Culling Grant Applications: Heartless Killing or Act of Mercy?

Ksenia SawczakDr Ksenia Sawczak is the Director of the Research Services Office at the University of Canberra. She has extensive government and higher education sector experience, having held positions in academia, research policy development and implementation, and research management. This includes positions at the Australian Research Council and various universities in Australia and overseas.

This article builds on a presentation that she gave at the ARC/NHMRC Research Administrators’ Seminar in November 2013.


There is nothing like the Grants Season to bring out the eternal optimist in each of us. Could this be my year? Will I finally get my hands on the holy grail of the Australian funding world – an ARC Discovery Project grant? Will my brilliant idea be accepted at long last? And so begins a period of tremendous hope and stress for the researcher who, against a backdrop of the looming commencement of teaching responsibilities, struggles through the arduous task of preparing their grant application, often without a clue as to whether it will be worth the effort.

Why are grants so important? What would possibly drive time-poor researchers to spend huge chunks of their time, year after year, to seek funding from agencies which are often out of their league? In most institutions, researchers operate in stressful and confusing environments where they are strongly pressured to apply for research funding – sometimes regardless of whether they actually need money to do their research – and to seek out funding sources (that are often out of their reach) for reasons such as prestige, the need to demonstrate research endeavour, and performance review where grants applied for are one measure by which activity is evaluated.

But given the effort required to prepare a grant application, this doesn’t answer the question of what would possess researchers to seek a source of funding, unless there were some possibility of success. Chances are they do not know that they are out of their league or, more likely, that there are alternative sources of funding that may be more suitable for them at this point in their careers. Either way, there needs to be a shift in research management whereby academics are better informed of their likely competitiveness and universities are better positioned to lift their success rates through a strategic approach to grant submissions.

Head of a halberd

The Whole Point by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Every university wants to increase its slice of competitive research funding but submitting more applications year after year without consideration of their likely competitiveness is foolhardy. Who wants to be known as the university with a 5% success rate? In addition, this tactic of ‘submission overload’ does nothing to assist funding bodies such as the Australian Research Council. They receive close to 4,000 proposals each round for the popular Discovery Projects scheme, only 20% of which will ultimately be funded. Indeed, any university that has success rates below the scheme average needs to urgently rethink what applications are going forward. In other words, they need to cull.

What is culling and who should do it? Culling is about selectivity, namely picking from a mass what should be put forward. It is not about cutting researchers’ chances to compete for funding. Quite the contrary, it is about ensuring that they are better placed to attain funding by focussing efforts strategically through a balanced consideration of likely competitiveness and appropriate sources of funding. In other words, it is about ensuring researchers do not waste their precious time in preparing applications that have no chance of success.

The question of competitiveness is central to the act of culling. Identifying competitiveness requires a strong understanding of funding scheme selection criteria and familiarity with the characteristics of successful proposals. In the case of Discovery Projects, where the criterion for research track record is a whopping 40%, it goes without saying that no project, no matter how innovative or ingenious in design, is likely to be funded if the research team is weak. Hence, researchers who are still developing their track records should be given honest advice at an early stage that they should seek alternative sources of funding for their research projects, or wait until they are strong enough to compete in the Australian Research Council world.

In the case of my workplace, culling has been an accepted practice for two years now, during which time the success rate for Discovery Projects has increased from a little over 9% (2010) to 27% (2012). In addition, the number of ‘near misses’ has increased, indicating that the quality of proposals which the University is now submitting is much improved compared to previous years.

Introducing culling is not without its challenges. On the one hand, the university that will be hosting and administering the grant is in its rights to decide what should be submitted, as it is the university that is the applicant, not the researcher. On the other hand, recommendations regarding the lot of grant applications need to be justified and come from a credible source of authority. Tactics for doing so could include recruiting experienced researchers, such as ex-College of Expert members, to review grant applications. This is particularly advantageous for medium to large-sized, research-intensive universities which, from within their own academic ranks, are likely to find suitable reviewers, but challenging for smaller institutions which rely on the goodwill of externals to assist. Research Office personnel are also well-placed to assist in the process, although researchers will sometimes doubt the opinion of non-academic staff. This is a shame, because experienced research managers who have spent years reading grant applications are usually highly knowledgeable on the traits of a successful proposal, and well-placed to provide robust advice on competitiveness.

Nowadays academics and research management staff operate in highly-charged environments characterised by fierce rivalry for competitive funding, which is at once a source of support for research projects, but also a marker of prestige upon which the reputation of a university hinges. The challenge lies in being realistic in what is attainable and ensuring efforts are not wasted in this pursuit. After all, no one has time to squander, and culling could be an act of supreme kindness for the time-poor researcher.

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17 Responses to Culling Grant Applications: Heartless Killing or Act of Mercy?

  1. ChristinaInAustralia says:

    I so, so, so agree! However, the problem is — and you mention that, too — the current strategic planning culture, with its slightly Soviet bend (can our farmers harvest more carrots than last year? yes they can!), that feeds directly into academics’ performance agreements. So, an academic will be reprimanded for not publishing enough, and at the same time, asked to declare their willingness to prepare and submit a Discovery grant in the next round. An academic will be refused promotion, and encouraged to apply for a Future Fellowship.

    Such strategies (if we can call them such), are actually wasting money: the time of research managers, the time of academics, who’d be better of securing other funds or writing their publications, and time of senior decision-makers who need to sign off on applications without a chance of success. Not to mention the time of those who have to process, review and rank at the other end — most of them also academics. It’s really quite absurd, and Samuel Beckett would have a field day writing a play about it (Waiting for Discovery, Krapp’s last rejoinder…). Here’s hoping that senior decision-makers will listen to experienced administrators like yourself when they draw up their next strategic plan — you seem to have achieved that at UCan, with the “license to cull”?

