The cruel world of funding peer review

This article began life as a presentation for Peer review and grant funding: From evidence to practice at Melbourne University, 17 November 2017. Thanks to Adrian Barnett and Philip Clarke for inviting me to speak.


Before I begin, I should point out that I write from a position of incredible privilege. I’m not an academic – I’m a university administrator. I am securely employed, and have been for most of my working life. My job is to help academics find funding for their research.

In that role, I work with Australian academics from RMIT University. I work with artists, designers, educators, social scientists and humanities scholars, primarily on their Australian Research Council applications. A significant number of the academics that I have worked with over the last seven years have been early career researchers, generally trying to win their first major grant.

Early career researchers face a cruel world these days. Even though they are an increasingly diverse cohort, they are still generally imagined as young, full-time academics without significant outside commitments. They aren’t. Many of them have significant responsibilities outside of work, taking care of children and elderly parents or working on limited visas, far from home. Most of them have no secure work, while being expected to take on increasing levels of accountability. Their research outputs, their teaching performance and even their scholarly engagement with the world are under intense scrutiny and evaluation.

All this has interesting ramifications for the peer review system that we use for government grants.

A professor stands at the top of a pyramid of scholars and students. Advice flows downwards and cites flow upwards. When funding runs out, the scheme collapses.

Beware the Profzi Scheme, on “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

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The gift of record-keeping: A tool for future promotion

Dr Bronwyn Eager works as a Lecturer, Entrepreneurship at Swinburne Business School, Swinburne University of Technology.

Her research focuses on stress, coping and time-orientation in entrepreneurs and integrating entrepreneurship education into STEM domains.

She tweets as @bronwyn_eager, and is always up for a coffee and interesting conversations.


Photo by Max Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash.com

I was recently asked by a colleague to help edit her application for a Professorial role.

As a recently minted PhD, and academic Level B (i.e. the bottom of the academic food chain), I was honoured. The process of reviewing her application gave me some insight into academic promotion, which I want to share with you below. Namely, the importance of record-keeping and a gift of a simple spreadsheet to help you capture your data now, so it will be on hand for when you need it in the future.

Reading my colleague’s application, I felt exhausted. Not from the editing process (which was minimal – she is a brilliant writer), but from living vicariously through the vast number of publications, supervision roles, teaching activities, grants, and engagements that were laid out in her documents.

I looked up more than once from my screen and wondered how she’d had time to sleep since completing her PhD. Read more of this post

Is the academic lone wolf extinct?

Photo by Krishh | unsplash.com

Photo by Krishh | unsplash.com

Academic lone wolves get a bad rap.

In today’s hyper-collaborative academic world, the idea that researchers might work on something alone, get funding alone, and publish alone, is weird and even abhorrent to many.

Yet, it is the reality for many humanities and social sciences academics, from postgraduates to senior scholars. They have projects where they publish and work on projects alone, as well as collaborative and joint initiatives that involve others in their own discipline and beyond.

It’s not a case of either/or, but the general vibe in many academic ‘advice’ streams is that scholars should not work alone.

Scholars can and do work alone, and they can be excellent colleagues, productive academics, and generous mentors. Sure, there are some researchers who work alone because they don’t play well with others, but many work alone because it is an expectation of their disciplines. Some work alone because they enjoy working alone, but it doesn’t mean they can’t work with others.

Not only is sole-authorship relatively common practice, it is in fact a sought-after signal that the researcher has the ability to create and complete major intellectual work. The opaqueness of who did what can be the source of much contention on work that involves more than one named investigator or author. Humanities scholars are not as often embroiled in these debates because they practice a discipline “where text and author are tightly coupled; where the process of inscription implies intimacy with one’s materials” (Cronin 2003 [196 Kb PDF]).  Read more of this post

Crowdsourcing transcriptions of open archives

This article began life as a presentation for Open Access week at La Trobe University, 23 October 2017. Thanks to La Trobe for inviting me to speak.


Poster for the Real Face of White Australia Transcribe-a-thon MoAD at Old Parliament House 9-10 September 2017, showing a handprint, an identity photo and a bureaucratic form in the background.A little while back, I travelled to Canberra with my partner, Sophie Couchman, to help Tim Sherratt and Kate Bagnall with their ‘Real Face of White Australia’ project. We spent the weekend transcribing documents relating to the history of White Australia, and Australia’s historical attempts to exclude people who were not ‘white’.

First, a bit of history. There was a period (not so long ago, in the scheme of things) when Australia used a bureaucratic system to bar entry to anyone who wasn’t white. As part of that process, we used a ‘dictation test’ to bar entry to anyone deemed undesirable.

If you were already a resident in Australia (because, for example, you had been born here) and didn’t look white, you needed to get an exemption from the dictation test before you went overseas. If you didn’t, you might not be allowed to re-enter the country. These ‘Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test’ are all stored in Australian archives, and provide valuable insights into that period of history.

Unfortunately, they are currently all locked away. Not because of the issues that normally relate to Open Access: ‘Open’ versus ‘Closed’ legal permissions (although there are issues there) or ‘ ‘Free speech’ versus ‘Free beer’ (versus ‘Free puppies’) monetary issues. No. This information is locked away because it is handwritten on paper. Even where the archive has digitised the certificates, there is no reliable way to optically recognize (OCR) the characters.

