The U.S. academic-grant system in its current form has existed for barely 60 years, built after the postwar boom and the establishment of entities like the Fulbright Program, the National Science Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, as well as the expansion of initiatives at the National Institutes of Health. It has affected scholars in all disciplines, at all career stages, including well-established scientists who require extensive resources, and young humanists who need minimal funds while they pursue their dissertations. Yet the grant remains invisible. We think that our work is primarily organized by institutions of higher education, or by departments, or by conferences, but in reality those have become but appendages to a huge system of distributing resources through grants.
It's time we looked at this system—and at its costs: unpaid, anxiety-filled hours upon hours for a single successful grant; scholarship shaped, or misshaped, according to the demands of marketlike forces and the interests of nonacademic private foundations. All to uphold a distributive system that fosters antagonistic competition and increasing inequality.
How unpleasant writing a grant can be is brought into relief by the sheer amount of effort required to succeed. I estimate that each dissertation proposal that I submitted for fieldwork in Slovakia took me 50 to 150 hours. By the time I received an award, I had prepared 12 different proposals. I doubt my experience is unique.
If, instead of applying for a grant, an applicant took a low-wage job typically available to graduate students, he or she might earn $10,000 in the same amount of time—not much less than the average level of most grants for fieldwork and writing a dissertation—without the hours of agony, the further anxiety of waiting, the likely dismay of rejection, and finally—if one is lucky enough to receive any explanation—the humiliation of reading anonymous panelists' usually unfriendly "comments."
And since most grants last only one year, the applicant might spend half the time just preparing for the next grant. Every hour spent working on or worrying about grants is an hour that could be better spent on research (or family life, or civic engagement, or sleep). But every hour not spent on a grant gives a competitive edge to other applicants.
Meanwhile, among many granting agencies, the working assumption seems to be that longer, more-complicated applications will more accurately reveal the merits and faults of a project than shorter ones will. But even if true (which is doubtful), that logic has no end. Today it might seem outlandish to imagine future proposals 100 pages long, but our 10-to-20-page proposals (plus 10 to 30 pages of other materials) would probably have seemed no less crazy to people a half-century ago. Add to that a gradual increase in the total number of competitions—each with a different application—while total funds stagnate, and it is no wonder that the grant process seems to tower over applicants like a leviathan.
The leviathan has a history. Its birth was not so long ago—and it does not have to live forever.
I know of no comprehensive history of the academic grant. Such a history would probably reveal its origins in the peculiar structure of the United States' powerful but self-effacing government, and in the equally unusual prevalence of private institutions dedicated to public life. The first major federal grants arose when states were required to finance roads with the sale of public lands, beginning in the early 1800s, and then to finance schools through local taxes. The national government recognized a need for public services, but instead of taking responsibility for them—as most governments would have done—it turned resources over to state and local governments and, in the case of higher education, to basically independent corporations. Even during the expansion of so-called Big Government, from the 1930s to the 1970s, Washington actually turned over more and more of its functions to smaller and less publicly controlled entities, many of which began to issue their own grants. It is typical of large government agencies like NSF and NIH to function primarily not by carrying out needed research, but by giving federal resources away to local and private institutions.
The burden of assessing and meeting social needs has shifted, then, from the grant-making institution to the grant recipient. Once the grant application became the central feature of the system, proposed projects could be evaluated on the basis of their individual qualities (like the applicants' writing skills and qualifications) rather than their general importance to society. Who could blame an agency or a foundation for backing the project most likely to succeed? The grant makers' prestige depends for the most part on the success of the research they support, rather than on determining how best to meet a social need. Even when an institution does set priorities (often haphazardly, at the whim of a crusading philanthropist), the details are usually left to competing grant applicants, who may never receive any payment.
The grant applicant effectively provides free labor to the grant-making institution, which can avoid paying its own employees to do the systematic work of social assessment. With the academic grant, that exploitation is further augmented by the unpaid hours of volunteer grant-review panelists. The grant is basically an outsourcing of assessment that could, in most situations, be carried out much better by paid professional staff members.
In academe, a system of "faculty governance" and "academic freedom" might be supposed to counteract the antidemocratic tendencies of the grant. Most academic-grant decisions are based on a consensus recommendation of a faculty committee, but all terms of judgment are set before faculty members become involved. "Academic freedom" is considered to be safeguarded as long as there are no explicit limits on the content of academic writing, even when the form of grant-based work precludes whole modes of inquiry like the production of essays or scholarly reflections.
Meanwhile grant-receiving institutions, like universities, become increasingly dependent on grants, to the point that faculty members and other campus voices can scarcely be heard beneath the din of administrators exhorting them to get more and more grants.
Administrators typically see grants as an optimal means for allocating scarce resources. But if we consider the amount of unpaid labor required, making grants may well be the least-efficient system imaginable. Bureaucratic work is not diminished; it is merely redistributed to multiple private entities and then transferred to applicants.
Moreover, the conditions of scarcity, which the grant system is reputed to deal with, are largely fabricated by the system itself. Even in the wake of recession, our universities are wealthier than previous generations could have fathomed, and there is no need for anyone to work for them without receiving decent wages, or for any student or professor to enter a program without receiving funds for the minimal research to complete a degree or qualify for tenure. But grants are structured, by their nature, to underfinance the activity they are supposed to cover; the moment there is sufficient money for all competing projects, there is no need for competitive grants.
Even when resources are actually scarce, they are allocated with an injustice that far overshadows any review panels' claims to objective fairness. Success feeds off success, since review panels tend to look more positively upon applicants with impressive awards listed on their CV's. In other words, those who need grants least are most likely to get them. Colleagues whose research may be equally valuable (based on traditional criteria of academic debate) could be denied resources and livelihoods because, instead of grant writing, they favor publishing, or public engagement, or teaching.
A further result is the general denigration of scholarship. Grant applications normalize a mode of scholarly writing and thought that, whatever its merits, has not been chosen collectively by academe in the interests of good scholarship, but has been imposed from without, with the grant as its guide. And as application procedures grow more stringent, the quality of successful projects is likely to sink. Can we honestly expect good scholarship from scholars who must constantly concentrate on something other than their scholarship? Academic life is increasingly made up of a series of applications, while the applied-for work dwindles toward insignificance.
In spite of all that, we are tempted to tell ourselves that the effort we put into grant writing has not been all in vain. It must have served some purpose, done some good. We have at least learned something about ourselves and our projects; we have at least taken time for reflection and gained useful skills. But surely such meager educational benefits could be attained in some other, more effective way. As a general exercise in scholarly writing, grant applications probably do us more harm than good. The skills we learn are "useful" only because we will be required to apply for more grants.
It's time, I think, to put an end to our rationalizations. My spine will not be straightened. The agony will not be wiped off my brain. My mind misshapen will not be pounded back, and I have to stop telling myself that everything will be OK. Months and years of my life have been taken away, and nothing short of systemic transformation will redeem them.