It is a summer day in 2009 in Cambridge, England, and K. (39) looks out of his lab window, wondering why he chose the life of a scientist . Yet it had all begun so well! His undergraduate studies in Prague had excited him about biomedical research, and he went on to a PhD at an international laboratory in Heidelberg. There, he had every advantage, technical and intellectual, and his work had gone swimmingly. He had moved to a Wellcome-funded research institute in England in 1999. And although his postdoc grant, as is typical, was for only two years, he won a rare career development award that gave him some independence for four more years. A six-year postdoc was an unusual opportunity, and it allowed him to define his own research field. By 2004, he had published six experimental papers in good journals, and on four of these, he was first author. It was the high point in his career, and when he applied for posts in Cambridge, London, Stanford, and Tubingen, he was short-listed for them all. He chose Cambridge University and a Royal Society Research Fellowship that offered him up to ten years' salary. This should have brought the peace of mind to plan projects that would take five years, or even longer.
Like another K. character from Prague in another story, this one gets eaten up by the bureaucracy. The system of grant funding has its own peculiar logic, and the process of learning that logic is brutal and often discouraging. Small labs basically go through an unmoderated, roughly 3-year business cycle: all is great, people's salaries are paid, the research is going well, and then the funds run out and you shed personnel that took so much effort to train.
Is the problem simply that there is not enough money? Not really. Competition is inevitable no matter how large the NIH budget, but competition for funding is really not the issue here. The problem is how the competition works, and the results that are produced. One result is to kill off the next generation of researchers, who, unlike the current generation of tenured faculty trained in the late 1970's and 1980's, don't get much of a shot at pursuing their own independent ideas until they've reached their late 30's or early 40's. That kind of delay can do a lot to neuter one's creative drive and enthusiasm for science.
Princeton Professor Ted Cox, quoted in the PLoS Biology piece, puts it this way:
"The problem is, over and over again, that many very creative young people, who have demonstrated their creativity, can't figure out what the system wants of them—which hoops should they jump through? By the time many young people figure out the system, they are so much a part of it, so obsessed with keeping their grants, that their imagination and instincts have been so muted (or corrupted) that their best work is already behind them. This is made much worse by the US system in which assistant professors in medical schools will soon have to raise their own salaries. Who would dare to pursue risky ideas under these circumstances? Who could dare change their research field, ever?"
—Ted Cox, Edwin Grant Conklin Professor of Biology, Director of the Program on Biophysics, Princeton University
The second problem with the way the competition for funding is handled was articulated by the late Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg:
People do not realize that when it comes to arguing their case for more funding, scientists who do basic research are the least articulate, least organized, and least temperamentally equipped to justify what they are doing. In a society where selling is so important, where the medium is the message, these handicaps can spell extinction.
Peter Lawrence elaborates:
The peculiar demands of our granting system have favoured an upper class of skilled scientists who know how to raise money for a big group . They have mastered a glass bead game that rewards not only quality and honesty, but also salesmanship and networking. A large group is the secret because applications are currently judged in a way that makes it almost immaterial how many of that group fail, so long as two or three do well. Data from these successful underlings can be cleverly packaged to produce a flow of papers—essential to generate an overlapping portfolio of grants to avoid gaps in funding.
Thus, large groups can appear effective even when they are neither efficient nor innovative. Also, large groups breed a surplus of PhD students and postdocs that flood the market; many boost the careers of their supervisors while their own plans to continue in research are doomed from the outset. The system also helps larger groups outcompete smaller groups, like those headed by younger scientists such as K. It is no wonder that the average age of grant recipients continues to rise . Even worse, sustained success is most likely when risky and original topics are avoided and projects tailored to fit prevailing fashions—a fact that sticks a knife into the back of true research . As Sydney Brenner has said, “Innovation comes only from an assault on the unknown” .
So the problem isn't simply limited funding: the current system ruins the careers of young scientists, and it forces those who are most interested in doing research to turn their attention away from science and towards an endless stream of administrative requirements. More money won't fix that - the system will soon saturate again at the new funding level, and we'll be dealing with the same issues.
What's the solution? I barely understand the system, much less know how to fix it, but one thing is clear: grant applications are much, much too large and detailed. Not only do they take a huge chunk of time to prepare (and review), but they create an atmosphere where reviewers can sink a grant on some less important detail. Instead of confronting the big question of scientific merit head-on, grant proposals are detailed enough so that the lazy reviewer who doesn't like a proposal can find enough quibbles to justify rejection.
Some other suggestions in the piece are shortening review times(it typically takes a year from the time you submit a proposal until you see any money, and 6-8 months before you get a chance to revise your rejected proposal); eliminating grants altogether and providing labs with 5-year, renewable budgets (with continued funding based on productivity); put more restrictions on awarding grants to labs already funded with numerous grants (which makes some sense when you realize that when you receive a grant, you are expected to commit x% of your time to that research, and PIs of large groups have often, on paper, committed 200% of their time to their funded grants - something's getting neglected somewhere); and, to keep reviewers from simply counting papers on a CV instead of evaluating their quality, limit the number of publications you can list on a grant application.
Whatever we do, we need to start taking the long view. Good research, in many cases, simply does not operate on a cycle that corresponds to the 3-year lab business cycle. Competition is necessary, but the outcome of that competition should be stable funding for productive scientists, and not a constant mad scramble for everyone.
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