Funding rates for most research grant systems are currently very low, typically around 10%. This means that 90% of the time spent on writing and evaluating grant applications is wasted. It means that if each grant spans 5 years, then a PI has to write about 2 grants per year to be continuously funded; in practice, to reduce risk it should be more than 2 per year. It is an enormous waste, and in addition to that, it is accepted that below a certain funding rate, grant selection is essentially random (Fang et al., 2016). Such competition also introduces conservative biases (since only those applications that are consensual can make it to the top 10%), for example against interdisciplinary studies. Thus, low funding rates are a problem not only because of waste but also because they introduce distortions.
For these reasons, a number of scientists have proposed to introduce a lottery system (Fang 2016; see also Mark Humphries’ post): after a first selection, of say, the top 20-30%, the winners are picked at random. This would reduce bias without impacting quality. Thus, it would certainly be a progress. However, it does not address the problem of waste. 90% of applications would still be written in vain.
First, there is a very elementary enhancement to be implemented: pick at random before you evaluate the grants, i.e., directly reject every other grant, then select the best 20%. This gives exactly the same result, except the cost of evaluation is divided by two.
Now I am sure it would feel quite frustrating for an applicant to write a full grant only to get immediately rejected by the flip of a coin. So there is again a very simple enhancement: decide who will get rejected before they write the application. Pick at random 50% of scientists and invite them to submit a grant. Again, the result is the same, but in addition you reduce the time spent on grant writing by two.
At this point we might wonder why do this initial selection at random? This introduces variance for no good reason. You never know in advance whether you will be allowed to get funding next year and this seems arbitrary. Thus, there is an obvious enhancement: replace lottery by rotation. Every PI is allowed to submit a grant only every two years. Again, this is equivalent on average to the initial lottery system, except there is less variance and less waste.
This reasoning leads me to a more general point. There is a simple way to increase the success rate of a grant system, which is to reduce the number of applications. The average funding rate of labs does not depend on the number of applications; it depends on the budget and only on the budget. If you bar 50% of scientists from applying, then you don’t divide by two the average budget of every lab. The average budget allocated to each lab is the same, but the success rate is doubled.
The counter-intuitive part is that individually, you increase your personal success rate if you apply to more calls. But collectively it is exactly the opposite: the global success rate decreases if there are more calls (for the same overall budget), since there are more applications. This is because the success rate is low because of other people submitting, not because you are submitting. This is a tragedy of commons phenomenon.
There is a simple way to solve it, which is to add constraints. There are different ways to do it: 1) reduce the frequency of calls, and merge redundant calls, 2) introduce a rotation (e.g. those born on even years submit on even years), 3) do not allow submission if you are already funded (or say, in the first years). Any of these constraints mechanically increases the success rate, thus reduces both waste and bias, with no impact on average funding. It is better than a lottery.
p.s.: There is also an obvious and efficient way to reduce the problem, which is to increase base funding, so that scientists do not need grants in order to survive (see this and other ideas in a previous post).