I am writing an ERC starting grant, which is the main instrument of the European Union to support young researchers that want to start their own research group. This is a rather painful exercise, partially because I have to translate all my usual application documentation, even the CV, from latex into word.
While working on it, I have started to think about panels and how such grants are judged. I have a problem with them, and that is:
Older people can kill off the career of a younger person far too easily.
It is so easy to find a problem with any proposal. You can say it’s overambitious, underambitious, not really new, too new. This can obviously be said for every proposal. And done.
My field has evolved dramatically in the last years. 20 years ago it was still a cozy small field. Now it has exploded, become much more competitive, and probably attracting better people. Of course, it is the people who did the PhD at the cozy time 20 years ago, which now have tenure — some of which I am sorry to say haven’t done anything useful in the last 10 years and have lost track of their field completely — who are now judging our proposals.
My last grant propsal was declined with shockingly stupid reasons. I had shown it to several successful professors before, who all were extremely positive about it. However, the actual panelists, who I have reasons to suspect are, ahem, less successful people, that sit at some small university and do not understand what’s going on anymore, and, even worse, despise the successful professors I have unfortunately collaborated with, shot it down. They “recommended it for acceptance”, sure, but they had too many small stupid criticisms which they must have been well aware let the agency decline it.
This is a serious problem, not only for myself (maybe my proposal was not that good after all), but in general. This system gives mediocre senior people too much power about junior people, some of which might be better then them. It is safe to assume that most mediocre senior people dislike the proposals of good young people. I think it makes them cranky if the proposer has more highly cited papers than they have. Which frankly will happen quite a lot if I look at the people my age that are applying now, and the senior people at smaller universities that typically sit in such panels.
I have two suggestion of how to address is:
- Let the applicants choose their reviewers. They should be people they have never worked with, never shared an institute with, and with whom they do not plan to collaborate. The agency then asks these reviewers for their help. I, as probably any other young person submitting a proposal, know exactly who in my field is still up to speed and would actually be able to evaluate my proposal. Even if those declined my proposal in the end, I would feel much less frustrated, because at least they would probably give excellent reasons, and not a stupid mixture of “did not cite me”, “did not mention buzzword xyz” (which is totally unrelated to the proposal) and “is overambitious”. At least then I could learn something from the rejection.
- Else, have strict requirements for who is allowed to serve as a panelists. They need to have a better track record than the typical person who is given the grant. At least, they need to have had one highly cited paper in the last five years, on which they were not only 30th author. I am not in favour of abolishing tenure for professors who have lost track of their field, but please, grant agencies, do not let them serve as our judges. This will just lead to more mediocre science in the future.