on grant culture

(cross-posted from my Substack, where this little afternoon rant got far more attention than I’d expected. if you like it you can subscribe over there.)

My department loves to talk about grants.

Every meeting, retreat, one-off panel discussion seems as though it has a requirement to mention grants. Random email from a university person I’ve never met? Probably about grants. An opportunity forwarded to me? Probably a grant. Intuitively, we all know that research is more than grants, but you wouldn’t be able to deduce that from the overwhelming focus on grants in department trainings and communications.

Let’s be clear: some of this is good. The grant-getting process is complicated and opaque. It can also be extremely time-consuming to put together a competitive proposal. If grants are to be part of a job in academic research, and if getting increasingly large ones is considered to be essential for tenure and promotion (as is becoming the case in the UK, at least), then demystifying how they work and devoting time and support to their acquisition makes sense. But the overwhelming focus on grants is more than that. It’s also not localized to my department. Across academia, the grant conversation is ever-present, looming like a grim reaper of academic doom in the corner. It’s been this way in the natural sciences for a long while, but hell’s gotten greedy and started demanding sacrifices from the rest of us.

A bit dark for your Tuesday? Maybe. A bit dramatic? Always, loves. But the fact that these narratives and frames for the grant conversation—what I’ll call grant culture—are immediate associations when thinking about grants tells me something, especially given that I’ve been given a ton of support to make the process less daunting and these are still my associations. And I’m not alone. To quote a colleague at a dinner party with other colleagues, “Are you not scared to death about grants?”

What I want to raise here is whether being haunted by grant culture is actually good for science, and if not (spoiler alert!), why it’s so persistent. In a nutshell, I think the answer lies in what and who we think research is for.

Why are academics encouraged to get grants? The logic may seem obvious: money gives you more time and ability to do research. Get a grant and you can “buy yourself out” from teaching and service obligations. Setting aside the grossness of this framing—that teaching is something we have to get away from, despite the fact that our job is literally to be teachers—the system is such that grants may be the only way you can actually make research happen. And if your work would benefit from deep immersion in an archive, or months or years of fieldwork, or specialized software or transcription services or other tech, getting a grant can beget better research.

But this isn’t always how grants are sold to academics told they need to get them and facing massive applications. Instead, sometimes grants are instrumentalized. “You need a grant to get promoted.”  This functionalist framing obscures an uncomfortable truth: that grants are, at their core, not about bettering research but about generating income for one’s university, and in an era of government under-funding and university mismanagement have thus become a requirement of the job. Universities administer grants, even though those grants are awarded by external funding bodies, and to do so they charge massive overhead costs. Some of this overhead goes toward paying admin staff who help coordinate grants, and while people should absolutely be paid for their labor, one does have to question whether that labor should have to exist in the first place. Moreover, some of it goes toward juicing the university’s reputation. “Look at us: so-and-so won a MILLION POUND GRANT.” People like big sums of money. We find them impressive. We especially find them impressive when we cannot fathom what one would ever use that much money for. Answer (and this is the absolute key answer): mostly to buy out teaching time—in other words, to pay my salary for a few months, or years, so the university doesn’t have to. In effect, the university is employing me, but someone else is paying. The university reaps all of the benefits of my work at a much lower cost.

So, why get grants? So our employers don’t actually have to pay us and can use that money to…better staff working conditions or provide more support to students instead? I crack myself up. Grants illuminate how much academia has become a monetary rat race, driven by societal devaluing of education that leads to inadequate public funding while university leaders pad their own salaries to profit off of this crumbling artifice. Put differently, grants don’t let us ignore what a mess our industry has become—which would be a good thing, awareness-wise, if we weren’t forced to pay for funding shortcomings with more time taken away from teaching and research.

(“Hey Anna, are you angry?” Why aren’t you?)

So that’s why, at least in part, we’re made to get grants. Suppose you want to play the game, or decide you need to because jobs are hard to get and you’d like to keep yours. Very fair; no judgment. How do you get a grant? A recent article in Nature claims that “disruptive” science has declined and no one knows why. This is a complex issue and I don’t claim to have the full story. But I’d suggest a fair bit of it comes from grant culture, because when you have to get a grant and competition for grants is so extensive, you propose the project that is most likely to get funded. Proposing something off the beaten path is an enormous risk in time and energy potentially wasted. This is especially true if it’s your first grant application, because getting one grant opens the door to getting others. And it’s also true if your grant is coming from the government, as many grants for social science research are, because governments exist to perpetuate status quos, not transformative evidence-based change.

If the detrimental effects of this reality aren’t obvious, let me point you toward the counterterrorism research industry after 9/11 in the US. There was an explosion in government funding for research on something called “terrorism”—always, of course, defined from a state-centric perspective, and never considered in ways that could implicate US actions in any way. This isn’t a critique so much as a sigh: governments gonna government. But what it meant was that the imperialist practices embedded in US foreign policy were reproduced, not questioned; the Islamophobia baked into US society long before 9/11 was perpetuated, not challenged; the myth of terror as an external threat rooted in opposition to Western “freedoms” carried on and, worse, gained legitimacy through the backing of scientific “evidence.” We rightly question the validity of food safety or nutrition studies funded by food manufacturers; why do we accept at face value studies of anti-state action funded by the state?

But this is what grant culture produces. This is what funding competitions create. This is how we produce propaganda for the status quo. And sometimes we produce really interesting, important, insightful work in this system! Systems require exceptions to obscure their power.

Caveats abound: not all grants come from the state. Many come from private foundations, funded by rich people whose interests are entangled with those of the state through class politics and capitalism, even if these entanglements are not immediately apparent. Other grants come from smaller organizations or NGOs, and are in turn smaller and de-emphasized by universities because people like big sums of money and find them impressive. You see a pattern. I haven’t even touched upon the fact that some of the most important projects don’t require large amounts of money. Looking through an online archive while at my desk takes nothing but time. And if universities want me to do that, they need to build that time into my job, not force me to buy it back from them.

“Anna, are you sore because you’ve never gotten a major grant?” It’s a fair question, but no, I’m not. The only sizable grant (read: more than a few thousand pound) I’ve ever applied for was an NSF fellowship as a first-year grad student, which was inadvisable for a variety of reasons, and it makes complete sense why I didn’t get that one. I can’t be upset about not getting something I haven’t tried to get. But I can be upset—and quite rationally so, I think—about my employer requiring me to find an external source for my salary so I can receive the privilege, not the right, to do the research listed in my contract as a third of my contracted hours. And I can be scared shitless that I won’t be able to stay in this profession if I don’t devote an inordinate amount of time and labor to proposing a project I may or may not care about to maximize my chances of getting a sum of money I don’t actually need.

I think a lot of us are scared shitless of the grant grim reaper. And the solution to that isn’t more “how to get a grant” panels or emails with application opportunities. Those tactics may help on the margins, but they also overwhelm, and their functionalist framing inspires resentment rather than empowerment. An actual answer is structural transformation, starting (perhaps paradoxically) from the state with a recommitment to proper funding for higher education and the research its highly trained experts know how to prioritize and execute, if they are only given the space to do so. Give me a transparency and accountability panel on university efforts to lobby the government for that. Now there’s a good use of my time.

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