We lose sight, sometimes, of how much stuff is still locked away on paper, in handwriting. That’s where I came in. With my partner, Sophie, I went to Canberra and spent a couple of days transcribing this handwritten data. Read more of this post

Lessons from the Hill

Dr Taylor Winkleman recently completed a stint as a Legislative Assistant in the office of United States Senator Edward Markey after serving a year in the same office as an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)/American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow. Her portfolio included space policy, military and veterans issues, human rights, and foreign policy, with a particular emphasis on global health and trafficking of both humans and wildlife. Upon leaving the Senate, Taylor founded Winkleman Consulting, LLC, and is now consulting on the same issues, with an emphasis on the intersection of commercial space, global health, and humanitarian crises.

Born in Santa Cruz, California, Taylor completed the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine’s dual degree program in 2016, earning both her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Masters of Public Health with an emphasis in public health policy. Prior to beginning her veterinary training, she served 6 years in the United States Army as an Arabic linguist and intelligence professional. During her academic career, she worked as a freelance journalist and photographer.

Her professional interests include international development, zoonotic disease prevention, economics, One Health, Planetary Health, and commercial space policy. Taylor tweets from @T_Winkleman.


The Research Whisperer was approached by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to feature a couple of their great fellowship stories. We were happy to showcase the fantastic opportunities available to scientists through their programs. If you’re interested in applying for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowshipapplications are due November 1! Please note: you must hold US citizenship, or dual citizenship from US and another country.

If you know of non-US programs that do similar things, please comment with links so that your colleagues can be aware of them and follow them up!


Taylor Winkleman (LEFT) and #fellowfellow (fellow AAAS fellow) Dr. Emma Locatelli, attending science talks given by two OTHER #fellowfellows, Dr. Rebecca Reeseman and Dr. Kirstin Neff at a monthly event called NerdNiteDC. [Photo courtesy of Taylor Winkleman]

Taylor Winkleman (LEFT) and #fellowfellow (fellow AAAS fellow) Dr. Emma Locatelli, attending science talks given by two OTHER #fellowfellows, Dr. Rebecca Reeseman and Dr. Kirstin Neff at a monthly event called NerdNiteDC. [Photo courtesy of Taylor Winkleman]

The absolute worst moment that I experienced during my time in the United States Senate (the Hill) was during a softball game. While playing catcher, a collision at home plate sent me flying through the air and I landed in the dirt. On my head.

So, there I was, lying in the dirt, my ear bleeding, my arm bruised, with my head ringing from what I was almost certain was a concussion, and I knew one thing with utter certainty: I was going to have to keep playing. We were behind by ten runs in the third inning. We were certainly going to lose the game but if I couldn’t keep going we would be forced to forfeit. I got up, shook it off, and kept playing.

We definitely lost that game.

Thinking back on it, I can understand how many on the Hill would see that as a metaphor for politics, where you often find yourself fighting a battle you seem guaranteed to lose, getting knocked down, and having to get back up. My time as a policy fellow began in an optimistic September of 2016.

Now, in 2017, the situation for science on the Hill and in the federal government could be better.

In some ways, this seems to be the worst of times. Read more of this post

Calling time on conferences

Portrait of Dani BarringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Lecturer in Water, Sanitation and Health at University of Leeds and an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland

Dani works in the field of water, sanitation and health in developed and developing communities. She is passionate about working at the nexus of technology and society, particularly investigating how appropriate technologies, community-led programs and public policy can improve health and well-being outcomes.

She tweets at @Dani_BarringtonYou can read Dani’s other Research Whisperer posts here.


I love attending conferences. Not because of the exotic locations, but because of the amazing conversations.

Who has time for sightseeing when there’s so much networking to be done? I meet new people, continue discussions with existing colleagues, and get fired up about what’s going on in my field and how my latest research idea might fit in.

Recently, there have been articles about how prohibitively expensive conferences are, particularly for early career researchers (ECRs).

Photo by Mikael Kristenson | unsplash.com

Photo by Mikael Kristenson | unsplash.com

In some cases, these articles call for a scrapping  of the traditional model in favour of cheaper and more inclusive events, such as webinars. This worries me. Although I definitely agree with them on some issues, I feel like some of these “calls to arms” are missing the point of conferences and what I think makes them a useful expense.

Then I realised that, in most cases, the way that conferences are designed misses the point…

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Will the government fund my research?

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 10 August 2017 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


A government cheque issued by the Chinese Emperor to fund his war against the Taiping Rebellion.

Providing funds for suppressing the Heavenly Kingdom, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Sometimes, researchers are worried that their grant application will not be successful because it does not align with a particular ideology or a policy direction of the government of the day.

My researchers, perhaps more than most, have a right to be worried about government interference in research granting processes. Before the last election, the Opposition promised not to fund any more ‘frivolous’ research. One of my researchers was in the cross-hairs, with her project listed as something that they believed should ‘never have been funded’. Then they won the election – it’s enough to make a body nervous, dontcha know.

So, it comes as no surprise when artists, environmentalists, indigenous researchers, people working with refugees, with minority groups, with renewable energy or anyone examining government policy asks ‘Will the government fund my work?’

tl;dr – they will.

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