7 November 2022

Biomedical research is highly beneficial for society, however also costly. To fund their research, scientists are spending an increasing fraction of their work time writing grant applications. If successful, this not only allows ambitious research projects, but also contributes to career development of the involved researchers and prestige of their universities. With such incentives, however, it is not surprising that funding applications become increasingly competitive, and accordingly success rates decrease over time – rejection rates of 80-90% or more have become increasingly common. In a kind of vicious circle, this increases the need for researchers to write even more applications to keep their chances of getting funded, thus further heating up the funding system. For some funding schemes, the time the scientific community spends on writing applications may even outweigh the research time funded.

At the same time, meta-scientific research has shown that the common strategies to decide on who deserves funding fail to a considerable degree in their task to reliably select the most promising research proposals: review outcomes are dependent on who happens to review the proposal, leading to common tongue-in-check complaints about the “grant lottery”. Grant success is further poorly associated with research impact, and across nations the fraction of competitively distributed funding is even negatively associated with research impact: the more research funding a country distributes via competitive grant calls instead of universities’ base funding, the lower the research success compared to countries with less extensive funding competitions.

In a small series of theoretical papers, Martin Dresler together with colleagues from the German Young Academy and the European FENS-Kavli Network of Excellence have studied such hidden costs and pitfalls of the research funding landscape. The authors provide several recommendations how to reform the current system: 1) to explicitly weigh cost vs. benefits before publishing a grant call (or applying for it); 2) to increase transparency to allow such calculations; 3) to reduce the paperwork and time expenditure required for proposal submission; 4) to remove or reduce ulterior motives for grant applications; and 5) to adopt alternative funding distribution strategies.


Dresler M, Buddeberg E, Endesfelder U, Haaker J, Hof C, Kretschmer R, Pflüger D, Schmidt F. Why many funding schemes harm rather than support research. Nature Human Behaviour 2022, 6: 607–608. doi: 10.1038/s41562-021-01286-3. Free online version: https://rdcu.be/cF5Bl 

Dresler M, Buddeberg E, Endesfelder U, Haaker J, Hof C, Kretschmer R, Pflüger D, Schmidt F. Effective or predatory funding? Evaluating the hidden costs of grant applications. Immunology & Cell Biology 2022 (in press).

Dresler M. Postponed, non-competitive peer review for research funding. European Journal of Neuroscience 2022 (in press).

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