Funding science: When bureaucrats get out of control

Throughout most of the world, scientists are almost entirely dependent on one source of funding: their government. So every few years (or more often), professors and researchers apply for research grants.

This gives disproportionate power to government bureaucrats and politicians. Should they ask that professors only wear pink to get grants, most professors would comply.

Fortunately, most government bureaucrats working for science funding agencies are nice folks. Many of them have been researchers themselves, others work closely with researchers all year long.

Unfortunately, when government bureaucrats do abuse their power, there is very little professors can do.

In Canada, if we want to get a grant from the federal government, we now have fill out what they call the “Common CV”. This is an online tool to report on your academic accomplishments. Unfortunately, it is a monster requiring between 2 days to 2 weeks of work depending on how senior you are. You read this right: just filling out your c.v. can take out 2 weeks out of your year if you are a leading scientist. Considering that thousands of researchers have to do it, the cost (in research time) is just astronomical. This is equivalent to a massive cut in research funding for Canada.

A petition has been setup and the comments from Canadian researchers are coming in. I reproduce some of them below.

It illustrates the limitations and danger of the centralization of science funding. When all the power is in the hands of the few… you eventually get abuse.

My point is not that the government bureaucrats are evil: the overwhelming majority are nice folks with good intentions. However, the system itself, and the incentives it provides, are not geared toward producing good science.

Comments from Canadian scientists on the new system

I did it, 2 weeks of full work for something bulk and hardly useful for a referee. (Roberto Morandotti)

it is disrespectful to the whole natural sciences and engineering research community in Canada. (Federico Rosei)

(…) this is a massive time sink. Moreover the output looks like something a barely literate high school student would generate. This makes us look like fools in the eyes of our international colleagues. (Todd Lowary)

Limiting grants to those who fill out long, complex forms means giving grants to people who don’t like to think. Bad idea. (Shawn Corey)

Usability of the CommonCV system is atrocious. (Timothy Lethbridge)

I hate the idea of wasting our intellectual resources like this! (Pierre Lecuyer)

Just another example of bureaucrats overestimating the need for bureaucracy. (Oussama Moutanabbir)

It is a huge waste of my time, it takes time from my other activities (teaching, research), as well as proposal writing itself. In addition Common CV looks very bad, I am strongly against it. (Zoya Leonenko)

Listing all routine activities is useless, a total waste of time and distraction from work. One only need summary and highlights to evaluate a researcher. If you want me to fill Common CV, please provide me a secretary who will do it! (Vadim Makarov)

The formatted CV looks awful – so many pages for so little information. And the time needed to fill the publication section is ridiculous. Why not use already existing databases such as researcherID, ORCID, Scopus, etc… (Jerome Claverie)

The common cv is cumbersome, taking far too long to enter information with field codes that are too restrictive. I was playing with it for about 10 hours to migrate into the system and my cv still wasn’t finished. This is insane! (…) I would be embarrassed to have a foreign colleague review a grant of mine that included a common cv. (James Harynuk)

The CCV is extremely painful to read, and makes the job of reviewing grants even more difficult. I am very concerned that the quality of reviews/referee reports will drop, and that Canadian science will look like a laughing stock if the CCV is ever sent to referees from outside the country. Who will have the patience to slog through this morass of seemingly disorganized information? (Jillian Buriak)

The current status of the common CV we are forced to use looks like a “work in progress” application that any focus group would recommend to further develop before any large scale deployment. (Vincent Aimez)

(…) this interface is ridiculously cumbersome, slow, and should be heavily changed and improved before forcing all the researchers to use it. (Marta Cerruti)

(…) difficult and time consuming to create and maintain with very little help to define what is wanted in each section. As a reviewer, who must read and absorb a large number of CCVs, they are so difficult to read that I worry that applicants are not assessed as fairly as they might be. (Melanie Campbell)

The user interface is exceptionally awkward to use (…) Clearly the designers considered only the convenience of the administrators having an easily accessed database with zero consideration of the research community. (Art Olin)

Given the current pitiful state of NSERC online systems, the CCV is going to be extremely time-consuming for researcher to maintain. (Andrei Frolov)

I’ve worked on the CCV myself during the Summer and I can attest that filling up the requested information requires a ridiculous amount of time. Even worse, this new CV is just a mere collection of data without any meaningful input on the actual value or impact of the conducted research. (Jose Azana)

Typical administrator invention which turns out to be an unbelievable waste of time. (Alexander Moewes)

Daniel Lemire, "Funding science: When bureaucrats get out of control," in Daniel Lemire's blog, August 28, 2013.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

5 thoughts on “Funding science: When bureaucrats get out of control”

  1. Hi Daniel, I fully understand. In France, we had such an overhead coming from the desiderata of the global evaluation agency (the AERES) that all departments complained, that was before the presidencial election. So the first move of the new ministry of research was to announce the dissolution of this crazy agency. But somehow those bureaucrats managed to escape and now, we will have another agency to report to (on top of the previous one). So, what does it involve for us?
    – writing a 60 pages reports (for the team), a detailed architecture of what we did and how it did fit the initial project (for each member) for :
    * the big agency (aeres)
    * the university (paris 7)
    * the research center (Inria)
    now the fun part, our team is also a lab so we had to write another report for the lab (to the same institutions) BUT this report needed to be shaped so differently we had to rewrite everything, reorganize everythin. And funny part, the publications did need to be a) counted differently b) reorganized differently. So in 2012 for the 5 permanent researchers of our lab, it involves 2 weeks of works and for the direction board, 3 more weeks. Without counting all those different financial reports they had to write.

    Worse part? this very little team is also involved in some other meta-layer of organization aiming at being the new support of research and we had to write reports for this layer too (called the Labex).

    God, just thinking about it almost brings me down to tears.

    I’m sad for all of us.

  2. Yeah, I found it. Thanks. I am astonished not only by the sheer scale of the forms but also by the pickiness of them – it is *so* easy to get an error message because something wasn’t typed quite right.

  3. @Stephen Downes

    The focus on details is disturbing… Notice how the tool also prevents you from ever telling your story. It is a grandiose attempt at putting people in little boxes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may subscribe to this blog by email.