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I’ve always thought, Christina, that recognising where an academic is at is extremely important. There is no point pushing someone to apply for an ARC if their track-record and experience is extremely short of the average. They are better off spending their time building their publication track-records and developing better collaborative networks (and doing stepping-stone activities to build team track-record, like conf papers and seed grant projects).

      A big challenge is mid-career or late-career academics who haven’t become regular grant applicants. Trying to snag a major grant when you’re quite senior but have no discernible wins is daunting. Not impossible, but daunting. That’s why it’s important to ensure that ECRs have access to a wide range of funding options (up to them to take advantage of the opportunities, of course!). If it’s just an understood part of the research culture and practice, makes it much easier to provide critical feedback/development advice.

  2. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    Thanks, Ksenia. You can’t argue with a improvement rate like that.

    I’m a big fan of pointing people away from major national schemes (when they aren’t suitable) and towards more sources of funding. Unfortunately, I often find that my support for other forms of grant funding (philanthropic, industry, etc) keeps getting diverted by the demands of the Australian Research Council (ARC) grants.

    I would love to do six months of development activities for the Myer Foundation grants (for example), but all my time is currently soaked up by ARC. Best intentions and all that, I guess. Maybe next year.

  3. Ben Kraal says:

    I’ve been on the receiving end of the “not this year” talk and it’s hard to take because, as Christina says, many Unis project an impression to staff that ARC is the only game in town. It’s doubly hard to take because it often comes at what seems like the eleventh hour, after the majority of the grant has been prepared.

    Research Whisperer has been instrumental in me trying to find out more about alternate funding streams, but the RO staff I speak with are often at sea on what it means to apply for such schemes and/or what quality and success look like. But we beat on, boats against the current. ;)

    • Ksenia says:

      I understand how frustrating it must be to get advice at the 11th hour that your proposal is a ‘no go’. For major funding rounds like DP universities need to have in place processes whereby a review of draft projects and track records occurs at a very early stage so that researchers do not experience wasted effort in getting the whole proposal together and then being knocked back. Quite a few unis – including UC and Griffith – have in place a fairly rigorous review process whereby researchers get early access to feedback on their project and track record before they go ahead to developing it into a full proposal. Funding schemes are often predictable in their deadlines from year to year, so setting up an early review process is defnitely doable.

  4. Pingback: Culling grants | Not Easily Obvious

  5. The article has advice that I have cut my teeth on, when being trained on grant applications. A lot of researchers would, I know, feel despondent when their applications are not allowed to go forward but as time has passed by, and they have realised the benefit of focusing their attention on schemes and funding sources that are right for them, at their particular stage of their career, they are far more receptive and appreciative of culling.

    Researchers already struggle with so many demands on their time, just as we all do (I speak from experience as a research administrator) and anything that saves them time and allows them to take a longer term strategic focus is only in their interest.

    Glad you wrote this Ksenia! This message needs to be re-iterated.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I agree, Shubhra, that researchers come to appreciate the culling when they realise the opportunities that can come from different schemes and types of funding (e.g. they may be better off getting some funding for collaboration and development than actual project funding for the moment).

      I think the key to any ‘culling’ process is a whole of context approach, where the academic or team get the chance to develop track-records, re-orient their project, or similar, so they’re in a better position next time. Nothing is worse than leaving researchers without options, or making them feel like their work isn’t recognised or has no space in competitive funding rounds.

  6. Jo Tacchi says:

    Would be interested to know what numbers are for successful DPs at Canberra, has that also increased or just fewer applications submitted?

  7. Jo Tacchi says:

    Just looked it up, seems it went from 2 per year pre cull activities to 3 per year post cull strategy. Important part of the picture I would say! The politics of success rates perhaps need discussing?

    • Ksenia says:

      Yes, we dropped the number of proposals submitted from 22 to 11, and grew by one propsoal in the success pile and three in the ‘near miss’ category. This may look like small fry, but for a university the size of ours that historically has not attratcted much competitive funding, it is a good outcome. It is also good when you consider that in last year’s DP round there were quite a few small institutions that missed out on funding altogether. For some unis, every grant is gold!

      • I’m interested that you used the percentage figures to make your point about ‘culling’. Culling is an unfortunate term to say the least and would I suspect be used only, or predominantly by research grant managers… certainly I would never use it as part of a research growth strategy. As a researcher and research leader I would reframe the discussion in terms of building competitive track records, and focusing on competitiveness and quality. There are a range of ways in which this can be done, within broader research mentoring programmes and support structures.

  8. researchwhisper says:

    Another point that Research Whisperer Reza Mohammed made (on another channel):
    The article did not mention (unless I missed it) the value of writing a grant application, and not being awarded the grant, but being rewarded with invaluable experience of the grant writing process, as well as the feedback from both internal and external assessors.

    Whilst you will get no complaints from the Research Office about submitting only the higher quality applications (I myself have reviewed 25 in the last 2 weeks), I do wonder if it is beneficial to allow more applications through as an investment for the next round.

    My DECRA grant proposal got rejected a few years ago, but it was extremely useful for me to read the feedback to see where I fell short. The down side is that the ARC (and other funding bodies) are probably quietly expressing annoyance that universities are overwhelming the system with sub-standard applications that should never make it past the internal culling system in the first place. Pros and cons to it, like everything else.

    • ChristinaInAustralia says:

      Nothing wrong with someone going through parts of the process — internal feedback, the RMS adventure etc. But then to decide to submit next year, after giving a good conference paper on the project?

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