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US astronomers stuck in grant-rejection cycle

The plummeting success rates in grant applications in the last decade are linked to flat budgets and more resubmitted proposals.

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Jiuguang Wang/CC BY 2.0

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the largest fully steerable dish in the world, is among the facilities that the US National Science Foundation has said it can no longer fund in full.

US-based astronomers and astrophysicists are seeing their applications for research grants rejected at higher rates because of stagnant budgets and an uptick in the number of resubmitted proposals, according to a draft report written for an advisory committee to the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

The authors posted the document on the arXiv preprint server1 on 4 October, ahead of a November meeting in which the advisory committee is set to discuss the issue.

The report highlights more than a decade of falling success rates for astronomical science grants at the NSF and NASA, as the number of proposals has increased faster than agency budgets. For instance, between 2004 and 2015, certain NASA programmes had their funding increased from US$71 million to $80 million, a bump of less than 13%. Over the same time frame, the number of proposals competing for a piece of that money jumped from around 500 to 800 — a 60% increase. One key NSF astronomy and astrophysics programme funded fewer than 20% of proposals in 2014, down from nearly 40% in 2002. And some NASA programmes saw rates fall from around 30% to 18% between 2004 and 2015.

“Up until now, for all of the collective hand-wringing about the declining funding rates, the only quantitative explanations have been urban legend and anecdote,” says Keivan Stassun, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a co-author of the analysis.

Rumours debunked

The report rules out many explanations suggested for the drop, Stassun says. For example, some scientists wondered whether the quality of proposals has been decreasing — but data from NASA show that among the astrophysics grant proposals submitted to the agency, the fraction receiving scores from 'very good' to 'excellent' remained roughly constant from 2007 to 2012.

Another explanation was that a flood of new principal investigators was beginning to saturate agencies with proposals. But demographic data from the NSF show that the number of submitters who earned a PhD fewer than 15 years ago has actually dropped by 5% since 2006.

However, the main problem, the report concludes, is that while funding has stayed flat, the total number of astronomers has continued to rise. And the rate of resubmitted proposals has risen even faster, as investigators who failed to secure funding one year tried again in following years. These resubmissions now account for a disproportionate number of grant applications, compounding the problem and causing the dramatic drop in success rates.

Stassun and his colleagues estimated how the amount of time spent writing grant proposals affects scientific productivity, by comparing the time that investigators take to prepare their applications2 to their chance of winning a grant and the average number of papers that a grant typically produces. They suggest that if success rates were to dip to 6%, the grants would result in fewer papers than the productivity the community as a whole lost in the application process.

A wider problem

The problem of low success rates is not limited to astronomy and astrophysics, says Joel Parriott, director of public policy for the American Astronomical Society in Washington DC. “It's obviously not just us; it's all basic research,” Parriott says.

The report enumerates the “knobs” that agencies can adjust to improve success rates, such as reducing the size of the average grant and shifting more money from facilities to investigators. Other fixes, such as limiting the number of proposals from investigators who have submitted too many unsuccessful applications, only “disguise the problem”, the report argues.

For his part, Stassun thinks that the idea of shifting some resources from facilities to grants deserves a closer look. Indeed, the NSF is currently executing plans to stop supporting several large telescopes. Stassun says that there is always a “difficult balance to be struck” between investing in facilities and the people who will use them to make discoveries.

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
526,
Pages:
620
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nature.2015.18631

References

  1. Cushman, P. et al. Preprint at http://arxiv.org/abs/1510.01647 (2015).

  2. von Hippel, T. & von Hippel, C. PLoS ONE 10, e0118494 (2015).

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  1. Avatar for David Gurwitz
    David Gurwitz
    Better transparency of the grant allocation process is called for The frustration described in this news story is far from being unique among astronomers. Research application success rates have been falling just the same in biomedical sciences. For example, the success rate of NIH grants combined has fallen from 34% in 2001 to 19% in 2012, while that of new targeted proposals fell from 28% to 14% during the same period [1]. One measure for reducing such frustrations, while at the same time increasing public trust in scientific research integrity, is improving the transparency of the grant evaluation process, as well as openly publishing the final scientific reports of funded grants once they are concluded, as we have recently proposed [2]. According to our 2014 survey, only four of 27 surveyed agencies publish the final reports on their websites, while none publishes the final assessment of successful grant applications [2]. As we wrote a year ago: “Better transparency of the grant funding selection process would enable researchers and the public to have a better understanding of how public money is spent on scientific research; it will contribute to improved public trust in scientific research integrity while creating a new intersection for public engagement with scientific research without being detrimental to its quality or to peer review integrity.” This is true for all science disciplines (and including astronomy). [1] NIH Reporter 2013. Available: http://report.nih.gov/nihdatabook/index.aspx?catid=12 [2] Gurwitz D, Milanesi E, Koenig T. Grant application review: the case of transparency. PLoS Biol. 2014 Dec 2;12(12):e1002010. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002010. David Gurwitz Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel-Aviv University E-mail: gurwitz@post.tau.ac.il
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