Fund my research! … please?

The other day I sat through a long session where research funding was being discussed. There were professors, researchers, doctoral students as well as representatives of funders (i.e. foundations) present. Of course there were, I might add here, for applying for funding seems to be the single most important function of the modern university!

The art of wooing the evaluators is something all academicians today must learn, and of course in many ways this has always been so. Whether the source of funding has been an aristocrat’s family or an industry tycoon, we often come back to the question of how to sell our darling projects to the uninitiated. However, listening to some contemporary funding sources explaining their procedures and principles I cannot help but think that the structure has become more important than the content. This is especially prevalent in so-called public funding (I’m looking at you, EU). If you don’t follow the rules by the tiniest detail, you will be automatically dismissed. If you happen to submit your application to the wrong field, even if there is no right one for you, you are out of luck. Okay, one representative of a regional fund said that they (or he) sometimes corrects an application that has clearly been marked as something it is not. I wish the systems would be flexible enough to provide more opportunities for this…

The situation is not all that easy from the funders’ point-of-view, either. Sometimes, especially when a fund is based on wills or donations, the original donator might have specified very carefully what kind of research can or cannot be supported. This can actually lead to very interesting results. For example, a will might have specified that the money can only be given to research on a specific illness and/or for researchers coming from a specific geographical area, but it is impossible to evaluate whether there will be applicants filling these requirements once a call is opened.

I am a great proponent of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I think we cannot ever know what kind of knowledge or insight will be of use in the future, and sometimes (often?) even this is not the point. We simply need to try to understand the world around us and ourselves in it, and this endeavor is important in itself. This is why I have followed with some concern the development of universities towards what I feel is a more applied direction, where “innovation” and industrial contacts are being stressed as funding criteria.

Learning how to apply for funding is one of the key competencies of contemporary researchers. It is a double-edged sword, this need for simplifying and selling your study, but it is something that you cannot escape from if you want to flourish in the academia. Time to practice your elevator speech?