Can we please stop paying attention to grant funding on researcher CVs?

Given how much time and energy we academics put into evaluating each others’ CVs, it’s a bit startling to realize that we’re doing it wrong. Hiring decisions, promotion decisions, tenure decisions, grant funding decisions – all of these draw heavily on the candidates’ records of “excellence” as documented on their CVs. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – there’s no other way science could be the meritocracy we like to think it is, and that it ought to be (but isn’t yet).  But nearly every time I’ve been involved with evaluating CVs, the process has involved an enormous mistake: we’ve* paid attention to the candidates’ past records of grant funding.

There’s a very simple reason why grant funding should receive absolutely no attention in our assessments of each other:unlike everything else we assess, grant funding isn’t a scientific output – it’s a scientific input. My own tenure assessment, for example, considered how many courses I’d taught (and how well), how many papers I’d published (and how much impact they’d had), how many undergrad and grad students I’d trained, and a bunch of other things. All of these are outputs: aspects of my contribution to the accumulation and dissemination of scientific knowledge. But it also considered my record of grant funding, and that was bizarre – because just like the square footage of my lab and the number of hours I spent at work, grant funding is an input. You don’t judge a cabinetmaker by how many tools they own – you judge them by the cabinets they’ve made.

It doesn’t make someone a better or more productive scientist to have more grant funding. In fact, it’s arguably the reverse. Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Over the last 5 years, Scientist A has published 10 papers and garnered $1 million in grant funding. Over the same period, Scientist B has published 10 papers but received only $100,000 in grant funding. Which scientist has the better record?  You’re right: hands down, it’s Scientist B. Scientist B has produced the same scientific output with 1/10 the funding input. Scientist B has shown their ability to remain productive through the I’m-between-grants penny-pinching periods that sprinkle most careers. Scientist B has consumed fewer of the resources that go into adjudicating, awarding, and administering grants. Which scientist would you rather have as a colleague? For me, it’s Scientist B, every time. But it’s Scientist A the academic world seems to admire.

I’ve sat on at least one grant evaluation panel that has explicitly argued that it’s not the grant funding itself we’re considering – instead, we’re using that as evidence that other agencies have seen excellence in the candidate. This makes a lot of sense – but only if you don’t think about it much. If you do think about it (and aren’t academics supposed to do that?), you’ll likely conclude that at best we’re ducking our own responsibility to make a judgement. At worst, we’re being actively harmful. When we hire, promote, and especially fund people on the basis of the grant funding they’ve previously been awarded, we engage in a positive-feedback cycle that magnifies disparities among us. Scientist A, with their million-dollar grant history, is more likely to get the next grant, so the initially-rich get richer and the initially-poor get locked out of the system. This reduces society’s return on its investment in science, because we’ll get more done if funding is spread more evenly. It also sets up winners and losers by amplifying initial variation among researchers that may be trivial (because at most agencies, many fundable grants go unfunded) or, worse, result in part from unconscious biases. Considering previous granting success when we evaluate researchers gives our scientific community the same mathematical property that makes the board game Monopoly so thoroughly unenjoyable:** small early fluctuations in luck become magnified by positive feedback into advantages impossible for trailing players to overcome. Please, can we make science less like Monopoly?

When I came up for tenure at my first job, I was very naïve about all this. I had a substantial theoretical component to my work, and in my tenure package I argued that this was a strength, because it meant I was well positioned to weather any periods in which I was unable to secure grant funding. My department thought about this quite differently: it suggested to them I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to chase dollars. I was naïve, of course. Not because I didn’t understand the institutional thirst for money; of course I did.*** I was naïve because I thought that tenure committees, Chairs, and Deans would push back against it, and evaluate my scientific output. Some do push back, of course – but not as many as you’d hope.

Some decisions about how we should operate, as a community of scientists, are hard. This one is easy. No, this one should be easy; but I guess it isn’t, or we wouldn’t still be evaluating researchers based on how many dollars they’ve spent instead of how much good science they’ve done. Can we please stop?

