A competitive grant scheme is different from ad hoc invitations for individual research proposals, as it is created to bring about lasting changes in the research structures of developing and developed countries. The assumption is that there is research talent present outside the government research institutions and universities, commercial firms and consultancy groups can collaborate to challenge the research monopoly for available public or donor funding and introduce new ideas, new efficiencies, new alliances, providing inspiration for the traditional research sector to renew itself. By untying research funding from research execution by specific institutes, new research arrangements (and even institutions) can be created, with short term or longer-term perspectives, and with enabling conditions that overcome bureaucracies.
In line with current development thinking, including structural adjustment, a CGS reduces state involvement in certain sectors while seeking to get the best synergies among researchers and related institutions for optimum impact. Indeed, competitive grant schemes can and have been used by external financiers to by-pass existing structures that are perceived as outdated, e.g. certain academies of agricultural sciences in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Unionthat did not adapt to the market economy and its demands.
In developing countries agricultural research (and other public research projects) has traditionally been conducted by the research arms of the ministries of agriculture or semi-autonomous institutes including universities. In the absence of adequate commercial companies interested in investing in the research sector, governments provided stable, basic funding to conduct often self-defined research. Within recent years, government funding of research has declined. External evaluations have often criticized the relevance and efficiency of public research efforts. In response to this, many international donor agencies have introduced or insisted on competitive grants to create more dynamic, efficient and/or targeted research to improve the outputs of the research financing provided to developing countries. This approach has been modelled on successful CGS initiatives in developed countries.
The art in designing a competitive grant system in a developing country is to get the funding balance right between ensuring adequate capacity to do research (supply side) and mobilizing that capacity in the desired directions (demand side). The topics for which bids are invited are often set through a consultative process where funders and users of research collaborate, or by the funding agency alone. Examples of major competitive grants schemes are
Brazil's Embrapa/PRODETAB at the national level, which was piloted with a World Bank contribution and is now the model for research financed mainly by Brazilian funds;
ASARECA's Competitive Grant Scheme, a regional program in Eastern and Central Africa in Eastern and Central Africa, mainly financed by Northern donors (European Commission, USAID);
CGIAR's Challenge Programmes, a global programme funded by financiers both from the North and the South; and
major bilaterally or multilaterally organized programmes by e.g. the Renewable Natural Resources Research Strategy by British DfID, and EU's INCO programmes.
Competitive grants schemes became popular in the 1990s, and have been tried both in developing and industrialized countries. Since the gestation time for agricultural and related research is often one or more decades, it may be too early (in 2005) to draw final conclusions about the efficacies of such schemes for improving research relevance and quality, the effects on national capacity building and the sustainability of the research infrastructure.
Some concerns about design and implementation are already being expressed. The ability of developing countries or the poorest people of developing countries, to influence the research agendas of competitive grants schemes remains an issue. There has also been the concern expressed that competitive grants schemes have tended to have limited time horizons (3-5 years), focus on the applied side of the research spectrum to demonstrate rapid impact, and put advanced research institutes into competition with developing country research at the applied end of the spectrum. This may lead to neglect of needed strategic research and/or 'blue sky research', the more basic or curiosity-driven research where the reputation of the research group may be as important as the proposal itself as a selection criterion. There have also been issues of 'level playing fields', i.e. that not all research groups have developed adequate skills in writing convincing proposals, particularly if the requirements are for proposals not in their mother tongue.
Competitive grants schemes may contain both opportunities and constraints that are not present in traditional national non-competitive schemes. They may foster new links between different national players and international actors. As in all competitions the judging of proposals becomes a critical issue. Separation of steering functions of grants schemes from the evaluation of proposals enhances the confidence that bidders have in the fairness of schemes and may ensure elements of a long term strategy that includes institutional development.
In developing or emerging countries the inherent research structures are often described as weak. Demand-driven research, as encouraged by competitive grants schemes, cannot overlook the supply side - talent and facilities may be very limited. The breaking up of existing structures and guiding research scientists towards short-term, applied research through generous supplies of foreign funds without facilitating an improvement in the basic infrastructure may not all be positive.
Competititive grants are one of many mechanisms needed to ensure that scientific capacity is sustained and directed to the most important scientific and developmental ends. Their role and importance must be appropriate to the level of the system in which they are applied and no one mechanism can achieve all the goals of the system.
Dr Stein W. Bie, Noragric, University of Life Sciences, AAs, Norway Dr Howard D. Elliott, ASARECA, Entebbe, Uganda