In 2020, as researchers adapted to COVID-19 lockdowns, video communication became mainstream as virtual meetings and conferences took hold. Because of this, now is a good time to reconsider the merits of video-based funding applications, an idea that we first proposed in 20141,2.
Grant writers invest, on average, 34 days3 in preparing major biomedical grant proposals. A 2019 survey found that reviewers spend an average of ten days per year reviewing applications. Despite this enormous time investment, they struggle to rank grants reliably while following the current processes. One study found “no agreement among reviewers in evaluating the same application”4. Another found that 12 reviewers were required to yield a moderate ‘reliability’ of 0.5 for overall impact, which carries the greatest weight in National Institutes of Health R01 funding decisions5. (A reliability of more than 0.5 means that the quality of the proposal has more of an influence on how it is ranked than do the unwanted effects associated with noise and differences between reviewers.) Yet many funding processes engage only three to four reviewers per application, which is likely to hinder their ability to rank applications reliably. The community’s capacity to engage more reviewers per application is dependent on improving the efficiency of the grant-review process. And using video as a time-efficient medium to help reviewers to navigate proposals will hopefully entice more researchers to offer their grant-reviewing expertise.
A multimedia solution
We suggest that all technical aspects of a project proposal should be communicated in a 20-minute video; the budget and applicant biographies should remain text-based. Just as in text-based proposals, applicants would follow a standardized set of formatting guidelines, but they would have the liberty to integrate animations, film clips and other audio-visual tools. Such videos could be produced simply by recording PowerPoint presentations (see ‘How to create a video presentation in PowerPoint’), using the tools available on almost every laptop computer.
Replacing the process of writing dense technical text with creating a video could significantly reduce proposal preparation time. And it could well improve proposal quality. In the education setting, video already has a proven capacity to facilitate learning outcomes, especially those involving abstract or hard-to-visualize phenomena6. Space limitations in text-based proposals often force applicants to reduce the size of images, or to exclude information altogether. But by using video, applicants can overlay audio commentary with visual elements, providing ample space to display control or replicate data, or to detail dynamic processes or results that are challenging to communicate in text.
For reviewers, video applications promise to replace lengthy text-based explanations with guided tours of researchers’ ideas. Applicants can walk reviewers through complex data sets, highlighting key observations and controls, emphasizing data supporting the hypothesis and pre-emptively explaining how potential obstacles can be overcome. Reviewers can pause or rewatch portions of a video for clarity, and software now allows them to annotate videos with timestamped hyperlinks. This efficiency could allow reviewers to evaluate more applications than is currently feasible, thereby contributing to more-reliable rankings. Video communication might also reduce reviewer score variability, and — because the videos can be played during review-panel discussions — could serve to refresh panel members’ memories of an application’s key elements before funding decisions are finalized.
Today’s funding decisions influence tomorrow’s discoveries, and video could modify funding outcomes. One class of proposals that could particularly benefit from video are those involving complex new methodologies or multiple disciplines. Researchers commonly complain that funding agencies tend to favour ‘low risk’ or incremental science7. A study of more than 18,000 Australian Research Council grant applications found an increase in interdisciplinary content predicted a lower probability of funding8,9. Interdisciplinary teams can struggle to describe complex or multiple new perspectives in text, and individual reviewers can struggle to evaluate all aspects of diverse proposals effectively. Although grant rules often prohibit applicants from providing links to multimedia that might give an unfair advantage, video-based proposals would invite all applicants to communicate in the most effective and efficient manner possible.
Some might fear that a video format will favour those with access to high-quality computer animation or preparation support, or amplify bias by revealing the gender, race and other distinguishing characteristics of applicants. However, we reason that the goal must be to maximize communication quality and efficiency, while assuming our peers are not easily bamboozled, nor blinded by bias. A high-quality presentation is not reliant on sophisticated animation, and even modest videos are likely to be more effective communication tools than static text and images. Research offices will adapt to teach skills that maximize the utility of video, and to support video production. Similar to written applications, this is likely to include script editing, and perhaps narration assistance for non-English speakers.
Counter-intuitively, it is possible that the influence of bias will be reduced as a result of improved video communication. When reviewer understanding is compromised, which is a common complaint of applicants, reviewers might fall back on tangible measures such as track record and institutional affiliation, or succumb to bias. Similar to diluting the influence of individual reviewer bias against the science in a specific proposal, increasing the number of reviewers per application will dilute the influence of reviewers who might hold biases or opinions that aren’t related to science against specific applicants.
Multimedia strategies have the potential to relieve many of the shortcomings of the current grant-application process, and we propose pilot studies to test their efficacy. Trials could be designed to estimate the time required to prepare and review video applications, compare the ranking consistency between videos and text-based applications, compare reviewer comprehension of material presented in videos or text, compare ranking of videos with narrators of different genders and determine whether the video format identifies exceptional applications or enables more effective communication of multidisciplinary proposals.
Video has become mainstream in scientists’ working lives. Isn’t it time to see what it can do for scientific funding?
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