© Stephen Heard November 16, 2021

Image: Cabinet, © Thomas Quine via flickr.com CC BY 2.0. Sure, it’s nice, but I hear the cabinetmaker only owned one hammer.


*^For me, the “we” here has been university hiring committees, university promotion and tenure committees, and funding agency proposal evaluation committees. I should make clear I’m not speaking for any of these bodies or for any of the organizations that set them up. Actually, given that the whole point of this post is that these organizations are doing it wrong, I guess that was going to become pretty clear shortly anyway.

**^For people older than 10, I mean. I will admit to having loved Monopoly as a child. Of course, I loved a lot of things as a child that shouldn’t be designed into our systems for doing science.

***^This was in the US, where the system of “overhead” on grants makes this institutional thirst especially acute. But the problem isn’t limited to the US. By the way: I was awarded tenure at that institution, despite the best efforts of departmental leadership, but I left shortly thereafter.

7 thoughts on “Can we please stop paying attention to grant funding on researcher CVs?

  1. Pavel Dodonov

    …Yes!
    I’ve been waiting for years for someone to write something like this.
    Mostly because I’m a relatively productive scientist (I think) who is terrible at getting equipment or money for research – because most of my research either is not expensive or based on collaborations with people who have said equipment or money. Which is to say, one does not have to be great at acquiring funding for research to be productive and do interesting research!
    I think that funding is important in places where there is a lack of equipment, student scholarships and so on; but on the other hand, in such places the quest for more funding should be a collective one.

    Liked by 3 people

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  2. polmng

    This is a really excellent point Steve!

    As you point out, some research is inherently more expensive than other research. Taking your point on Scientist A, vs Scientist B – I agree with your perspective. But, lets imagine that scientist A spent 900,000 on instruments and analysis that were essential for answering their research questions. Then I think it gets a little bit tricky, and it also just demonstrates when comparisons amongst peers are so challenging to make.

    But yes, I am in full agreement with you. A quick quantification of grant success is often the approach that evaluators take when making important decisions, and it could certainly be de-emphasized or better contextualized with other (and more meaningful) indicators.

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  3. Peter Apps

    Paradoxically rewarding those who get the most money rewards those who are safely back from the cutting edge doing the low-risk, guaranteed results, routine data gathering rather than the high-risk innovation that makes the granting box tickers feel nervous.

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  4. Michael Wiener

    In an ideal world, things would change as you suggest. The focus you see on funding is a reflection of the extent to which academics prioritize maintaining their salaries over scientific output. Few academics would admit to this, even to themselves, but it’s at least a small part of all of us. This problem exists everywhere. When people feel under sufficient pressure, they pay lip service to serving their organizations and do what they can to save themselves. When this happens to people in powerful positions, as it often does, they reshape the goals of their underlings. Schools need money, and some well-paid people might lose their jobs if not enough money comes in. So, everyone has to focus to some degree on getting money, and those who get more money are celebrated.

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Certainly explains the worship of grant money by presidents and VPs, but in the “ideal world” you mention, Chairs etc should be pushing back against that – and should have influence. Ah, if only we lived in that ideal world!

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  5. crowther

    Here’s my cynical view: papers are often evaluated simply according to whether they were in a “good” journal and how many times they were cited. This too is essentially outsourcing the review of the work — not fundamentally different from saying, “Well, so-and-so gave this person a big grant, so they must be doing good work!” Thus, I see a larger issue here: a general reluctance to really delve into work that is not in one’s own micro-area.

    Liked by 3 people

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  6. Martin Pareja

    Glad to see this post! This is something I have been complaining about for some time. Since I have not been very successful at obtaining funding, my comments are always dismissed as sour grapes.

    At my university you are only eligible for university funding if you already have external funding. This is always explained as “the university needs to stimulate people to obtain external funding; otherwise we create a culture of leechers”. However this also traps people who take on heavy administrative/teaching duties early on in their career (with a cost to research output) in a cycle where they can’t get funded and the university offers no options to bridge the gap. This leaves people behind and the university as a whole suffers as a result.

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