Rambles around computer science

Diverting trains of thought, wasting precious time

Tue, 11 Jan 2022

(Tell me why) I don't like funding {applications, bodies, policies}

I was recently successful in my first non-trivial grant application, for a New Investigator Award from EPSRC. Great! Well, sort of. It's great because it will hopefully enable a talented person (who isn't me) to spend a few years doing some interesting research. In other ways, it's not so great. I have been grimacing at every well-meaning “congratulation” I've received. The process is a horrible, contorted mess that makes me sad, angry and anxious. I hate it and it is literally making me ill. I have one more proposal in the pipeline and another planned for just over the horizon. It is already too much for my blood pressure to handle. I am hoping this blog post will unburden me somewhat; if you read it, please read it in that spirit.

A small factor is that proposals trigger a social anxiety I have about “asking people for stuff”. I spend my life thinking differently from most other people I meet. So, psychologically, I much prefer to be independent and not need approval from others in what I set out to do. Writing papers is the culmination of this process: I get to elaborate precisely why my “different belief” is justified. Writing a funding proposal, on the other hand, is inherently speculative and so is a much less secure enterprise. I find myself having to “make stuff up”, or write things that “sound good” but don't stand up to scrutiny. How can they, when the research isn't done yet? It's an exercise in double-talk, appealing to some nebulous reader of whom I have little picture and no reason to respect. It literally stresses me out, mentally and physically. (I suspect this may be partly an autism-spectrum reaction, of being forced to meet expectations of a perceived “normal” reader.)

But it gets worse. A further aspect is that whenever I talk to funders, or to institutional support staff trained in funders' ways, I quickly get the sense I'm talking to someone with a wacky, bureaucratised and dangerously inaccurate model of how research works. My distaste and/or rage at this discourse has been stoked by many years as a ‘postdoc’—a concept fully deserving scorn-quotes, and one whose ever-growing prevalence itself owes to this inaccurate model. But now, as a nominally grown-up academic citizen, I am forced nose-holdingly to claim allegiance to all the nonsense. I feel complicit in the perpetuation of this idiot system and the resultingly horrible life situations and dire value-for-money that arise from today's publicly funded research.

All that would be bad enough even if the system were otherwise well-conceived and well-executed. Of course, it isn't. Its practices are founded on many wrong beliefs and flawed agendas. Here is a run-down of those as I see them.

The “project” agenda. Funders love the word “project”. They love to say that they fund projects. But in reality, almost all meaningful research projects both predate and outlive the funding vehicles that support them. A grant can be a vehicle for making progress with a worthwhile project, but it seldom delimits it.

The “impact” agenda. This needs no introduction. It suits my work well, but it's pushed to an inappropriate degree. To espouse it is to support misguided government beliefs that the only research worth doing is the immediately impactful. It's impossible to overlook the parallel with another wrong message that is rife in UK universities today, that the only degree-level education worth having is one that teaches vocational “skills”, preferably in “STEM”.

The “investigator vs researcher” agenda. Any project grant I might be awarded is partly or largely a vehicle for giving others time to explore what they want to explore. It may be that that is not specifically advancing “my” work, i.e. the work hypothesised in the proposal. Yet the proposal process requires me to ignore the former and pretend only the latter will happen. We can call the former “covert independent working”. It is regrettably necessary, because public policy allocates smaller and smaller shares of funding for overtly independent work (basically personal fellowships and a small fraction of PhD studentships). I have personally relied on this pattern of “covert independence” earlier in my career (albeit not without large doses of compromise and frustration). I've disbenefited from its absence (“one out of three postdoc positions ain't bad”). In disciplines without huge lab overheads, any researcher worth that name is also an independent investigator to an extent. That extent does vary. Although it might be workable to leave it down to each PI/researcher pairing to negotiate a mutually satisfying mix, regrettably, power imbalances skew this process and it fails a fair fraction of the time. It happens increasingly often when “successful” academics style themselves as “managers”. Negotiation is necessary only because funders' offerings have not adopted anything like the right mix of funding people (or institutions) versus funding projects, as I've ranted in the past.

The “national importance” agenda. National Importance should be a non-issue for any research worth funding. Inventing the future is always in the national interest. Feeding the business interests of Locally Invested Corporations may or may not be. If the work in question is not also in the global interest, it's simply advancing a race to the bottom, which shouldn't be rewarded by public funds. Examples of such races include financialisation, much work under “defence”, blockchain, fossil fuels, and so on. All this is not to be confused with the fact that that some national environments might make a good (or poor) place to do a given piece of research. If the exercise were simply about this, I could get on board.

