7%. <10%. 12%. These are all funding rates I have seen in recent panel summaries and quoted widely on the intertubes and in faculty meetings. On the surface, these numbers are crippling. How is anyone supposed to be competitive when rates are so low!?!?
One thing the preproposal process gave me a greater appreciation for, however, is that those funding rates are misleading. I am not at all saying that we don't need more money for research in this country, nor am I here to say that 7% funding rates are anything but demoralizing. But those bemoaning 7% as a figure are making a flawed assumption: that all proposals are worthy of funding.
If all proposals were within a standard deviation of fundable, then a 7% chance of success would basically seem random. This is demonstrably not the case, however.
Take the preprosals as an example. Let's pretend that the panel normally fields 100 proposals and that it got the same number of preproposals (most panels saw >2X the number of preproposals than their regular proposal numbers, but work with me). Three panelists weighed in on each proposal and nearly 25% of the time, all three determined that a particular proposal was poor enough to reject outright. No discussion, it just wasn't what it needed to be. If a hypothetical panel had 100 preproposals, we're now down to 75.
Of the remaining number, another 25% just cleared the "cut" bar and were discussed, but no one felt they were in contention. Down to 50.
Of the remaining proposals, all of them had strong points and many had vocal advocates. Where they ultimately ranked was based heavily on the perceived weaknesses (if there were any) and how passionate their advocate(s) was. But even in this group, there was a clear sense of a spectrum on which they fell. And this is where some of the tough decisions start being made.
Enter the preproposals with a 20-25% invite rate.
More than anything, the 20-25% cut off represents the proposals that would be in the conversation for funding. In an ideal world we could fund these 25 proposals, but the percentage is an arbitrary number based on submission rate. So whereas a 7% funding rate is a scary number, the reality is that those seven proposals are only coming out of a 20-25 pool of proposals whether you make the cut at the preproposal stage or the full proposal stage. It doesn't matter if 100 proposals or 200 proposals are submitted, a lot of them are just not convincing or exciting to a panel.
I've heard POs make this argument more than once and never really made sense to me before going through the preproposal process. As much as I have some issues with this new process, I have to admit that it allows the culling of the bottom 50% with FAR less work (for writer and reviewer) than the previous system. This is a good thing for everyone.
So whereas funding rates are low, fretting over the funding percentage is to take an uninformed view of the process and what that percentage represents.