(Preface: this is an analysis, not merely sour grapes. I did not apply for a Discovery grant.)
Earlier this week, the Australian Research Council (ARC) announced the outcomes of funding for Discovery and Linkage grants for 2012. They seemed quite satisfied as they announced that they’d handed out $236 million for Discovery and $42m for Linkage grants, both of which will support grants lasting 3 years. These figures sound like a lot of money. However, using our scientific inquiring minds, let’s look a little closer at these figures and how they fit in the broader picture.
Taking only Discovery grants as an example, the $236m funded 778 proposals. There were, however, 3544 proposals submitted, so that makes a success rate of almost but not quite 22%. The funds requested by the 3544 proposals equated to $1.82 billion. To break it down further, the proposals that were successful had asked for a total of $465m in funding for their research, yet were awarded only $236m across the board, which represents a 50% funding difference between ‘asked-for’ and ‘granted’ funding. Therefore, it seems a back-handed compliment: “yes, you’ve got a project important enough to fund, but we’ll only give you half of the funding you asked for”. I know that people often pad out their budgets to anticipate the inevitable cuts, but 50% seems a little ridiculous. Cuts of that magnitude could potentially determine whether a project will succeed or fail, and can often mean that a research assistant or technical officer will no longer have a job because their salaries are often one of the things first to get cut.
The purpose of the ARC is to provide funding for all research disciplines. Which means that biologists, anthropologists, philosophers, chemists, astronomers, economists, law dudes, linguistics etc. all fight it out together for the pot of money on offer. Contrast this with the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), where they have similar grant schemes, but limit their applicants solely to the fields of medical, health and dental research. In the most recent round of NHMRC project grants (equivalent to ARC Discovery), announced on 17 October, $453m was handed out to fund 768 research projects. They handed out nearly 50% more money than the ARC, to almost the same number of proposals. Something’s not quite right about the proportion of funding to the number of proposals and disciplines.
Finally, that $1.82 billion. It sounds like a lot, but it represents the amount of money that would make all the researchers in Australia happy for 3 years. This equates to ~$607m per year over the 3-year lifespan of the grants. A billion dollars isn’t really a lot of money, just ask Dr Evil. The Australian Government frittered away over a billion dollars on a bunch of dodgy helicopters that didn’t work properly and were scrapped, with absolutely nothing to show for the dollars spent (see Seasprite story). Instead of that debacle, they could have funded, in today’s figures, over 3000 projects that would result in Australians conducting world-class research, generating knowledge, and keeping researchers in the country instead of moving overseas in search of funding.
(Post script: This is based on a discussion I had last night with Mr IncreasingDisorder, over a beer and chips at our local cafe.)