The money man
We are all aware of the sweat, tears, and stress required to win a grant bid… but what does it look like from the other side? Jim Smith, Director of Science at Wellcome tells us that picking the cream of the crop is no easy task… oh, and he has a few questions for you
I write this shortly after a series of interview panels – the three-day bonanza during which our interview panel, divided into four ‘arms’, questions researchers carefully about their grant applications and then makes recommendations to Wellcome’s Science Division about which should be funded.
The applications that make it this far have already have been through an earlier screening by one of nine expert review groups, who look at the quality of the science and the importance of the question.
The interview panels also consider these aspects, of course, but in addition they allow a researcher to address any questions that the panel or the expert referees may wish to raise, and this allows the panel to assess whether the researcher can respond well to other challenges, and how well they might manage a research team.
Through this process we hope we manage to identify the best researchers. But do we get it right?
The right track?
How helpful is the interview? Does it in fact only test how good a researcher is at being interviewed? And how well does this correlate with how good a scientist they are?
Perhaps it’s a good thing that in the UK different funders assess applications differently; the MRC, for example, doesn’t interview applicants for its project and programme grants. I think about this a lot with my colleague Chonnettia Jones, Director of Insight and Analysis at Wellcome. We agree that when funding researchers, Wellcome is looking for exciting and challenging science that will improve knowledge and, whenever possible, make a difference to human health.
An applicant’s track record will influence our thinking, but we shouldn’t allow this to disadvantage early career researchers. We don’t pay attention to where an applicant’s paper is published – what counts is the science – and we take great care to make sure that equality, diversity and inclusion are at the front of our minds.
But are we making the right decisions? I’d like to think we are, but what is the evidence for this? Are we doing better than simply allocating grants at random?
The random question
With this in mind, Professor Dorothy Bishop (developmental neuopsychologist and blogger on all aspects of academia) asked in a recent blog whether funders should award small grants randomly to those applications that exceed a quality threshold. Surprisingly, to my mind, two-thirds of people who responded to her Twitter poll were in favour of this.
As Chonnettia and I develop our ideas, we’d be interested to hear what people think.
- What is the best way to decide which grants to fund?
- What measures of success should we use?
- How should we recognise that the tangible outcomes of an award can be a long time coming?
As scientists we’d like to think about doing a randomised control trial, but is it ethical to do experiments on people’s careers? Let me know your views via Facebook
Dr Jim Smith is Director of Science at Wellcome. He is responsible for leading the Science Division, developing Wellcome's science research strategy and managing a broad research portfolio.
(Adapted from Jim's blog here)