We all spend way too much time preparing applications for research grants. This is a collective waste of time. For the 2019 vici grant scheme of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) in which I recently participated, 87% of all applicants received no grant. Based on my own experiences, I made a conservative calculation (here is the excel file so you can check it yourself) of the total costs for all people involved. The costs total €18.7 million. Imagine how much research time that is worth!
Applicants account for the bulk of the costs. Taken together, all applicants invested €15.8 million euro in the grant competition. As an applicant, I read the call for proposals, first considered whether or not I would apply, decided yes, I read the guidelines for applications, discussed ideas with colleagues, read the literature, wrote a short draft of the proposal to invite research partners, then wrote the proposal text, formatted the application according to the guidelines, prepared a budget for approval, collected some new data and analyzed it, considered whether ethics review was necessary, created a data management plan, corresponded with: grants advisors, a budget controller, HR advisors, internal reviewers, my head of department, the dean, a coach, and with societal partners. I revised the application, revised the budget, and submitted the preproposal. I waited. And waited. Then I read the preproposal evaluation by the committee members, and wrote responses to the preproposal evaluation. I revised my draft application again, and submitted the full application. I waited. And waited. I read the external reviews, wrote responses to their comments, and submitted a rebuttal. I waited. And waited. Then I prepared a 5 minutes pitch for the interview by the committee, responded to questions, and waited. Imagine I would have spent all that time on actual research. Each applicant could have spent 971 hours on research instead.
Also the university support system spends a lot of resources preparing budgets, internal reviews, and training of candidates. I involved research partners and societal partners to support the proposal. I feel bad for wasting their time as well.
The procedure also puts a burden on external reviewers. At a conference I attended, one of the reviewers of my application identified herself and asked me what had happened with the review she had provided. She had not heard back from the grant agency. I told her that she was not the only one who had given an A+ evaluation, but that NWO had overruled it in its procedures.
For the entire vici competition, an amount of €46.5 million was available, for 32 grants to be awarded. The amount wasted is 40% of that amount! That is unacceptable.
It is time to stop wasting our time.
Note: In a previous version of this post, I assumed that the number of applicants was 100. This estimate was much too low. The grant competition website says that across all domains 242 proposals were submitted. I revised the cost calculation (v2) to reflect the actual number of applicants. Note that this calculation leaves out hours spent by researchers who eventually decided not to submit a (pre-)proposal. The calculation further assumes that 180 full proposals were submitted and 105 candidates were interviewed.
Update, February 26: In the previous the cost of the procedure for NWO was severely underestimated. According to the annual report of NWO, the total salary costs for its staff that handles grant applications is €72 million per year. In the revised cost calculation, I’m assuming staff spend 218 hours for the entire vici competition. This amount consists of €198k variable costs (checking applications, inviting reviewers, composing decision letters, informing applicants, informing reviewers, handling appeals by 10% of full proposals, and handling ‘WOB verzoeken’ = Freedom Of Information Act requests) and €20k fixed costs: preparing the call for proposals, organizing committee meetings to discuss applications and their evaluations, attending committee meetings, reporting on committee meetings, evaluating the procedure).