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Too many proposals, too little money: After researchers struggle to find funding, UW researcher proposes new funding system

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Research Funding

Anna Schnell

When Ferric Fang, a laboratory medicine and microbiology professor at the UW was first breaking into the field of research, his father told him, “If you have a good idea, it can be funded.”

Now, years later, Fang no longer believes that.

Research is the foundation of science. Theories are put forth and tested and for every question that is answered, seven more arise. Research, while groundbreaking, becomes incredibly expensive as the materials rack up. It requires equipment, facilities, people, and participants. This money tends to come from grants.

Funding is one of the biggest hurdles researchers face today. Acquiring money for research is a long and tiresome process which, more often than not, ends with rejection.

Fang, along with his colleague Arturo Casadevall of Johns Hopkins University, came up with a model to redesign the grant decision process by incorporating a modified lottery system.

In the current grant review process, panelists review proposals and rank them based on which they think are the most meritorious. This often results in bias-based decisions that don’t give all the researchers a fair shot. This new model will use a lottery system to replace the ranking system and give all the applicants who make it past an initial screening a fair chance.

The first step in the current process is writing the proposal. Depending on the grant, this can range from anywhere between five and 25 pages. This proposal contains data collected thus far: descriptions of the researchers, their teams, facilities, equipment, and finally, a budget that breaks down where every dollar will go.

“People are super expensive,” Elli Theobald, a research associate in the biology department at the UW, said. “Equipment is expensive too –– using it, maintaining it, keeping it up and running, but people are expensive.”

The grant is then assigned to a review board which spends months reviewing thousands of applications and dividing the pool of applicants into roughly two groups — the nos and the maybes. The maybes then advance where they are each evaluated at panels over the next few months.

Fang, who works on a panel for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), described the process as tiresome. “There’s not enough money to go around,” Fang said.

The whole process can take between eight and 12 months. Those who do not get a grant but choose to wait for their feedback sometimes end up missing the next cycle. In a scramble to incorporate edits, they end up losing out on a full year of research. Researchers often stagger their projects and budgets so they are never without funding or something to do. They often have multiple side projects running while they wait on new grants.

When researchers on panels are looking at proposals, they also tend to favor those with names that they have already seen. These usually end up being men, who occupy a majority of the field.

“The more grants you get, the easier it is to get the next grant and that means we lose out on the voices of people who are unable to break in in the first place because of all the various biases in society,” Emily Bender, a professor of both linguistics and computer science at the UW, said.

When looking at demographic information of students in science, a large portion of them are women. As academic experience rises, the number of women researchers decreases.

“This is called the leaky pipeline theory,” Fang said. “By the time you get to the most senior faculty, it’s a relatively small minority in many fields who are female.”

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for researchers of racial, ethnic, or gender minorities to break into their respective fields.

The new model will, for the most part, retain the current system, with one difference.

For a long time panelists that decide where grant money goes have been sure that they can differentiate a good idea from a bad one. When there are 100 meritorious ideas and only 30 can receive funding, narrowing the list down becomes difficult. This is when biases and panelists’ personal preferences for certain sciences or labs begin to dictate the cuts.

By eliminating this ranking process altogether, by taking all 100 grants in the ‘meritorious’ pile and running them through a lottery, the funding process can theoretically be made fairer, while saving researchers months of valuable time.

The Health Research Council of New Zealand currently has a similar lottery system in place which uses a random number generator to award grants to applicants who make it past a first screening.

Implementing this new model would not be as difficult as it sounds as it only requires changing one step in the grant application process.

Lottery systems have been incorporated into many institutions, this new model could serve as a step towards eliminating the deep-rooted bias in research.

“There’s a history of inequity in science,” Theobald said. “It tends to be old white men getting the grants a majority of the time.”

Reach reporter Ash Shah at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @itsashshah

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