Recently I was in a meeting talking about grants, and needing to find grant money to fund a follow-up project to the one we were currently working on. Except that’s not really how the discussion played out. Essentially, it became about identifying where the money’s at – e.g. breast cancer, diabetes etc. and how we can make the follow-up project suit the agenda of these funding bodies. This discussion went so far as to say, that while less prevalent diseases (or lesser known) or certain minority groups of people were fascinating, that’s not where the money is at. This is not the first time I’ve had this experience.
Logically, I understand that in order for any research to get done it needs money. And the people with the money want certain topics (or certain answers) or types of research to be explored. So naturally, we make compromises on the population we’re interested in, the methodology, little parts of our soul etc. to accommodate the focus of particular grants. I also understand, on a human level, researchers need an income in order to purchase food, afford healthcare, etc.
However, on a principle level, I find it problematic that funding bodies dictate what topics/types of research are interesting, valuable and fund worthy. Less attractive areas of research, projects with “difficult” interventions or projects with “not-readily-quantifiable” outcomes (e.g., mental health), fall by the wayside. The funding system as I understand it, and I’m a relatively new player in the game of academia, privileges certain types of knowledge over others.
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As a newby in the game of academia and grants, I’m figuring out how to forge a career within which I can do “good” research, that doesn’t compromise the values of my population of interest, my principles (which I hold dear) but will also still be fundable and publishable. And I see a few options:
- Quit academia and pick one of the many back-up careers I have identified (e.g. driving instructor, movie critic)
- Suck it up and play the game by the current rules (pick ‘sexy’ research and adapt it to the trends, agenda of others) AKA, sell my soul
- Learn how to sell my research or mask it so that it is appealing to funding bodies – only selling part of my soul, the part that was evil anyway.
- Start a cult whereby, with likeminded individuals, we adopt the ideals of ‘the slow scholarship movement’ (Mountz et al., 2015)
- Change the system from within, also implementing the ideals of ‘the slow scholarship movement’
However, I am yet to figure out, how does one change the system – what does this look like? Where do I need to go to see this in action? Who can I look up to and learn from? Is it possible for an early career researcher to survive within the system while at the same time changing it? I think it is imperative that discussions on this topic continue, not just within the ‘critical bubble’ but in mainstream contexts.