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What I’ve learnt about participatory budgeting for research funding decisions since publishing

Author:Cobi Calyx

This post was originally published by the Evidence & Policy blog on 24 March 2021.

We have re-issued the article that has already been published by the Evidence & Policy blog. We would like to express gratitude to the kind offer of the editorial board of the Evidence & Policy blog.

Cobi Calyx

I’ve learnt a few things in the few weeks since my Evidence & Policy debate article about using participatory budgeting for research funding decisions has been published. This article emerged from my PhD research about tradeoffs in deliberative public engagement with science. It argues that using participatory budgeting public engagement methods to make research funding decisions would further the international shift towards public participation in governance.

More controversially, my article argues that this would be a better way to reform research funding than lotteries, which others’ research indicates would be better than current norms. Norms are changing though – one of the things I’ve learnt more about since publishing this article is how the Health Research Council of New Zealand has been using a lottery to allocate some grants. They have been doing that for long enough to publish a peer-reviewed paper about it.

It’s not controversial to argue that methods to decide who gets research funding should be improved, particularly

given increasing evidence that lotteries would be better than what most funders do now. The argument that publics should be involved in deciding, rather than leaving it to chance, is framed as a debate piece for a reason. Within the broader argument, which is challenging for some, there are many elements worthy of debate – and I hope the article leads to constructive discussion about options. One of the debatable aspects is whether a public review process should happen alongside a peer review one, or instead of it. Another is how fields of research might be grouped together, or not, for deciding between them. Less debatable is that public involvement in decision-making could provide evidence for public support of research to policymakers.

Fields of research such as emerging technologies can develop in ways that leave policy lagging. These developments may elicit boycotts or moratoria if public reaction is averse, undermining the value of research outcomes. So gauging public support upfront can enhance value, particularly for public funding. Public, or at least stakeholder or ‘consumer’ engagement, is well-established in health research; emerging technologies don’t have clear consumers yet, so the same techniques used in health research might not be suitable. We don’t know if they are though, because they haven’t been tested much yet, not with real funding in the mix. That’s what makes participatory budgeting interesting as a method compared with popular public engagement methods used with emerging technologies research. Participatory budgeting is different because, as the name implies, it’s about allocating funding.

In making the argument that participatory budgeting would be better than a lottery, it is useful to note that researchers don’t tend to reduce the amount of time they spend on writing proposals, even when application processes are simplified or funding is randomly allocated. These findings from Australian and New Zealand experiments show why solutions are better focused on maximizing the value of the proposal making process. Yes, making research funding applications more efficient is worth doing for the sake of making researchers’ time more productive. Less fiddly paperwork means more time for thinking and sharing research ideas. That’s why I think researchers should be involved in sharing their research proposals through participatory budgeting, rather than just writing a proposal and waiting to hear the outcome, as with a lottery. Discussing research plans with stakeholders might lead researchers to change them, or help to clarify how they communicate about ideas.

I had been in touch with Professor Adrian Barnett since he published about time lost on grant applications in the Australian research system at an influential point during my PhD. After kindly pre-reviewing my Evidence & Policy article, he put me in touch with Lucy Pomeroy from the Health Research Council of New Zealand, who shared with me the paper I wish I’d read before submitting my article about a survey of researchers involved in their lottery-based research process.

Within days of this article being published, Associate Professor Haris Aziz emailed me expressing delight that another UNSW researcher was interested in participatory budgeting, sharing an upcoming book chapter about it from the perspective of computational social choice and game theory. Unbeknownst to me, someone in another part of my university had been developing mathematical models for methods of participatory budgeting.

As this blog post demonstrates, putting ideas out there can give academics a better understanding of the issues they’re interested in, build new connections and reveal new possibilities. It’s these kinds of possibilities that make public engagement in research funding decisions more valuable than lotteries, which research shows would be a better way forward than maintaining the status quo.


You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Calyx, C. (2020). Participatory budgeting for research funding decisions. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/20X16017816524892. [Open Access].


Dr Cobi Calyx is Research Fellow in Science Communication at the Centre for Social Impact and University of New South Wales. She has worked in multiple levels of governance and lived on five continents. Cobi completed her PhD at Australian National University about tradeoffs in deliberative public engagement with science.


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