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

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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One with the lot

A lovely hamburger.

Yum, by Jonathan O’Donnell

There are a lot of clever ways to design your research. There are a few that are not so clever, too.

I came across two grant applications recently that used the ‘one with the lot’ design. They promised the world, if only the funding agency would give them some money. That isn’t clever. At best, it is a recipe for failure. If, by some chance, you do get funded, you’ll find it a recipe for disaster and heartache.

One application was a full-time fellowship for three years – a serious amount of money. The applicant talked about doing a longitudinal study of a population at risk, analysing it across half a dozen different categories, and doing a multi-country comparison. There was no way that they were going to be able to do all that work in three years.

The second promised a lifetime worth of work for a $20,000 grant. They were going to travel, do some impressive digital humanities work, build and maintain a website and convene a workshop. There were a lot of publications in there, too.

Both of these applicants were relatively inexperienced and seeking advice about how to improve their applications. Both drafts will be substantially revised before submission. I encourage applicants to give me very rough drafts so that we can do exactly that sort of substantial revision.

What I want to talk about here is the mindset behind ‘one with the lot’ projects.

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Learning from others

Thanks to the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) and the US National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA) for their fellowship, which made my trip possible. Thanks also to Kirsten Yehl for making my trip a fantastic success.


Jonathan looking nervous, as he holds a NURAP sign in front of a poster that says 'Chicago'

Jonathan at the Northwestern University Research Administration Professionals meeting

In September – October last year, I travelled from my base at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia to Northwestern University, Chicago, as an ARMS / NCURA Fellow. I spent time with the research administrators in the School of Engineering and the Institute of Public Health.

During that time, I learnt that there were a lot of similarities in working with academics in both our countries. I also learnt the value of reflecting on my own professional practice by discussing it with people who do very different things.

Here are a few of the things that contrasted with my everyday Australian experiences:

Scope: I was constantly reminded that the scope of research between our two institutions was so different. At one of my meetings, a Northwestern research administrator was thrilled that one of her researchers had just been awarded the Nobel Prize. That’s not going to happen to me anytime soon!

Northwestern attracts US$620 million (A$850 million) annually in sponsored research. That’s almost A$3 million more than the Australian Research Council. In addition, they have US$10.5 billion in endowments and other trust funds. This difference in scale leads to a difference in understanding of what research can be undertaken, a difference in how grant applications are developed, and a difference in how the resulting research funding is scrutinised.

Attitude: The Research Administrators at Northwestern are there to make it as easy as possible for their researchers to apply for funding and to do their research. That is (or should be) the same the world over. However, it is an important thing to keep in mind, especially when we are in the thick of things. Read more of this post