The “training” agenda. Funders' calls and particulars are shot through with the belief that a bottleneck to academics' research success is their lack of “training” and “personal development”. In reality, the main bottleneck—besides raw talent and willingness to work self-harmingly hard, of course—is almost always firstly time and secondly consolidated time. That is not to say that all training is a waste of effort. But somehow, the present machine yields actually-useful training in at most 10% of cases. The greater part of that machine's function is much more sinister: to deflect responsibility, in the process gaslighting people into thinking that when their high-quality work or skills meet with limited success or limited opportunity, the problem is them—and certainly not the underresourced, over-competitive, incentive-broken system they inhabit. “The system works great for people who are better than you! Look at all the training on offer! If you don't succeed, you've only yourself to blame.” Meanwhile, public and institutional policy continues to ensure that no matter how strong the field, only a slim few garner the markers of “success”. The training agenda is about denying this political reality. It is most strongly in evidence in the situation facing postdocs who are searching for a “proper” academic position: funders and governments constantly dream up “training” or “career development” initiatives that they claim will “solve” this problem. It obviously cannot, because the problem is structurally embedded in (current) public policy. Training can at best move pain around and at worst just waste everyone's time, The added gaslighting just inflicts more pain.

The “token innovation” agenda. Faced with an incentive to “stand out” in a competitive field, or to appear “relevant” amid the initiatives and priorities du jour, the proposal-writing exercise gains an ugly new side: hoop-jumping, box-ticking tokenism. Thankfully I did not have to engage in this, but I've definitely seen it in action. As one very senior and successful colleague once put it to a visiting EPSRC bod: “you are just giving us incentives to lie”.

The planning agenda. Writing a “case for support” is a festival of bizarre over-planning. One has to tacitly claim to anticipate the future to an absurd degree, detailing “deliverables”, timelines on Gantt charts and the like. I try to make peace with this on the grounds that it is “a plausible story” and about “planning, not plans”. But one needs to keep up the mask.

The ‘excellence’ agenda. An open call from our esteemed European colleagues states proudly that “excellence is the sole criterion”. But excellence is not a criterion at all. Excellence with respect to what? The word has been abused to a point that is almost beyond satire, although this tour de force by Matthias Binswanger makes a compelling go of it.

The (metaphorical) suit-wearing agenda. Reviewers do their best to assess proposals' technical merit. But given the inherently speculative nature of any proposal, even with the best will in the world a substantial component of the “criticism” a proposal receives at review will be founded on superstition, impression and “feelings”. This is only natural. Proposals just don't have space to explain anything serious in scrutiny-supporting detail. Human beings faced with this underconstrained task fall back on a latent sense of “what a good proposal looks like”, involve large components of folklore and personal taste. This is witnessed by the huge amount of contradictory feedback I've received on draft proposals to date. “You have too few citations” but also “you have too many citations”. “Only include ‘management and risk’ in large grants,” but also “include more about ‘management and risk’”. “More verbiage” but also “less verbiage”. The whole process resembles the blind leading the blind. This is not because reviewers don't know about good research (many do), but because there is no reliable shared understanding of two mutually interdependent things: (1) how to detect a proposal that is likely to lead to successful research, and (2) how to write a proposal in a way that signals that likely success convincingly. So at last we reach the suit metaphor. The art of writing a proposal is like wearing a suit. It's an exercise in “looking the part” far more than demonstrating substance. The associated practices persist not on their established merit, but because there is a self-perpetuating belief that engaging in the ceremony, and doing so with an air of conviction, is a predictor of better outcomes. As a staunch suit non-wearer, I also don't believe in this ceremony. There are plenty of studies suggesting that far less effortful and more equitable ways to distribute money would deliver equal or better outcomes. Unfortunately, suit-wearers tend to become gatekeepers.

The funder-in-control agenda. This is an interesting one and is possibly the reason why academics find the system tolerable. I levelled up slightly when I realised that the whole process is set up to deceive. Government funders act like they are in control. The application process is fronted by bureaucrats who know little about research or its culture, but are instead trained up in the image of the funder's management (civil servants) and paymasters (politicians). Thankfully, these people are largely not in control. Researchers on the ground have a very different culture from all this. It is these researchers who actually review proposals and take part in panels (the meta-review that makes funding decisions). So, the funder's communications are at best in need of a pinch of salt, and at worst form a layer of active misdirection. Funders and their agents often advise in certain directions, such as “say lots about training and personal development”, “say why this should be funded this year and not next year” (I kid you not) and so on. However, the success of the application lies overwhelmingly in the hands of academic reviewers, who mostly don't care for these perspectives any more than the applicant does. (I say “mostly” because some do get institutionalised.) The same is often true of institutional “advice” from support staff—they tend to echo the funder's line rather than reality, since they are trained and briefed by funders. Many do have some experience on the academic's side of the table, but it tends to be up to the ‘postdoc’-ish level at most, so typically includes only a limited taste of writing or reviewing proposals.

The “prosperity” agenda. Faced with funders' glossy documents such as EPSRC's current Delivery Plan (I almost said “Deliverance”) repeating the word “prosperity” loud and often, I can't help feeling that an Orwellian reading of the word is sadly necessary. We know that countless technological and political changes that claim to be “delivering prosperity” are actually delivering poverty, alienation, dehumanisation and despair for much of the population. “Prosperity” has been conveniently redefined as consolidating the capital of the 1%. It saddens me to see my academic peers suckered by this, and sadly I do believe many have been (as voiced aspirationally in a departmental meeting not long ago: “wouldn't it be great if our department had an Amazon chair? a DeepMind chair?”). I have a whole other rant on this subject, coming soon.

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