Reflections on funding panels

Despite what is often claimed, climate scientists aren’t “just in it for the money”. But what scientists actually do to get money and how the funding is distributed is rarely discussed. Since I’ve spent time as a reviewer and on a number of panels for various agencies that provide some of the input into those decisions, I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the real issues that arise and the real tensions that exist in this process. Obviously, I’m not going to discuss specific proposals, calls, or even the agencies involved, but there are plenty of general insights worth noting.

Scientists submit proposals to the various agencies mostly to cover a small part of their salary (summer months for most US university academics), or to employ postdocs, train graduate students, buy equipment or support logistics for work in the field. Some scientists are 100% ‘soft money’ meaning that they cover all their salary from grants, but it’s important to note that salaries are fixed by the home institutions – you can’t write a grant to pay yourself double what you got last year for instance. Many scientists get by without submitting grants at all (those with so-called ‘hard money’ positions – like university lecturers or government researchers), and if they do, it is often to support other people. For each person being supported by a grant, you have to budget for their salary, fringe benefits and the mysterious ‘overhead’ (some 30 to 60% of the total) that gets taken by the institution. Once you add in some travel and facilities money, most standard individual PI grants end up in the neighbourhood of $100-200K per year, and so for a 3 year grant, something around $300-600K. For fieldwork in Greenland for instance or for outfitting a new lab, the numbers can be substantially higher. This might sound like a lot of money, but the PIs never see this as a lump sum (it is a grant to their institution, not them personally), and as noted above, most of it disappears into the system (to fund necessary things of course) before it gets anywhere near the researcher.

Funding is highly competitive and, depending on the call, only between 10 and 20% of proposals will be funded. Choosing which proposals get funded relies on the good judgement of the program managers in the most part, but they are helped enormously by external reviewers and panels. Different calls can be very discipline-focused or rather interdisciplinary in nature, and both the proposers and the panel can have very diverse backgrounds and expertise. If used, panels consist of about 10 to 20 people (depending on a number of factors) who will meet for a concentrated few days of reviewing. For each proposal, someone on the panel is assigned to lead the discussion, and a few other people need to be able to discuss it in depth. There are also mail-in reviews from the wider community (anything up to 5 additional reviews). In typical cases, a panellist might take the lead on reading and analysing a few proposals, and have to provide additional in-depth input on a dozen more. That implies a couple of weeks of work to do properly. Over multiple days of deliberation, the panellists will review, perhaps less deeply, many of the other proposals as well.

In no particular order, here are a number of observations:

Page 1 of 2 | Next page