Lying to Get Grants

Seeking to win funds, researchers in Australia and Britain regularly exaggerate and lie about impact of their projects, study finds.

March 10, 2016

Academics routinely lie and exaggerate when telling funding agencies what impact their research will have, a series of candid interviews with scholars in Britain and Australia has suggested.

Their dismissive comments about the “charade” of impact statements brings to light what appears to be an open secret in academe -- that academics simply do not take such projections seriously.

A new study anonymously interviewed 50 senior academics from two research-intensive universities -- one in Britain and one in Australia -- who had experience writing pathways to impact (PIS) statements, as they are called in the U.K., and who, in some cases, had also reviewed such statements.

It was normal to sensationalize and embellish impact claims, the study published in Studies in Higher Education found.

In the U.K. and Australia, academics are asked for evidence of what impact their research might have when applying for grants. Research Councils UK introduced the need to write a PIS in 2009.

Respondents said that future projections of impact were “charades” or “made-up stories.” As one U.K. professor put it: “Would I believe it? No. Would it help me get the money -- yes.”

Academics felt pushed into lying on their impact statements by the logic of ferocious academic competition, the paper found.

“If you can find me a single academic who hasn’t had to bullshit or bluff or lie or embellish in order to get grants, then I will find you an academic who is in trouble with [their] head of department,” said one professor in Australia.

Another Australia-based academic said that embellishment was about “survival” in the research grant game.

Academics did not take the statements seriously because they felt predicting future impact was simply impossible. They “appeared to lampoon PIS by intimating that authors would require skills of clairvoyance in order to accurately convey the future,” the paper found.

“I don’t know what you’re supposed to say, something like, ‘I’m Columbus, I’m going to discover the West Indies’?” said one professor in Australia.

Another respondent, a U.K. professor, described the whole process as “dishonest” because the idea of confidently predicting impact “flies in the face of scientific practice.”

Another professor in Australia said, “It’s really virtually impossible to write an [Australian Research Council] ARC grant now without lying.”

Co-author Richard Watermeyer, senior lecturer in education at the University of Bath, said that he was unsurprised by the results, as impact statements were already often considered an “afterthought” when applying for grants.

He said that he was in favor of a culture of “public intellectuals” who communicated their findings widely. But that this was not the same as creating a system that promoted “game playing” in impact statements, he argued.

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