Things I learned at a funding agency’s “community engagement” session this week

  • “Your stupid new metrics are irrelevant to my field of research”
  • “It’s not fair that chemists get bigger awards, even though I acknowledge that their research is much more expensive than that of the other fields that fall under your agency’s mandate”
  • “You can’t make me change the way I format my CV! I’ve done it this way for years!”
  • “It’s not fair that you’re no longer asking people to attach their CV as an .xml file generated by the Common CV system. I spent days figuring out how to hack that code to include more publications than the format allows!”
  • “Postdocs waiting to submit fellowship applications until the final year they’re eligible, rather than diving in at the first opportunity when they have fewer publications, is ‘gaming the system'”

(all quotes paraphrased, but only a little bit. I don’t know any of the PIs involved – this was an event held at the campus of one of the universities with which my institution is affiliated. I went as my institution’s representative, and didn’t recognize anyone else there. The funding agency rep handled everything way better than I would have in her position. From my position in the audience, it was a very entertaining afternoon).



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"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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8 Responses to Things I learned at a funding agency’s “community engagement” session this week

  1. Fred says:

    … without knowing specifics of individual cases, one has to wonder how people get themselves into the position of being at the last date they could viably submit a fellowship application, having submitted nothing in their life before. My suspicion is that such situations don’t arise by accident.

    It’s just possible that “postdocs waiting until the final year they’re eligible to submit a fellowship application rather than diving in at the first opportunity when they have fewer publications” could equally represent the system gaming the postdoc.

    I think I agree with Athene Donald’s post on this topic, when she pointed out that the system fails people when it doesn’t “kick them out” early.

    If I was a departmental chair who wanted a good way to award the illustrious “Hobson-Stables Research Fellowship in No Other Options (Building Services Specialism)”, it would be in my interest to appoint a mediocre individual as a postdoc and then allow them to drift up against such a deadline, on the off-chance that they make a foolish financial commitment that ties them to the area in the meantime.

    An explicit rule along the lines of: each postdoc must submit two fellowship applications per year, every year that they want to hold their job, along with a provision of some protected time in which to prepare those applications, e.g. at a minimum two weeks writing time is made available every three months – would go some way towards eliminating or at least bounding the possible “gaming” of the system in either direction.

    Grant-awarding bodies could also stipulate that a fellowship winner must move institution with the award of the grant, or Universities could enforce recruitment policies along the lines that a post-doc must demonstrate that they have made ~2N applications for grant funding in order to be considered for further employment within the University system in any capacity, after spending N years of employment as a postdoctoral researcher.

    The grant-awarding bodies could also track and financially penalise departments for employing people in research positions who do not make fellowship or grant applications.

    This would eliminate any marginal incentives for keeping around people who look like “weak prospects” as independent scientists, which arguably is better for everyone in the long run.

    • This particular funding agency only allows each applicant one fellowship application, and the cut-off date is two years after the PhD is awarded. So everyone has two annual competitions for which they’re eligible, and since publication / productivity is a big part of the ranking equation, I don’t blame them at all for waiting until the second year.

      This agency has a pretty broad mandate that includes some, but not all, life sciences fields. Students and postdocs in the life sciences (my field) have other options – there’s another federal funding agency, a provincial agency (in BC, at least), and various charities that fund health-related research relevant to their disease(s) of interest. The trainees I work with apply for all of the above. But people in other areas of the natural sciences have far fewer options, AFAIK (not my field) – this is pretty much the only game in town.

  2. Alyssa says:

    Sound about right from heal-digging academics.

  3. Nina says:

    Well, complaining is easy, and funding bodies are an easy target. It’s not their fault that they have hardly any money to give away, and scientists are usually too busy in the lab to go and change the world outside (metaphorically speaking). Visious circle right?

  4. Hm. I was once in the situation where I was successful in two parallel fellowship applications. I sensibly opted to accept the one that paid more. My supervisor at the time did make a slight attempt to have me accept the other one, and defer the bigger one for a year, so that I could get an extra year of funding.

    That, to my mind, would have been “gaming the system” a bit (as well as a wee bit disrespectful to both agencies IMHO). I opted for the cleaner but greedier option. 😉

    • Yeah, I’ve seen people do that here, with a BC-specific funding agency that offers full awards as well as top-up / incentive payments if the trainee has other funding. You can defer some of those awards to maximise your money. I don’t have a problem with people doing that as long as it’s within the funding agencies’ own rules, given how little trainees make.

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