Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How Granting Agencies Destroy Young Scientists

 
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.

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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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 [5]. As Sydney Brenner has said, “Innovation comes only from an assault on the unknown” [6].
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.

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.


14 comments :

  1. The National Cancer Institute of Canada (now the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute), of which I am a post-doctoral fellow, makes interviews a key part of the fellowship application process. Grantsmanship is part of it too, of course, but I think that the interview helps a great deal in identifying candidates who are likely to succeed, rather than those who can write a good application (though, I think I can do both...)

    Another enormous problem with the granting system is that it's based on one giant lie; no one (and I mean NO ONE) does exactly what they say they're going to in the application. Once the money is flowing, you can pretty much do whatever you like with it. For instance, granting agencies, with very few exceptions, will not fund pure discovery work (i.e. everything must be hypothesis-driven); so if I want to do an shRNA library screen for some phenotype (and I do...), I can't put in a CIHR grant application for that and expect it to get funding. I need preliminary data; I almost need to have done the screen first, and then they'll give me the money.

    What's strange, however, is that if you look at the highest impact journals, those types of pure discovery, "fishing expedition" (ok...systems biology, if you prefer) studies are published in almost every issue. Where is that money coming from?

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  2. That money is coming from people writing a grant for work they have already mostly done with leftover money from other 10 other grants they have and then going out fishing.

    Needless to say, this heavily favors the big established labs and large scale projects because they are the only ones who have the resources to spend on fishing expeditions.

    The thing is that fishing expeditions are inherently high risk/high reward type of thing and that's why when they strike gold, you see them published at the appropriate place. And by their nature, they are essential and very important component of research. However, I am not at all sure that changing the current system that is heavily biased against funding them to a new system where researchers operate on a guaranteed budget will help. Because such a budget while giving them security will also be limited and if you have a limited budget, you better spend those money wisely so that you get the most out of them (which is what is suggested as a criteria for evaluating success). You aren't going to go out and try some expensive and risky stuff if that's the case. There is really no obvious way out of this.

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  3. We give up making a living until our forties. And we do it because we want to help the world. What kind of crazy person would go for that?”—Nancy Andrews, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Duke University School of Medicine

    How about being honest to begin with? No, most scientist don't do it because they want to help the world. They do it in a hope of eventually getting a tenure - an island of security and stability in an ocean of insecure jobs that keep people strung up right up to their retirement. The curiosity factor and saving the world is just a potential bonus. And no, there is absolutely nothing wrong with workers wanting a better job (tenured position at university in the case of most of the science). It's just that it is important to be honest about it. Drop the tenure system and there will be no postdoc glut and there will be no funding crises of the enormous proportions we have today. Like all bubbles, the system we have now is autocatalytic:

    1. Most universities exist, grow and proliferate because their researchers bring in public money. (Cut public funding and 90% of them won't survive).
    2. This feeds into getting more researchers. To attract smart people into constantly playing a low percentage win game, a certain minimum requirement has to be met. That assurance is a tenure.
    3. But to get tenure and to sustain the above the tenure minimum income level, more researchers need more people working for them. As a rule, those people need to be educated. GOTO 1.
    4. On top of that, larger universities/researchers lobby exerts considerable pressure to further increase public funding. (As in Clinton's doubling of NIH budget). Bingo! GOTO 2.

    The end result is an increasingly larger and less efficient system. Large resources involved demand more emphasis on management. Thus, resource managing in the name of science is increasingly important. This becomes preoccupation of all people who in theory are supposed to be concerned with science. Science itself and truth in general take a second place.

    I think there are only two ways to break the rotten system that we have now and they are radically different:

    ==> Make business of doing science as insecure as doing any other business
    (ever wondered how universities, even private, never ever fail? All other businesses, even the biggest ones, fail all the time).

    ==> Make business of doing science entirely predictable. Jobs and funding are almost 100% secure (huge attraction!) - but only for few people who earn the distinction of public blanket funding.

    In human history, both strategies have a record of accomplishing great things. In a highly developed technocrat society, it is not obvious to me which one wins.

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  4. "If the system isn't working then let's fix it."

    Yeah, just like the U.S. health insurance system!

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  5. No, most scientist don't do it because they want to help the world. They do it in a hope of eventually getting a tenure - an island of security and stability in an ocean of insecure jobs that keep people strung up right up to their retirement.

    I disagree. I think most scientists really do want to help the world. Universities don't seem to have any trouble filling up untenureable research assistant professorships and adjuct professor positions which belies the tenure motivation.

    That being said, I also believe that tenure is the root of many evils and is ripe for some relatively drastic reforms.

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  6. "If the system isn't working then let's fix it."

    This is THE great issue in science, as far as I'm concerned. If my limited experience in the field of scientific research has taught me anything, it's that a) being a good scientist says nothing about whether you're a good administrator, and b) many scientists bristle at the idea that their organizations could benefit from outside help in terms of management.

    My dad was in management for decades, and when I explain to him how university depts/grad supervision is run, he shakes his head. I understand that scientific institutions aren't companies, however, many of them seem to be run using unwritten rules more than anything else. It would take a lot of time for me to point out individual examples, but I think that many people know what I'm talking about.

