Matthew Smith considers the challenges of applying for research funding to pursue historical research. The current environment of winner-takes-all large grants is hugely time-consuming and uncertain. In its place, Matthew proposes a Universal Basic Research Income (UBRI) and explores the positives outcomes such a move could bring — for individual historians and the wider research culture.
Matthew is Professor of the History of Health and Medicine at the University of Strathclyde and Director of the MSc in Health History.
The waiting, as Tom Petty stated, is the hardest part. I am currently awaiting the result of a major grant application. The project, priced at £800k, took ten months to develop, mostly devoted not to describing our ambitions, but massaging budgets, lining up project partners, endless form-filling and trying to determine the desires of the funder. Despite this, we only have a 25% chance of success. That’s double the rate of many funders. I’ve heard some funders brag of 5% success rates. Why boast about such inefficiency? Nine months after submission we are still waiting.
Of course I want to win this grant. The project is historiographically important, could make a palpable difference beyond academia and would create some (temporary) employment opportunities. Moreover, I face pressure to win grants, especially funding accompanied by overheads (usually costed at 35-40%). If I am not winning grants, paying for the 40% of my salary that is devoted to research, I feel like I’m not doing my job.
The funding system divides researchers in haves and have-nots, winners and losers.
And so I spend precious time examining funding schemes, interpreting byzantine grant guidelines, courting collaborators, concocting budgets, form-filling and second-guessing funding panels. Then there are all the other university administers involved. What percentage of the budgets they cost ever get spent? What about the time expended by colleagues who dutifully review applications? Or all the writing I could have done instead of playing the funding lottery? Of course I don’t want all that effort to go to waste.
And yet there is a small part of me that won’t be disappointed if we fail. This part of me dreads the administrative malarky that comes with grant administration. Research funding typically follows the law of diminishing returns: when more money is available, proportionally less gets done. When I sit on funding panels, I often compare the value of funding won by researchers to the amount and quality of publications they produce. One does not always lead to the other. Furthermore, our grant will not give me glorious time exploring archives; it will primarily provide research opportunities for others. Overall, I am happy with that. But I did not become a historian to be a manager.
Given the competitive nature of most funding schemes, it’s nearly impossible for researchers who lack a track record of winning grants to get on the funding ladder.
Then have a thought for historians who don’t have the decent track record of research funding that I enjoy. The funding system divides researchers in haves and have-nots, winners and losers. Given the competitive nature of most funding schemes, it’s nearly impossible for researchers who lack a track record of winning grants to get on the funding ladder. These people either continue to haplessly apply for funding or they give up, often forgoing career progression. The situation is even worse for historians who face intersectional barriers or those at less research-intensive universities. Is this a fair and efficient way to fund historical research?
Universal Basic Research Income
What if there was another approach? What if, instead of playing the funding lottery, you simply received a set amount of funding annually to conduct research. Think of it as Universal Basic Research Income or UBRI, a similar concept to that of Universal Basic Income or UBI, which has been gaining traction recently. UBRI would provide the basic amount of funding for historians to conduct original research and disseminate it. They could use their UBRI up annually or accumulate it to pay for something more significant, such as a research assistant. As with UBI, UBRI would be automatically provided. We would trust historians to use it wisely.
With a UBRI, we’d have the freedom and security to develop research plans based on certainties, not the funding lottery.
Most historians don’t need a big budget to do excellent research. Our methods vary, but aren’t usually expensive. What we really need is time, the most costly item budgeted into our grant applications. With a UBRI we could stop spending endless hours writing grant applications in the hope of freeing ourselves of teaching and administration and spend that time actually doing research. We could work with our employers to devise more effective and efficient ways of carving out time for research. Crucially, we’d have the freedom and security to develop research plans based on certainties, not the funding lottery.
UBRI could also facilitate a shift from publication quantity to publication quality. REF 2021 was meant to encourage quality by lowering the number of publications per FTE from 4 to 2.5. But while the REF scores for quality were higher (how could they not be given the arithmetic?), they were not dramatically so and many low quality publications snuck in. With the security of UBRI, historians could focus instead on achieving a smaller number of higher quality publications. This is because, compared to the funding lottery, submitting an article to a top journal is a decent bet. There is less competition, for a start, and the process is constructive. Even if an article is rejected, the author can regroup and submit it elsewhere. There are fewer options and much less hope with a rejected grant application.
Historians need a fairer, more efficient and more effective approach to funding research.
UBRI would also reduce the need for some research-related roles in academia, allowing these staff to be more imaginatively deployed. One role dearly needed in the era of impact is that of public engagement officer. Another is that of academic editor, an individual who could support historians in writing for both academic and popular audiences. The money freed up by a UBRI might lead to fewer temporary post-docs, but could lead to more permanent jobs for early career researchers.
Finally, UBRI would empower historians to decide for themselves what their (and the discipline’s) research agenda should be. Rather than having to bow to the whims of funders, we should be entrusted to determine what should be researched and how. Historians need a fairer, more efficient and more effective approach to funding research. We need a UBRI.
About the Author
Professor Matthew Smith is a historian of health and medicine at the University of Strathclyde and Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH). His research and teaching focuses on three main areas within this subject: mental health and psychiatry; allergy and immunology; and food and nutrition.
His publications include An Alternative History of Hyperactivity: Food Additives and the Feingold Diet (2011), Hyperactive: The Controversial History of ADHD (2012), Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy (2015) and Proteins, Pathologies and Politics: Dietary Innovation and Disease from the Nineteenth Century (2018, co-edited by David Gentilcore)
Matt’s most recent monograph, The First Resort: The History of Social Psychiatry in the United States (2023) investigates how American psychiatrists and social scientists viewed the connection between mental illness and social deprivation in the post-War era. This project spurred an interest in Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a preventive mental health policy. Matthew recently co-led (with Mike Danton) a Scottish Universities Insight Initiative project: ‘Peace of Mind: Exploring Universal Basic Income’s Potential to Improve Mental Health.’