered about. I think in the past the answer has generally been that people simply reapply in the next round and sooner or later their luck will improve. Unfortunately that view - and the reality - is changing with more applications going in every year and success rates falling accordingly.

In my case I am fortunate to have a continuing lecturing position within a large university. I have never been more grateful of that! In fact I remember being extremely undecided when the job was offered to me as I had been advised by many senior researchers that it would be the end of my research career if I took a lecturing position. In hindsight they could not have been more wrong.

Sure, I resubmitted my fellowship application but I can’t really see how I am going to be any more competitive in the next round with 25% fewer fellowships being offered. So if I had to consider my future with the potential of a second unsuccessful application, I honestly have no idea what I would do if that was my only opportunity for salary support.

Last weekend I was at a 5-year-old birthday party for one of my daughter’s kinder friends. As she attends the university-affiliated kinder program, it is unsurprising that a lot of the other parents are university or medical professionals from the area. So as I sat down for a coffee with some of the other mums (as our kids ran around dressed as mermaids and superheroes), we started talking about how hard it is to continue fighting for funding.

One of the mums who had previously held multiple fellowships and had enjoyed a decade-long career in microbiology announced she was quitting science to start a Diploma of Education next year to become a science teacher for secondary school students. Importantly, she made the point that it is not just women affected. There were a number of senior men that had also been unsuccessful in their funding applications and they were similarly wondering what they could do next.

Due to the inherent variability in the review process it is always worth resubmitting applications in the hope of hitting more favourable reviewers in the future. But with success rates of less than 20% and very little spare money around to support researchers between fellowships, there is a risk that a lot of great people will be lost to research.

If people choose to go into teaching and other fields then I guess that is great for the country’s kids and other industries that will gain from employing dedicated intelligent people with extensive research experience. However, I can’t help question whether it is the best use of all the government funding that has already been invested in training a generation of top researchers with extremely specialised skills.

Just like a researcher without funding … a boat without water, is no longer a boat. For my son Max - now aged 18 months - such things are not so important.

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