The quest for funding – lots of funding – is becoming ever more important, and the thirst for money seems unquenchable. Due to the time involved in writing ambitious research plans and grant applications, the hunt for research funding is quite exhausting. Unfortunately, only around 10 percent of national and international grant applications is successful. All that work, time and energy, often in vain. I, too, have spent countless hours on grant applications in recent years, hungry like the wolf for that funding bounty – but none of my applications have been successful. Nevertheless, my colleagues and I will continue to apply for funding, so that we can put new and important research plans into action in the years to come.
While grants are key to the ability to conduct research, there is another aspect to them. Personal grants in particular are a boon to a scholar’s career. Until recently, it was mainly publications, citations and successful grant applications that dictated whether a scholar was ready for the next step on their career trajectory. These days, the focus has increasingly shifted to the broader spectrum of competences and skills required for a successful academic career.
Another factor is that scholars often adapt their research to the requirements and aims of grant providers in order to increase their chances of a successful application. This is an obstacle to innovation and the breakthroughs we need to find solutions to complex challenges. As luck would have it, the Dutch government is investing more and more in ‘autonomous’ research, which gives scholars the freedom to determine their own research agenda. This has the potential to lead to more innovation and offers the possibility of exploring new and unconventional ideas that might otherwise be overlooked. It also leaves more room for fundamental research whose applications and implications are not always immediately clear at the moment of funding.
Academia is about to change: there is now more room for diverse and dynamic academic careers, and the government is set to invest more in academic research in order to safeguard its quality. Even so, significant challenges remain. It is important to keep striving for an academic community that is open to all talents and backgrounds and to recognise that successful scholars need more competences and skills than just the ability to publish and attract funding. The question is whether scholars will continue to be led by curiosity and the pursuit of innovation, or cast this aside in the quest for funding.
Hanan El Marroun is professor of Biological Psychology.