According to my estimates, I use around four to five weeks of my annual working time on acquiring funding. This includes my personal applications for larger research projects and assisting others with their applications. Our research group has succeeded well in applications, but sometimes there are dry periods when no money is coming in – regardless of our carefully prepared applications. Is this all a waste of time?

I believe it is not. Even if you have all money in the world for your research, you must plan your study carefully. When making applications, I read more articles related to the topic than I usually do. I also consider the topic from different theoretical viewpoints and discuss intensively with colleagues. In the planning phase of a project, ideas usually get refined quickly as the deadline approaches. Without a deadline hanging over me, I am not so sure if I would be as efficient about getting things done.

I have usually been able, sooner or later, to carry out the projects I have planned. If I have not received funding, it has been possible to implement the study on a smaller scale as, for example, a project by a master’s student. In such cases, the study plan, and sometimes even much of the research report’s introduction, has already been prepared in the literary review for the application.

Is the current system of competitive research funding good as it is, then? I think it has room for improvement. The research plans of doctoral students are often prepared, to a large extent, by their supervisors. This results in an awkward situation in which supervisors first write applications with their doctoral student candidates and then write statements for foundations to assess the scientific quality of the projects they have planned.

On the other hand, those researchers who already have their doctorate plan their projects themselves, and I find it important that funding is distributed between them through competition similar to the current system. Only a small portion of doctoral graduates can continue their careers in research because of the sparse funding, so the opportunity to continue should be granted only to the best: those who have ideas that contribute to the renewal of science as well as the ability to implement challenging research projects. This applies equally to the subsequent stage of one’s research career and to professors who are just starting out.

However, I do find it is as waste of resources that a professor who has conducted several large research projects must apply for new competitive funding year after year. A significantly lighter procedure which reviews the previous project results and the new plan and budget should be enough, and there should be a guarantee that funding continues.

It’s the sign of a poor science policy if a successful and experienced researcher is left without funding just because the policy is seeking new initiatives or wants to promote the careers of young researchers.

Of course, I understand these goals as well, but they should not be supported at the expense of top researchers. It’s as if a top athlete, one with success from many previous world championships, were to lose the support of his or her federation and a young, promising talent with a new running style but no success on an international level would be sent to a competition instead. I heard this comparison from Professor Risto Näätänen, who made some excellent observations on science policy in a book from the 1990s, Yliopistot ja Suomen tulevaisuus (Universities and the future of Finland). The book is full of insights for today as well.

Piia Astikainen
Senior Researcher
Department of Psychology