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I have now experienced multiple instances where a group of researchers involved me in a grant application where the total awarded funds were quite small compared to the number of researchers in the group. Thus I find the benefit of a successful application very small compared to the time spent writing the application (the awarded funds are likely going to be divided by the number of researchers in the group). I have also been quite good at getting funding from other partners or private entities (only a small share from companies), so I find it hard to stay motivated for these public grants. Yet, it remains mysterious to me why other researchers in the group stay motivated -- they would be better off doing their research than writing this complex grant application for an overall small sum. I must say I have quite a bit of experience in academia, and almost always got easy funding (not public funds) in the past. It looks like some researchers enjoy "winning" a grant regardless of how small the funds are.

Do you have thoughts on this? I feel odd that I'm not sharing their enthusiasm; and it looks like I'm missing some key element.

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    Why not ask them what value there is? Perhaps having a record of public funding will help you when you apply for your next job, or for a promotion. – GEdgar Oct 19 '18 at 0:12
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    Agreed, ask them! "Hey folks, I've had success at getting private grants from organizations X,Y,Z. It seems like more money for less work. Have you all considered options like this, or is there a particular reason why you prefer public grants? Or maybe we should think about applying to X instead next time?" – Nate Eldredge Oct 19 '18 at 4:16
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    We could start listing all sorts of possible reasons, but it's pure speculation and won't really tell you anything about why these people seem to prefer public grants. – Nate Eldredge Oct 19 '18 at 4:17
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    "good at getting funding from ... private companies" Typically, the concern with this is a (apparent) conflict of interest. At my institute we have all kinds of procedures to avoid this (overhead money would also be much higher) that make company money not very attractive. This varies by scientific field of course. – Roland Oct 19 '18 at 6:59
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    Public grants are supposed to have disinterested decision committees. So, if you get money from them, it means that you were considered worthy of getting this grant. So, it is reputation in addition to money. – Captain Emacs Oct 19 '18 at 13:11
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I'm not sure if this "answers" the question, but my belief is that people apply for grants for a combination of one of two reasons:

  1. they want the money itself
  2. they want the record of succeeding in getting the money.

While true of both public and private money, part of the prestige is that grants put their money where their mouths are. And public ones -- especially with longer histories can bank on those names (whether the banking is always warranted is of course another question).

Your point is vis-a-vis 1 and could be restated as (A) more money is available through other means or (B) the amount of work vs. amount of money is a bad deal.

But the defense of pursuing famous public grants centers around 2. These public funding sources are (A) well-known, (B) perceived to have solid review processes, and (C) they are seen as prestigious because of (A) and (B), which should also make them (D) highly competitive.

These features tend to make them attractive for career purposes. This is especially true when the quality of research is being evaluated by people who are not in the same field. I've got no idea what the Annual Peanut Factory Conference C's level is, but that the Snickers grant comes with $10,000,000 or even $1000 tells me that nut researchers would have competed to get it, and that you getting it means something.

In Japan for instance, Kakenhi from the government and how much you've gotten is a metric for getting jobs. In the USA, having gotten NSF or DOE grants can also help you in the future to get better positions or money.

  • This is absolutely correct, but there is also a third reason: oftentimes the "public grants" are quite flexible with what you actually do with the money once you have it. With them, you can often follow your research interests pretty liberally. With grants coming from companies you are, in my experience, much more limited in what you actually end up doing. – xLeitix Oct 20 '18 at 9:38
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In the UK, the criteria for getting an academic job with a remit for research (as opposed to a 'teaching-only' contract) or getting a promotion often include "grant capture" or "research income". Some institutions take this very seriously, and have even compiled statistics on "research income" by field as benchmarks (e.g.: "to get a promotion to level X, you need to be in the top quartile for research income for your field"). I get the impression that this is more important than the quality of the actual research (much easier to compare a few statistics than to actually read the research publications!).

Why public grants are a bigger deal in the UK

The major sources of public funding provide grants on what is called a "full economic costing" basis. This means that the grant provides some support (usually not 100%, but large enough to be a big deal) for the estimated generic costs incurred by the university for office space, non-specialist equipment (e.g.: computers), administrative staff, and other such things. The word to stress here is "estimated": in practice, "full economic costing" often results in profit for the university, allowing it to pay bigger bonuses for senior management, erect shiny new buildings to impress the international students, and so on.

Conversely, most private sources of funding will fund only the direct costs of the research. So, although the value of the grant seen by the researcher may be the same, the total amount seen by the university is lower.

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    The grant system in the UK, and the reporting of the amounts, is the product of generations of suspicious civil servants: it is the worse I have seen by a very very very long shot. – ZeroTheHero Sep 30 at 2:07
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According to iayork's answer to this related question, getting public funds provides tangible benefits compared to (some) private ones:

  1. Someone who manages to get a public grant today will likely be able to get another public grant in a few years' time, increasing their worth to their department.
  2. Public grants provide overheads that help keep the department running.
  3. (From JeffE's comment) Getting a public grant implies your peers think you will be able to spend the money well, which is significantly more prestigious than getting your rich uncle to fund you.
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The value of the grant is certainly important but so are the conditions of use of the grant. It’s great to have a large grant to pay 3 postdocs but what if you need to buy equipment? Contrariwise, what if you can only buy hardware but cannot pay people from this grant? The list could go on: travel restrictions, reports to fill, publication restrictions or embargoes, intellectual property, etc.

Smaller government grants tend to come with fewer strings attached, and can often be used as seed money: you pay a student out of this to try something out and make preliminary work to see if the idea “has legs”. If it looks promising, you then go for the bigger but more targeted grants.

There is also often a hierarchy of grants and the smaller ones function as gateway grants to larger ones.

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