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Fewer academics could be the answer to insufficient grants


The rejection of high-quality grant proposals is a problem endemic to universities throughout the world. I suggest that it arises from separating the employment of academics from the central bodies who provide grant funding.

Consider the country of Euphoria. It has just four universities, each of which employs ten academics of comparable quality, and one national funding body. Each academic submits two grants per year, only one of which is rated fundable. So each academic is awarded one grant per year. Into this happy state enters the ambitious new president of the Euphoric University of Fulchester. He makes his mark by doubling the number of academics in his institution. Now Euphoria has 100 grants submitted per year, but still only 40 grants available. Fulchester will get 16 of these and the other universities will now get only eight each.

This is a rational action by the new president, as the rewards from obtaining six additional grants are so great that it is worth hiring the 10 new staff. Euphoria loses overall, however, because its taxpayers and students are now paying to employ 10 extra staff, with the same amount of research being done. The other four universities also lose, as they are now receiving two fewer grants. The incentive will be for them to act in a similar way until Euphoria stabilizes, with many more excellent grants being submitted than can be funded.

This situation naturally arises in an environment in which employing academic staff is separated from obtaining research funding. We would be better off having fewer academics and using the savings to fund more grants, because then more research could be done for the same national expenditure. Such action has to be taken by governments, as universities currently have the freedom to over-staff and are rewarded for doing so under the present system.

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Doig, A. Fewer academics could be the answer to insufficient grants. Nature 453, 978 (2008).

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