A Call for Pre-Proposals

This year I have written two UK research council proposals and a European Research Council grant. They are each on completely different topics. I suspect it has taken about six months of my time. I was pleased with each application, but I don’t have high hopes for any of them, simply because funding rates are low. I am not atypical, and this is not an atypical year for me.

What happens at the UK research councils is one receives reviewer comments on the proposal. From my experience, about half of the reviews are positive suggesting funding, and the remaining ones grumble. They rarely raise any scientific objectives that cannot very easily be dealt with. They often criticize the research team, complain that some key literature is missing and request additional methodological details. A colleague of mine once told me that he had had several grants rejected at NERC that were better than everything he had ever been asked to review, and consequently always wrote grumpy reviews. He is a little delusional. Anyway, once reviewer comments are received, a response can be written. The committee assesses all grants, reviewer comments and responses, ranks proposals and the top few get funded.

The funding rate at most research councils is low, and lots of good grants deserving of funding are submitted. So not all good grants get funded. There is an element of luck in which good grants get funded, which may boil down to a committee member being sufficiently enthused by your application to champion it. The only way to guarantee getting any funding from a research council is consequently to submit many good proposals, with chance meaning the odd one will get funded. It is a strategy that many academics follow.

If a research council has a funding rate of 10% then the average researcher would need to write 10 grants to have an odds on chance of one being awarded one. Some will get lucky and get their first submission funded, other might have to write many more than 10. If a good grant takes two months to write and polish, on average nearly two years are required in order to secure a grant that would probably last three years.

There must be a better way. The National Science Foundation in the US has a two-stage policy. First, a short pre-proposal is submitted. Most are rejected. If your pre-proposal is not rejected you are invited to submit a full proposal. If you are invited to submit a full proposal, the odds of success are reasonable – sometimes as high as 50%. I would much rather write a pre-proposal and fail than write a full grant and fail, simply because of the time commitment. I could then spend the time gained to write up papers. Should we encourage the research councils to go down the pre-proposal route?

If they do, I will have more time to write papers. But what should I write a paper on? If I don’t have a grant, I won’t have any new data coming in. At least data that other people collect under research council funding now has to be made available, so there is the opportunity to use these data to address questions. But perhaps that is a question for another blog entry. So maybe I’d write a review on eco-evolutionary dynamics. It must at least two weeks since I’ve seen a new review on this topic.

Tim Coulson
Senior Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology
(twitter: @tncoulson)

2 thoughts on “A Call for Pre-Proposals

  1. Totally agree with you Tim

    on another point did you really mean that your colleague was delusional in that his remark about his applications being better than the ones he reviewed were unfounded 😉 or did you mean that he, like the rest of us who review and submit grants to NERC and BBSRC, are totally disillusioned with the whole process


  2. In this case, Simon, he was delusional. I will spare his blushes. He was also disillusioned, I have no doubt. As you point out – we all are.

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