Applying for research grants costs a lot of time and energy. Which would still be acceptable, if the success rates wouldn't be so depressingly low. Currently, it appears to be an incredible waste of time and energy of some of the most gifted people in our society.

So are there examples of systems, either currently in use, or in the past, that are more efficient (any country)? And how do/did they work?

Related question, but not the same: How economically efficient is the grant system?

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    I'll post this as a comment because I can't find the proper links for other countries other than the US: fedspending.org. The big issue with grants is that the US doesn't fund grants at the same rate as other countries. The US funds more defense and military spending than education. (while not all research grants are 100% US Federally funded). With the low amount of money that can go out to researchers there's less people that can get access to it making it harder and harder for people to obtain research grants will less and less funding.
    – Memj
    Aug 15, 2015 at 13:25
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    I'm not convinced that the inefficiency you describe has much to do with the grant system itself, but rather certain implementations of it. My impression is that some areas have extraordinary competition, with seemingly random decisions. However, most do not. The success rate for NSF proposals overall is about 25%, and work put into rejected proposals is often recycled for the next proposal, so the average amount of work done per successful proposal is not incredibly high. (I'm not convinced it's problematic if the community as a whole writes several proposals for each funded grant.) Aug 15, 2015 at 17:27

4 Answers 4


Of course. Remember that in many countries, institutions get a lot of money based on solely being. As an example, in the Czech Republic, the Czech Academy of Sciences receives a lot of budget money for its operation, and some of the money is of course used "for research". Just as an example, until recently, almost all employment expenses (salaries, offices, building maintainance, etc.) was covered exclusively by budget money. Similar model exists in other countries, for instance in France with CNRS, but the difference is that most CNRS people are associated to particular universities, just without teaching duties.

It works well because you moreorless know what you get. Financial stability helps in establishing long-lasting projects etc. Of couse, some level of control is necessary so that good people get the money. In the Czech system, this is based on (AFAIK 5-year) audits which evaluate each person separately, and then whole departments, working groups and institutions.

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    Also, a lot of research money is distributed according to past research results entered in a register called RIV. The points for publications are counted using impact factors of journals and similar criteria and the money from the government is split between the institutions (and even inside them) according to these points. Aug 15, 2015 at 19:45
  • @VladimirF Yeah, that's sad but true...
    – yo'
    Aug 16, 2015 at 5:28

Grants may come from federal agencies, charitable and profitable organisations (e.g. B&M Gates Foundation, IBM), or universities (whole U, college, department). There can also be short-term research-funding entitlements, such as an annual amount for junior faculty, or a one-time gift again usually to junior faculty. One might, exceptionally, negotiate a permanent research fund as part of a job offer or gain such a perk as a consequence of recognition as an endowed chair or Excellent Professor. The latter types of gifts tend to be kind of on the nominal side. Generally speaking, though, there is no system of research funding that provides adequate funds and does not require writing a proposal which is evaluated for quality. There are, in addition, features of federal funding agencies in the US that makes grant-writing a particularly loathsome task.


First, the premise is a bit wrong, because applying for grants does generally involve a good deal of valuable work: careful review of what is known, careful consideration of what can be done, etc.. But that there is too much of that is probably true.

For alternatives, one can look to a variety of historical and current examples of low-effort funding within a particular institution.

Perhaps the classic example is Bell Labs. With a gargantuan research budget paid for out of Ma Bell's monopolistic phone rates, Bell Labs could assign resources to individual investigators with a minimum of fuss. The system there was relatively hierarchical, with people in higher tiers responsible for the scientific quality, and to a lesser extent the budgets, of those in lower tiers.

Another classic and current example is the U.K. Medical Research Council's Labs for Molecular Biology (MRC/LMB). Researchers at the MRC/LMB have to spend only a minimum of time justifying their budgets, and a maximum of time producing high-quality science that justifies their continued position at the MRC/LMB.

A new example is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus. Lab heads at HHMI/Janelia have to do little more than specify the budget that they wish and justify that any large expenditures are likely to yield equally large rewards. There are reviews every few years to ensure that researchers continue to do high-quality science.

These examples are not at all exclusive. Researchers in many industry positions need spend relatively little effort on grants. Likewise for various other research institutes (though many allow researchers to spend their time trying to get additional grants, if they wish).

So, in brief, the alternate model is: pick people, not projects, and trust that the best people will, on average, do the best work. Have some sort of periodic review process to ensure that the best work is, in fact, being done.

Note that this is not necessarily any more kind to people who are having trouble with their current line of research. In fact, it can be even harder--there is little mechanism other than having a high-productivity line of research that will keep one from being kicked out to make room for someone judged "better". But this possible disadvantage may be worth the advantage in letting so many people with so much talent spend more of their time directly using it.


If you're not familiar with it, you should take a look at the "Research Excellence Framework" in the UK. This is a system of annual evaluations of academic departments that is used as part of the system of awarding research funding.

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    It's 5-yearly, not annual. I'm not sure it can be said to be very efficient either.
    – Jessica B
    Aug 16, 2015 at 7:13

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