Universiteit Leiden

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How the scientific community can learn from failures

The Astronomy & Society group of Leiden Observatory takes a new turn in science: they have decided to share their rejected research proposals with the scientific community. ‘We put a lot of effort into them, and now hopefully others can benefit from our work. Maybe it even results in new collaborations,’ says group leader Pedro Russo.

How did your group come up with this remarkable idea?

‘Academics spend a lot of time writing proposals for NWO (Dutch Research Council) or the European Union, and it’s a big effort. You have to find the right partners, the right methodology and so on. At the same time, we know that the success rates are very low, sometimes even lower than five per cent! 

‘Still, even if one of our proposals fails, we are confident that our ideas and research design are good. We therefore think they should be shared with the broader community, and the proposals should be considered for future projects, by us or colleagues from all around the world. It would be a pity if our proposals just end up on a hard drive somewhere on one of our computers. That’s why we thought, why don’t we put everything out?’ 

‘We are contributing to open science’

Your initiative seems to fit well in the new open science movement, don’t you think?

‘Yes, I think it is the right time to do something like this. Our group really follows the principles of open science at all levels, and there is currently a big push in the scientific community for the need of more openness and transparency, for instance so other people can replicate and validate scientific results. 

‘There is also a big push to have a more transparent process of calls, proposals and peer reviews. And by publishing these proposals that got rejected, together with the reviews we received, the Astronomy and Society group is contributing to that movement.’

Pedro Russo at his home office, the mezzanine of a 17th-century apartment in Leiden

Currently, the success rates of funding applications are very low, you even mention five per cent. How can we change this?

‘That is a very good question, and a difficult one to answer. The scientific enterprise we all built together is based primarily on funding calls. You need to prove that you have the best proposal with the best consortium. Science has become more and more competitive, which probably is good for the quality of the research, but it also has a lot of downsides. Seeing your proposals getting rejected can be very frustrating, and competitiveness puts a lot of pressure on scientists.

‘I think a success rate of five, ten, or even fifteen per cent is too low, and we should change that. Luckily, the EU tries to do this, as they have implemented different stages in their calls. So instead of writing the most beautiful proposal of fifty to a hundred pages, you start with a proposal of five pages in the first round. At the end of this process, your success rate is going to be much higher. I think that is a good approach, we need to critically look at the way we fund science.’ 

‘If you cannot find the right team, it is better not to submit a proposal’ 

I saw that your department has a high success rate of almost fifty per cent, which is higher than average. What is your advice for fellow researchers?  

‘First of all, we have a leading group in astronomy communication and space education. So we have a team with the right skills and knowhow for writing proposals. And for our approach: for every research idea, we try to identify our “dream team”, so who do we need for the best consortium? If we somehow cannot achieve this, for instance when other parties are in another proposal or don’t have time to participate, we do not write a proposal. My advice would be, if you cannot find the right team, it is better not to submit a proposal at all.’ 

What do you hope to achieve with sharing these proposals?

‘We have a couple of reasons to do this. Firstly, and that’s more a personal thing, I like it that we can share our ideas, which we put a lot of effort into. Hopefully, someone sees it and thinks: “I can use this for my own research”. Secondly, with this initiative we can show the scientific community what we are interested in, and what our ideas are. Maybe other parties are interested in the same things, or like to share thoughts on our proposals. In that way, we can enlarge our network. Thirdly, it enhances our visibility for funding parties. So maybe some institution sees our ideas and becomes interested in funding us. And lastly, I also hope it will motivate other science researchers to do the same, so we can all learn from each other.’ 

Last week, Dutch Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa made a plea for more research funding, without restrictions or short-term deliveries. Why is that so important?

‘I am very fortunate that the research funding in my field, astronomy, is very curiosity-driven. We are looking at black holes, how planets form, and life on other planets. And we need this blue sky research, because it can not only lead to a fundamental understanding of the Universe, but also of humans. And in the long term, it can lead to proper applications that become essential in our daily lives. 

‘When Albert Einstein was developing his theory of relativity in the beginning of the 20th century, he was trying to understand how spacetime works, very fundamental research. Now, his theory forms an essential part of the way that GPS works, which we use on our phones constantly, for instance with Google Maps. For us to be able to develop GPS, we needed the fundamental understanding of relativity. 

‘Another classic example goes back to Australia some decades ago: astronomers tried to detect exploding mini black holes the size of an atomic particle. The signal processing technique that they developed, is the same that we now use for our Wi-Fi communication. Can you imagine this Covid-19 period without WiFi? That would be very different!

‘It is the same as art, or as the cultural sector: these things are part of us as humans. They are important because they enable us to understand ourselves and make sense of the Universe around us.’

The proposals including review reports can be found here.

Text: Bryce Benda

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