Value for money?

headimg Is your research good value for money?

Recently Andrew Jackson over on EcoEvo@TCD was talking about the problems that those of us with low budget science sometimes face within our institutions and (ironically) with funding bodies. Specifically the problem is that increasingly large grants are required to gain tenure etc., but for those of us with cheap research getting large grants is difficult and unnecessary. All of this got me thinking about exactly what the value for money of my research group actually was.

Income 2012-2015

January 1st 2012 seems like a good place to start as this was when I took up my first Faculty position at Trinity College Dublin. In the last 4 years I have secured only one grant of €100,000. I also was lucky enough to have access to €21,000 of start up funds, €3000 of travel funds, and €31,000 of funds for my students’ equipment and travel costs. I am ignoring my wages and student stipends for now. In total this comes to €155,000.

I haven’t actually spent all this money. I still have the final year of Marie Curie money to spend (€25,000) and left around €25,000 in Trinity College Dublin when I moved institutions. So my income is more like €100,000 for four years.

Outputs 2012-2015

The measurable outputs of this are papers, presentations and posters. We have written 12 papers (only counting papers we starting working on after January 2012 but including papers in review/in press). Between myself, my two students and one intern we have given 6 posters, 11 presentations at international conferences and 13 seminars. My students also produced an MRes and a PhD thesis. Less tangibly, this money paid for my students and I to attend 13 conferences, collect data from 5 different international museums, run a 2 week pilot study in Madagascar, visit collaborators, run multiple outreach events, support postgraduate training activities, pay Open Access fees for 6 papers, attend multiple training courses, set up a blog etc. It also paid for 6 computers, 2 sets of digital calipers, 2 SLR cameras, binoculars for fieldwork, and a 3D scanner for data collection, plus a lots of books.

Value for money?

If you count each of the 42 tangible outputs (papers, posters, presentations) as equal, each cost €2381, it’s €2777 each if you ignore posters, and if you only count papers that’s €8333 a paper, excluding wages and student stipends. That seems high to me, but it’s nothing compared to the per paper cost of huge multi-partner projects that are so popular with funding bodies these days.

Sweet ironies of cheap science

I’ve actually had more money than I’ve needed the last four years (well it’s been a kind of anti-Goldilocks situation - not enough money to hire a postdoc for >1 year which would have really helped my research, but more than I need for my research otherwise). My students and I have been able to attend a lot of conferences we wouldn’t normally have been able to. We’ve also attended a lot of training courses and organised a lot of events that were great fun but not strictly necessary. Because of the way academic funds work I have to spend all my remaining money by the end of the summer. I’m trying to be strategic and think about what my group might need in the future, because the real fun part is after this money runs out I won’t have any funds at all. That means no equipment, no topping up student stipends, no travel, no conferences etc. This makes for a slightly bleak future and is particularly annoying because if I could have saved my grant money I could have kept myself ticking over with a new computer every three years and an international conference every two years with approximately £1000 a year. Instead I will have to spend substantial amounts of time writing grants (and will probably pay for conferences out of my own pocket).

The solution to me seems obvious - more smaller grants so more people get a slice of the pie. Research has shown this increases the value for money of research, so why aren’t we trying it? Especially when the cost of reviewing all these grant applications is so high? See here and here.



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Written on April 16, 2016