We found that scientists in Australia spent more than five centuries' worth of time preparing research-grant proposals for consideration by the largest funding scheme of 2012. Because just 20.5% of these applications were successful, the equivalent of some four centuries of effort returned no immediate benefit to researchers and wasted valuable research time. The system needs reforming and alternative funding processes should be investigated.
We surveyed a representative sample of Australian researchers and found that preparing new proposals for the National Health and Medical Research Council's project grants took an average of 38 working days; resubmitted ones took 28 days on average. Extrapolating this to all 3,727 submitted proposals gives an estimated 550 working years of researchers' time (95% confidence interval, 513–589), equivalent to a combined annual salary cost of Aus$66 million (US$68 million). This exceeds the total salary bill (Aus$61.6 million) at Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, a major medical-research centre that produced 284 publications last year.
The grant proposals we analysed were typically 80–120 pages long. If these were more focused, it would reduce preparation costs and could improve the quality of peer review by reducing workloads.