Would video proposals give a more reliable and efficient funding system?

THE PROBLEM: Researchers and funding organisations are struggling with the ever increasing time and effort needed to prepare and review grant proposals. John Ioannidis argued that burdensome funding systems mean that “scientists don’t have time for science any more”.

We estimated that Australian researchers invest an average of 38 days preparing each new NHMRC Project Grant proposal and 28 days on a resubmission. The ARC Discovery Project system is similar to NHMRC Projects Grants, and based on anecdotal data we believe ARC proposals also take substantial time to prepare. In 2017, Australian researchers submitted 3,136 ARC Discovery Project Grant proposals and 3,345 NHMRC Project Grant proposals. Assuming a conservative time of 28 working days per proposal, Australian researchers would have invested around 500 years preparing these proposals in 2017. Time is also needed to review proposals and in 2011 we estimated that $1,700 dollars of reviewers’ time is needed to review a project grant proposal, giving an estimated $5.6 million in review costs for NHMRC Project Grants alone. Despite the enormous investment by applicants and reviewers, estimates are that for one-third of grant proposals, success is somewhat random because of the variability in peer reviewers’ scores.

NECESSARY CHANGE: The grant preparation and review systems must improve to address the current challenges. Funding allocation should remain merit-based, but preparing proposals should be less burdensome. Written proposals are often dense and tiring to review. The proposal format should engage reviewers and clearly contain the detailed information needed to assess the proposal’s feasibility, novelty and impact.

POSSIBLE SOLUTION: Recently we argued in Nature, Trends in Biochemical Sciences, a CellPress VideoNature Index, and most recently in a Nature Column that an effective mechanism to enhance communication between applicants and reviewers was through video. Researchers routinely prepare PowerPoint presentations for conferences and record such presentations as lecture material. PowerPoint presentations with voice recordings are a logical potential alternative to written project descriptions. Such videos may be highly effective at transferring the key ideas from the minds of the authors to the reviewers, leading to better decision-making.

If you do not want to read discussion on this topic (discussion can be found here, here here, or here ), you can watch a fun video that we made a few years ago at the request of Cell/Trends. Following our video abstract, Trends has embraced this communication strategy, and many of their publications now include video abstracts.

TEAM: Adrian Barnett (Queensland University of Technology), William Lott (Queensland University of Technology), Joan Leach (Australian National University, and John Ioannidis (Stanford University).