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Researchers forced to 'embellish, dramatise' expected study outcomes in order to secure grants

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 10/03/2016 Tom Nightingale

A scientist works in a medical lab at St Vincent's Institute in Melbourne © AAP Image/David Crosling A scientist works in a medical lab at St Vincent's Institute in Melbourne Australian academics say they are being forced to exaggerate or embellish the potential impacts of their research when trying to secure limited funding for projects.

But the head of the Australian Research Council has rejected the claim scientists have to lie to get a project funded, saying there is a difference between speculating and lying.

The revelations are included in a study of a relatively new system where academics forecast the impact of their research when applying for funding.

The study is based on 50 interviews of unnamed academics in Australia and Britain.

The 25 Australian academics said it was difficult to give an accurate answer when a grant application asked them to predict the impact of their project.

"It's virtually impossible to write one of these grants and be fully frank and honest in what it is you're writing about," one unnamed academic said.

"I don't know what you're supposed to say. Something like, 'I'm Columbus, I'm going to discover the West Indies'," a second unnamed academic said.

"It's really virtually impossible to write an Australian Research Council grant without lying, and this is the kind of issue they should be looking at," a third unnamed academic said.

Dr Richard Watermayer from Britain's University of Bath co-authored the research and said he did not think the funding process had lost its integrity.

"But I think there are issues in it that need to be further discussed," Dr Watermayer said.

"Being forced to embellish, and being forced to kind of dramatise, should we say, because there was in most cases no real sense of what the impact is going to be."

'A very different distinction between speculation and a lie'

Head of the Australian Research Council Professor Aidan Byrne said a small number of proposals did go too far, but most were accurate and all were heavily examined.

"The proposals are reviewed by experts who do have a really good and sharp sense of what's plausible and what's implausible, and what's fictitious and what's not," Professor Byrne said.

"So someone who was to make an outrageous claim about the potential impact of ... their research, the reviewing process would not respond well to that either and the research proposal would be deemed as implausible or unlikely, and not get a lot of support and inevitably not get funded."

Every year the Australian Research Council funds more than $700 million worth of projects. Professor Byrne said he completely rejected any suggestion scientists had to lie to have a project funded.

"For some people it is an embellishment to make a prediction into the future that you can predict reliably, and predicting the impact or the potential impact of your research is a speculation, and we understand it is a speculation," he said.

"And many researchers find that very uncomfortable because we are actually asking people to speculate — that's not asking people to lie, that's actually asking people to make a projection into the future that if this research project was successful, what are the potential impacts of that research?

"Now that's a speculation yes, but it's not a lie. And there's a very different distinction between those two things."

The research has been published in the journal Studies in Higher Education.

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