A couple of months ago, maybe a little bit more, I got the news that the project I submitted to the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT) was approved! Now we only have to wait for the money to actually show up and that might take a while – a long while! Nevertheless this is always very good news and we are very excited about it because this means more money for research, specifically on the electronic molecular pathways of photosynthesis.
When I submitted the project I wrote a little post about the funding scheme which seemed, if not unfair, at least flawed, and I still believe in what I wrote. To be honest I thought it wouldn’t be funded but it turns out it was but I still think the reviewing process could be better.
There is a lot of research to do – too little time to do it.
In science one thing is true and universal: We need funding. Here in Mexico the main source of funding comes from the National Council for Science and Technology (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, CONACyT) which is an institution that depends directly from the federal government. Over the years different policies have prevailed and right now we are not looking into a good future. I wont go into all the alleged corruption or about the prevailing notion of favoritism within the institution’s scheme for funding research. I just want to write about the process of projects evaluation and what I think are its great shortcomings.
So first, as in any other part of the world, it all begins with a proposal being submitted for evaluation. In this particular case there is a specific application for “Young Researchers”, that is people who are newcomers to any scientific institution in the country, who are in need for a large amount of resources in order to get their own labs going. The notion of an “associate researcher” is not well understood, I think. After the submission is complete and the paperwork validated, the proposal is sent to a few other researchers in the field who either accept or decline to review the project and then are asked concise questions about the originality and relevance of the project; its feasibility; the proponent’s profile about how well suited he or she is to deliver what is being promised, and finally they are asked to evaluate how well justified is the requested budget. The reviewers then turn their comments, and rankings, to CONACyT in which a committee gathers all the data and ranks all the projects. Those projects with the higher ranking get their funding with, maybe, minor adjustments in order to stretch the reach of funding to as many projects as possible. Some other criteria are used, for example researchers at institutions with small budgets have increased chances of being funded than those on a large institution. It is a matter of balance: giving the money to those who need it but that at the same time will sure do more (and better) with it.
So far it all sounds pretty good and fair to me! except there is a problem: Reviewers don’t always do their job properly and sometimes you get to read comments such as
the proponent has no experience in graduating students
well, thats why I clicked the “Young Researcher” button. Some other pearls of wisdom include
the proponent didn’t take into consideration the latest publications in the field he is trying to study
and then he/she enlists references with publication dates posterior to the date of the proposal’s submission! Sometimes our proposals may not be thoroughly well read (or, lets admit, written) and reviewers give you a bad review for omitting things that you indeed covered. But once you get a bad review (from an anonymous peer) there is no turning around, you only find out what they wrote once you have been declined the grant.
My little suggestion: Let the review process be questioned, just once per reviewer and without the possibility of modifying the proposal. That is, once a reviewer emits his or her comments then I could get to read them and address their concerns in a single letter. If I can prove them something so evident as a conflicting set of dates between missing references and the proposal submission’s, then they would have to change their ranking, but without giving me the chance to modify the project anymore as to fit their comments. The process would take longer, maybe, but it already takes more than half a year! a few more months could be worthy if a more fair ranking is obtained.
Science needs funding; not all the scientific proposals deserve funding, true.