During my PhD it bothered me how much time my supervisor had to spend on writing proposals to get funding to do science, which in practice pretty much meant that he had no time to do science because he spent all that time in the time-consuming business of getting money.

As I was finishing my PhD and looked at postdoc opportunities, I wrote myself a project proposal for starting investigators in which I spent overall about one month (literature review, securing collaborators, writing itself, etc). This was very competitive and only one in every 100 applicants got funded - I did not get funding, although I made it to the interviews, which I was told meant I made it to the top 10%. I am not completely unsatisfied about the outcome because I gained experience and contacts, which eventually led me to being offered a postdoc position by one of the people I had included as collaborators. However, the whole process of putting the thing together meant I lost about one month that I could have spent doing science. It also made me realize that even writing a high quality proposal in which I had spent a lot of time working on the details would not necessarily lead to guaranteed success. If only 1% of applicants get funded it means that statistical noise alone is enough to push you out of the winners pool!

Now that I am a postdoc I have to spend some time helping my new boss with his proposals and in the near future (maybe in the next year) I will have to start applying to some competitive project money myself. Again, this means that I will not be doing research during that time and will spend a considerable amount of time trying to get that research funded.

How can this loss of productivity be quantified? Are there studies on how much less research is carried out because of the time spent on competitive hard-to-win grant calls?

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    For that you would need a proper measure of productivity (one usual measure being the number of grants accepted ...)
    – user102
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 12:28
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    This might be of interest: How much time does a professor have to do research on his own? Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 15:00
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    And how to quantify the loss in productivity due to time spent asking questions about how to quantify the loss in productivity due to time spent on writing proposals? Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 15:30
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    @DavidRicherby I guess you are joking but in case you're not: I don't count what I do during my own free time when computing productivity.
    – Miguel
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 16:28
  • This is why Captain Kirk was happy to be demoted from Admiral back to Captain... welcome to growing up. Do-ers become managers. This is the way of things. Bill Gates stopped writing code for Windows ages ago. Steve Jobs never put an iPad together in his life.
    – J...
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 10:25

2 Answers 2


I think the question is barking up the wrong tree, to mix metaphors.

As you proceed through the researcher lifecycle (Ph.D. student -> postdoc -> professor), your responsibilities will change. For instance, one popular criterion for paper authorship in psychology is that one should have contributed to two out of the following four aspects of research:

  1. Grant acquisition
  2. Data acquisition
  3. Data analysis
  4. Manuscript preparation

As a Ph.D. student, you will mainly work on 2-4. The postdoc will spend less time in the lab (point 2), more on 3-4... and he will also start working on grants (point 1). Finally, the professor will mainly focus on points 1 and 4, to a degree on 3. However, the bottom line is that all four activities are "doing research", since grants are just the way money is allocated to competing research groups nowadays. (Of course, one could argue that it would be better if funding were just distributed equally among researchers, but that seems to be a different question.)

Similarly, in industry you could wonder how much time, money and energy is spent on marketing, pre-sales and sales activities and how all these resources could be much better spent on R&D, production and actually serving customers. But this would miss the point that without salespeople, there would not be any customers, nor money to spend on all the things the non-salespeople like to do. (And frequently, the conversion rate on business proposals is similar to the 1% you quote.)

So: don't see writing grants as a drain on productivity. Writing (and getting) grants is how you get the money to do everything else in science.

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    I understand that responsibilities change as you climb up the ladder, but is this really an optimized system? Much of proposal writing is kind of vague and technical (risk management, scheduling, etc.) and probably does not require a professor spending his/her valuable (costly!) time working on the most of it. Perhaps technical staff (with a scientific background) hired by the university could specialize in shaping the professor's ideas into a final proposal, alleviating the professor's involvement in copy-editing, etc. Some universities have similar schemes but I don't think it's commonplace.
    – Miguel
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 13:29
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    @Miguel: AFAIK, there are even commercial offerings, people who for a fee will work on your proposal. As always when outsourcing functions, you may gain some time, or you may lose some, since you will still need to provide scientific input, discuss matters with non-experts etc. My guess: if the advantages of outsourcing this to a (say) university-provided service were really clear-cut, then this would be a lot more common than it is. Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 14:56
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    I didn't know about commercial outsourcing of proposals. Perhaps you are right but I get the impression that academia is not really ruled by efficiency considerations...
    – Miguel
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 15:07
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    @Miguel: I agree with your impression. Then again, many universities have managed to centralize many functions, like IT, at least at the departmental level, because the benefits were obvious. If the benefits of a "departmental grant writer" were as obvious, I would expect many departments to have one. This could even be different by discipline. Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 15:44
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    I like this answer. I would add an emphasis on the fact that writing a grant proposal can actually really improve the science. Especially if you're bringing different researchers together, you won't get the money unless everybody is working on the same idea, and agrees with it. The grant proposal states what you're going to do, and forces you to make sure it's a good idea. If you look at it this way, it will be a lot less demotivating, since you're not just asking for money, you're doing the research already. Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 15:50

I think this questions presupposes that you could do more research if you didn't have to write the proposals to get the money to fund your time. The reality of the situation is that there are more people that want to do research than can possibly be funded, so some system must be in place to decide. Competing for grants is the least bad system that we've been able to come up with.

That being said, there are studies. I think the bigger concern, however, is how much time is spent on report writing and other post-award administrative activity.

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    "least bad system that we've been able to come up with" - Just for the sake of throwing something out there, I've seen the idea floated that over-subscribed grants would have a lottery to gain the right to apply. If they know 90% of applicants are worthy, then they only have 1.1 times as many lottery winners as available grants that year. Since worthy applications are being rejected on random chance anyway, you may as well do the same randomization up front and save tens of thousands of research hours.
    – user4512
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 21:08
  • @ChrisWhite, I don't think that would work. I've read lousy proposals by folks that don't usually have trouble getting money and some good proposals by those who do. Doing the lottery up front would leave money on the table unless you were also willing to reject proposals if they still didn't review well.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 21:14
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    online.wsj.com/news/articles/…, some research has been done to show that NIH reviews don't actually result in better than random research results, so we should just randomize grant assignments after some preliminary vetting of the proposals and save all of the money spent on reviewing...
    – daaxix
    Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 17:27
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    @daaxix Any chance there's an ungated version of the story, a direct link to the research article, or, at the very least, a proper reference to the research?
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 21:11

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