Long-term grants

Dr Ben Kraal (QUT)Dr Ben Kraal is a Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia. He works with the People and Systems Lab on various projects.

In the broadest sense, what he does can be described as Design Research. Ben’s background is in what people call “IT”, though he has spent most of his time thinking about how people use technology in their work and life.

His PhD was about the lived experience of people who use large vocabulary speech recognition systems in the workplace.

Ben tweets from @bjkraal and blogs at Not Easily Obvious


Chalk trains (Photo by Ben Kraal)

Chalk trains (Photo by Ben Kraal)

Recent ideas for “fixing” research grants have proposed long-term grants as a potential solution.

Nobel Prize-winning astronomer, Brian Schmidt (ANU), proposed the idea and it showed up in a Minister’s speech too.

As a post-doc on soft money, long-term grants only seem to solve the problems of established professors whose problem isn’t getting grants, but keeping their lab or group liquid for the medium to long-term.

I fear that long-term grants will turn the early career researcher’s (ECR) problem of getting a grant into the problem of getting a job. But with fewer, bigger projects about, that could get harder, not easier.

With a five-year window for refreshing the pool of money that’s around, the stakes get higher not lower.

Let’s engage in some (pessimistic) scenario-planning: What happens if the ARC scraps 3-year Discovery grants in favour of grants with a 5-year time-frame?

These 5-year grants might not just fund a project, but might fund a lab more generally. A professor in charge of a 5-year-funded lab would be wise to have several projects on the go and at several different timescales.

It would be sensible to plan for expensive long-term projects with a guaranteed pay-off and cheaper short-term projects that are riskier (or, if you like, more innovative). You’d keep some money aside for taking advantage of short-term projects that pay off, or for spinning off new projects if the wider research environment changes.

These long- and short-term projects would need people to work on them. As a post-doc or ECR, the best type of project to be associated with would be a long-term one that’s a continuation of your previous research. But post-docs and ECRs are expensive compared to PhD students and, if the project is a slow burn with a guaranteed payoff, it’s the perfect kind of thing for a PhD project or two. In this situation, the short-term riskier projects will be staffed by contract post-docs.

Even in the best case, a student who starts their PhD at the beginning of a five-year project might get a two-year post-doc from it. By then, they’re an experienced researcher who’ll be wanting some security. In the best case, the lab will get another 5-year injection and one, or maybe two, lucky post-docs will get to stay on and cement their track record. Some (many?) PhDs will move into industry, but the rest will be left in the same position many ECRs are now — looking for stability but taking short-term contracts, with little opportunity to build a track record.

An even more pessimistic scenario is that long-term grants will put a use-by date on ECR PhDs.

If you want to stay in academia but aren’t lucky enough to have a supportive Lab director after that first post-doc, you’ll be competing for your next contract with newly minted PhDs who are cheaper and have more recent experience.

In fact, this is the situation right now:

One respondent said: “I desperately want to stay in research but I’m … being pushed out due to: student researchers being cheaper to employ to do the same thing I do in the lab. … I’ve hit the top of my pay scale and can’t move up the ladder without obtaining a grant. [SOURCE]

These proposed long-term grants might keep a Lab going, but they really aren’t addressed at the concerns of researchers starting out.

I have another fear about long-term grants and that’s for mid-career academics.

A long-term grant will be a really large amount of money. The average 3-year Discovery gets $300,000 and a 3-year NHMRC gets closer to $600,000, so a 5-year grant could easily touch seven figures.

In the long-term grant scenario, assuming you’ve been fortunate enough to have two solid post-doctoral contracts and you’re looking to establish your own beachhead, you need a lab and labs are funded by 5-year grants. But you’ve never led a project with more than a part-time RA. Will the granting body give you a cool million? It’s hard enough to get a small Discovery with that sort of track record. In the long-term grant world, how does an mid-career researcher (MCR) get the sort of experience necessary to lead a 5-year project?

Let’s get even more pessimistic: An MCR who misses out on a 5-year grant a few times hasn’t had the opportunity to build the kind of really strong track record that’d be necessary to get one. There’d also be the problem of MCRs competing for long-term grants against established labs.

For me, as an ECR moving into being an MCR, long-term grants don’t solve any of my problems and could possibly exacerbate them.

ECRs and MCRs need shorter term funding that’s easier to get.

Right now it’s not clear if long-term grants are even a policy option that’s seriously being considered. But it is worth talking about because it would be a major change in policy that will have consequences.

Are these the consequences we want?

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7 Responses to Long-term grants

  1. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    Thanks for this, Ben.

    Another way to think about the effects of long term grants is to look at the way that funded Centres work (such as the Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence).

    If the model is to give fewer, larger grants for a longer period of time, then that sounds like mini-Centres of Excellence to me. Most Centres of Excellence fund both post-graduate and post-doctoral programs. However, you are right that a mini-Centre might not have the funding to do both.

    Another thing to consider is that fewer, larger grants for longer periods of time will mean tougher competition (and probably more collaborations). It will help to push funding towards particular research strengths, which is something the Government has been asking us to do since the mid 1990s (at least). In the current climate, that might mean that researchers need to show both excellence and impact (‘applied’ outcomes). Which might not be to Brian Schmidt’s advantage. Don’t get me wrong – I love his work, both research and with the wider community. But you don’t get much more ‘pure’ than supernovae and gamma ray bursts.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      That’s precisely my concern with the idea of long-term grants. While as a former bouncing fixed-termer, the idea of a longer gig is attractive, I recognise that those likely to get these fatter grants will be the established and proven track-record types. That is: it wouldn’t have been me.

      Making scarce opportunities even more scarce isn’t a good way to go. What the whole system needs to make it work better and be much more competitive in the current international research climate is MOAR FUNDING. Working with a compromised amount and discipline-baiting (e.g. “you humanities researchers waste _our_ scarce resources…”) isn’t moving Australia forward in the innovation or capacity stakes.

  2. I just remembered watching the tweet-stream from the recent NHMRC peer review symposium. 5-year grants came up there, too. Prof Doug Hilton from the Walter and Eliza Hall institute spoke specifically for them (pdf of abstracts here) and Dr Darren Saunders tweeted that Prof Melissa Little showed modelling that showed “5 year project grants would significantly reduce both number of new applicants & success rate”.

  3. Reza Mohammed says:

    This article paints a bleak picture, but as a former ECR, I can attest to it being spot on!

    As a newbie to this blog, I am unsure if this topic has been discussed before, but I would love to see an article or discussion on “where the heck are all the PhDs supposed to go?”.

    A PhD translates to “cheap labour”; the lucky ones get a postdoc contract, and after that, many are not given contract renewals for a number of reasons including the project terminating and there being no academic vacancies. Many end up in jobs that never required a PhD in the first place, and the system says “well, you should have been applying for your own grants to support yourself and your research”. It’s a vicious cycle for ECRs…..

    So why are we churning out so many PhD graduates when there just aren’t enough postdoctoral positions, academic positions, and grants to go around? And maybe more importantly, why are students still signing up to do PhDs? Maybe I should write a blog post on this. :D

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