Research funding may be going to copy-cat grants

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2013-01-31

Grant money is the lifeblood of academia. Without it, graduate students and postdocs can’t get paid, professors won’t have any summer salary, and experiments would never get done. In addition, universities take some percentage off the top to support facilities and infrastructure. Obtaining grants is a major part of an academic researcher’s job—perhaps second only to publishing papers as a measure of his or her success.

That pressure to obtain grant funding, combined with an ever-decreasing success rate, drives many scientists to submit more and more applications. It’s fairly common practice to submit the same or similar applications to different funding agencies, in the hope that one will be funded. Usually, the applicant has to disclose if they've obtained other funding for a specific project, but it’s clear that there is potential for duplication of funding.

To get a sense of how much funding duplication may have occurred in recent years, a group of three researchers led by Harold Garner of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute analyzed over half a million grant applications summaries using the automated text similarity engine eTBLAST. Most of the applications came from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), with a smaller number from the Departments of Energy (DOE) and Defense (DOD) and the Susan J. Komen for the Cure foundation. In a recent Nature article, they estimate that nearly $70 million in grant money overlapped with previously funded efforts.

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