I’ve never met a researcher who had anything good to say about the soul-destroying process of applying for grants. But for all that’s bad, I used to like that funding was so competitive.
Peer review by an international panel prevents duplication, I thought, and funding bodies being so selective about where their money goes must mean that resources are channelled into research with real potential. It didn’t take long to realise this isn’t the case.
The same organisations that make it next-to-impossible to get a grant can be ridiculously laidback about how their money is spent once they’ve signed it over, so it’s probably unsurprising that I’ve seen so many grants misappropriated.
The story of my PhD is far from unique. The project was novel and exciting, and I already had several awards to my name by the time I started, so, unusually for a PhD student, I could bring in my own funding. Then my principal investigator (PI) had another idea, but this one wasn’t his best. No one would fund it and he had a hard time recruiting anyone to take it on. But eventually he “found the money somewhere”, and student Z joined the lab.
Whenever I logged into the orders system I’d see my unique grant code next to orders for student Z’s project – something I thought was particularly wrong as my grant was from the same medical charity that had refused to fund student Z.
With a year left to go, my grant money ran out. I could only continue because I was given another grant code and told to keep quiet about it – in much the same way as, I imagine, student Z was told to keep quiet when she was given mine.
The stories are endless, but we keep quiet. The department in a well-respected university where PhD students’ travel fellowships are used by senior staff. A fellow PhD student in another highly prestigious university, who earned her own grant, was told on her first day that the PI was splitting the grant between her and the other new student who couldn’t get funded. The new student left after a year with nothing when the money ran out: she barely finished.
We moan to each other, but can’t do anything about it, because this is what happens in our field – molecular biology. Budgets agreed for one project are bled dry to meet whichever needs the PI is prioritising, including blind alley research and ego projects – projects too scientifically unsound to merit being funded in their own right.
When one grant runs out, the next one is similarly mismanaged to meet the costs that should have been met by the first grant. It’s spending future earnings on credit, borrowing from one trust to repay another. It can only work for as long as there’s another grant coming in.
This doesn’t always come down to a wilful misappropriation or a moral failing. Unfortunately, a lot of people with impressive publications turn out to be incompetent managers of finances and clueless when it comes to administration. To put large sums of money into the hands of people like that is madness.
Grant applications need to look beyond publication records and start asking for details of management as well as research experience. They need to ask about the administrative supports available to the research team as well as the technology available in their labs.
It’s in the best interests of funding bodies to make sure their money isn’t being used to pay for projects they themselves deemed unworthy of investment. PIs have a reputation for being difficult and refusing to follow the rules, but they need money to keep their labs afloat.
Funding bodies could very easily prevent grants being mismanaged by issuing “fines”, withholding part of the next instalment, or in severe cases, blacklisting certain PIs for a set time period or permanently, depending on how far the PI has strayed beyond what it was agreed to finance in the first place.
When all’s said and done, the funders may be the only people a senior academic will listen to.