The Disease of Externally Funded Projects in Social Sciences

Academics are like hamsters, once they are within the mill, they don’t realize that there is a world out there, and that they run in circles. Most of my colleagues nolens volens are part of a rapidly spreading disease in which regular moneys for research and teaching are increasingly substituted with external monies from funding agencies, e.g. the EU framework programs, or national public or private science foundations. As a caveat I would like to make clear that not all projects are bad, and neither are all funding organizations. The question is also not whether to fund social science project at all, which dominates the US academic politics these days. This is about how social science is funded.

Increasingly, national governments and the EU try to stimulate ‘excellence’ by making universities competing over grants. Grant competition is supposed to act as a surrogate for market competition among private firms: let universities compete over money like companies compete over customers. Unfortunately, the analogy breaks down very swiftly. Here are a bunch of severe problems this logic entails.

Let me start with a simple observation: in social sciences – unlike perhaps in natural sciences – there are rarely economies of scale. Economies of scale mean that the bigger a firm or production line becomes, the cheaper and more profitable will be the product per unit. This explains why in certain industries with huge demand for machines and capital input, firms become very big (just think about Boeing or Airbus). Social science is not like that: you don’t need a lot of capital, and research projects can be small. All you really need is a job contract with some solid perspectives, a computer and some travel money that’s it. Unfortunately, this is not what most funding agencies are about. They love to give money to huge projects, with many partners and big sums (that’s true for EU framework programs, ERC grants, and many national science foundations as well).

Of course, there are exceptions to this. For instance, if you need to collect a huge amount of original data, you will need quite a bit of money. Funnily enough, funding agencies are not very good in identifying those projects. There is the story about Thomas Piketty’s project, in don’t know whether it is true, but I don’t think it’s very much off the mark. Allegedly, Piketty and his collaborators applied for EU funds to do archival research and setting up the empirical foundations for his famous book (see the database here). Apparently, the EU rejected the project proposal because it was not interdisciplinary enough. This would have been one of the few projects in which there are clear economies of scale: you need a lot of money to coordinate such an effort across countries. For such a project several millions of Euros make sense, for most others it doesn’t.

Why is sponsoring relatively large projects a problem? Because it works like a Ponzi scheme you recruit more and more junior researchers (mainly PhD students) to do the grunt work. However, these new cohorts of PhD students need a career perspective, and thus you will need even more project monies to convert the old generation into project leaders for even larger batches of new PhD students. This tendency greatly exacerbates the already precarious situation of junior- to mid-career academics at universities and research institutions: those with unstable income, high job insecurity, and the lion’s share of temporary contract holders among the high skilled in many countries. And as in any Ponzi scheme the scheme is only beneficial for those on the top of the Pyramid, but the last group of people entering it, will have to pay.

On top of this, handing over the decision of who gets what and why introduces new forms of biases and dependencies. Perhaps this is less of an issue in natural sciences, where it is harder (though not impossible) for politics to undermine neutrality. In social sciences, these biases are much more likely: Just as an example: the EU mainly funds research that is related to the EU itself. Why is this the case? If the EU’s main interest was really about creating the infrastructure for a knowledge-based society then social science research would tackle the most important challenges of its time, and not necessarily those confined to the EU itself (see one report here). Even more problematically, there is evidence that EU-funded projects also have a normative spin: they need to show that the EU is a good idea (here an English summary, here the German original.). Now, in many sense the EU is a pretty good idea, but it’s also pretty damning for any social science research project, if the general outcome of the project is already defined from the very beginning.

In think this is only the tip of the iceberg. Externally funded projects create lots of new forms of dependence and often the loss of academic freedom. Universities become the hosts of a bunch of successful grant-attractors which are de facto self-employed and need to lead huge projects and commandeering a lot of research assistants, PhD students, administrators and coordinators. There is also, I think, evidence for the Matthew effect: If you have attracted a lot of projects in the past, your chances are high you get many in the future. Again, since there are little economies of scale, I think the opposite should hold true: if you are already busy with some projects you shouldn’t get more. Some successful attractors will end up with many too PhD students to supervise, too many projects to oversee, with predictable consequences in terms of quality.

It is also quite funny to think that bureaucrats are capable of selecting and measuring the performance of these projects. Any decent proposal would never guarantee the outcome of a publication. You cannot guarantee that your article will end up in a top-notch journal or your book project with a prominent publishing house (unless you know how to rig the game, of course). Hence bureaucrats evaluate projects in quantifiable output measures: whether you turn in your reports on time, whether you deliver what you have promised: a battery of working papers, reports, financial statements etc. Hence, in terms of publication numbers count, but it’s good enough to promise 10 working papers.

I think it is high time that academics critically reflect on them being in a hamster wheel. They need to form a position on what type of research projects really make sense, when and why. Here are a couple of recommendations. Feel free to comment and add:

• Given that there are already too many PhDs in the market, design and fund projects also for PostDocs and those in the middle of the career.
• Make project lot size smaller, forget about adding too many PhD students or too much money for research assistance. Make them funds effectively financing positions not small research units. (PhD students should not work, but do their own projects anyways)
• Funding agencies should ask for a sustainable element of co-financing: make universities not only contribute to the project, but make them responsible for guaranteeing a career path. A realistic option of tenure etc. Otherwise, universities have a huge incentive replacing more and more permanent positions with temporary-contract holders.
• Make the projects more open in terms of topic, and give less guidance in what important topics of research are. The market of ideas usually takes care of that. You don’t need a bureaucrat out there to decide what science should do.
• Do the same thing for evaluation: the projects proposed should promise less, but therefore more output that is directly relevant to science and its dissemination.
• Reduce the number of projects and make them less important for scientific careers: externally-funded project are an interesting additional source of revenue, but if universities are run like private enterprises they are no longer doing the kind of independent, basic research you initially asked them to do. If people only care about attracting new projects, while on a current project, their dedication to the current project will be lukewarm. You shouldn’t expect too much of an outcome under such circumstances.
• What did I miss? I am pretty sure, lot’s of things.

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