Peter Lawrence has an article in the latest issue of PLoS Biology: Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research.
He's not saying anything we don't already know but he says it so well. Peter describes the typical example of a young researcher (K.) who is frustrated and discouraged by the way science is funded in the UK. The details may differ but it's the same basic story at universities in North America and everywhere else.
He then describes his own experience and highlights the problem.
After more than 40 years of full-time research in developmental biology and genetics, I wrote my first grant and showed it to those experienced in grantsmanship. They advised me my application would not succeed. I had explained that we didn't know what experiments might deliver, and had acknowledged the technical problems that beset research and the possibility that competitors might solve problems before we did. My advisors said these admissions made the project look precarious and would sink the application. I was counselled to produce a detailed, but straightforward, program that seemed realistic—no matter if it were science fiction. I had not mentioned any direct application of our work: we were told a plausible application should be found or created. I was also advised not to put our very best ideas into the application as it would be seen by competitors—it would be safer to keep those ideas secret.You know, what's really puzzling about this phenomenon is not that we are unaware of the problem—it's that we haven't done anything about it. If the system isn't working then let's fix it.
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” .
There are several innovations that could fix the problem. Peter suggests that only the best papers from a lab should be evaluated and that young investigators could be interviewed by the granting agencies to evaluate promise. Others suggest that funds could be given to departments and the departments could distribute the money in the most efficient and effective manor.
Many scientists advocate shorter grant proposals with more of an emphasis on past productivity than on what's in the actual proposal. If you've been successful in the past then you will probably be successful in the future. It's time to stop rewarding grantsmanship and start rewarding science.