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  7. Georgi,

    The point is, however, that grant panel members know darn well that what is being proposed isn't what's being worked on, and that the pages of Nature, Science, and Cell are littered with studies that were most certainly not hypothesis-driven, and yet they continue to absolutely demand that grant applications be strictly hypothesis-driven AND that applicants have publications in high-impact journals (that's a another issue altogether).

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  8. That's the nature of the game.

    I personally see nothing wrong with getting a grant, doing what's in it, and then if you have money left, going fishing. However, you can only do that when you are an established investigator with multiple grants to juggle with, and it is another reason why young scientists are at disadvantage.

    The facts is that the coolest results come out of risky science and the system is set up against doing risky science, and ironically, it is only the people who have the resources that enable them to do risky science and those happen to be the established researchers.

    Whatever way you reform the system, if in climbing your way up you are judged by your results, the best strategy will always be to play it safe. But there is nothing else that one can be judged by other than his results.

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  9. DK says.

    How about being honest to begin with? No, most scientist don't do it because they want to help the world. They do it in a hope of eventually getting a tenure - an island of security and stability in an ocean of insecure jobs that keep people strung up right up to their retirement. The curiosity factor and saving the world is just a potential bonus. And no, there is absolutely nothing wrong with workers wanting a better job (tenured position at university in the case of most of the science). It's just that it is important to be honest about it. Drop the tenure system and there will be no postdoc glut and there will be no funding crises of the enormous proportions we have today.

    We have 58 scientist in our department. About half of them work in hospital research institutes where they are on five year renewable contracts. No tenure for them.

    Those jobs are highly desirable. When a hospital is hiring they can often out-compete the university campus for the top candidate. The scientists in the hospital research institutes are the best in the business in spite of the fact that they don't have tenure.

    How do you explain that nasty little fact, DK? It doesn't fit into your silly notions about what motivates scientists, does it?

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  10. Dropping the tenure system will not have any effect on the postdoc glut; the 'glut' is front-loaded: it's caused by overzealous universities training more people than they should.

    I've been over this ad nauseum here, but the fact is that it will always be in the universities' best interest to train too many postdocs (and, by extension, too many PhDs). This keeps costs down (government funding is per head) and ensures a ruthlessly competitive environment, where postdocs know that a first-authored publication in Nature, Cell, or Science is a virtual requirement to advance to the Assistant Professor level. Sure, the ones that survive will be excellent scientists (or, at least, lucky scientists), but for every one of them there will be 4 or 5 (at least!) broken spirits. I've seen it happen.

    This system is so broken it's hard to know where to begin. The fact that despite all of it, I get up and come to the lab each and every day, is a testament to just how deeply I (and many like me) love what I do. Anyone that is 30+ years old, has had 8-10 years of graduate and post-doctoral training, and still makes a postdoc salary has given up a huge amount for what they love.

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  11. We have 58 scientist in our department. About half of them work in hospital research institutes where they are on five year renewable contracts. No tenure for them. ... How do you explain that nasty little fact, DK? It doesn't fit into your silly notions about what motivates scientists, does it?

    Well, first - and it has to be clear - I never meant that the prospect of tenure is the only or even main thing that motivates people who go into science careers. Obviously, doing science is a fun and enjoyable work for many people! How can it be any different? It's just by the time they are faced with necessity to earn the living, they have to fit in with the system. And the system basically says that if you don't manage to get a tenure, you are screwed. So priorities take a distinctly different slant. The pompous claims about "we want to help the world" have no more to do with reality as would claims (obviously laughable) that enormous popularity of medical and law schools is mainly due to "wanting to help people".

    Second, you'd have to be more specific about your particular example. I suspect that you are being disingenuous somewhere but can't be sure. So, ~50% of people listed as professors at UT-Biochem are living it off soft money - that is, they, for all intents and purposes, instantly lose their jobs unless they bring in extramural funding to cover their own salaries and everything else?

    Somehow, this does not sound very believable. Care to elaborate?

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  12. the 'glut' is front-loaded: ... it will always be in the universities' best interest to train too many postdocs ... and too many PhDs).

    (And too many BSs, I'd add)

    Sure. That's what I am saying. "To attract smart people into constantly playing a low percentage win game, a certain minimum requirement has to be met. That assurance is a tenure". In other words, tenure is not a causal thing or a root of all evil - no, it's just a grease that keeps the whole mechanism working smoothly and an education bubble growing steadily.

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  13. So, ~50% of people listed as professors at UT-Biochem are living it off soft money - that is, they, for all intents and purposes, instantly lose their jobs unless they bring in extramural funding to cover their own salaries and everything else?

    External grants don't generally cover PI salaries; those are covered by the host institutions.

    But, PIs at hospital-based research institutes do have to maintain a certain level of grant support in order to maintain their jobs. The amounts are dependent on the level of the scientist (junior scientist, scientist, senior scientist), but they're never free of that requirement.

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  14. DK asks,

    Second, you'd have to be more specific about your particular example. I suspect that you are being disingenuous somewhere but can't be sure. So, ~50% of people listed as professors at UT-Biochem are living it off soft money - that is, they, for all intents and purposes, instantly lose their jobs unless they bring in extramural funding to cover their own salaries and everything else?

    Somehow, this does not sound very believable. Care to elaborate?


    That's not how it works in Canada. You are not allowed to pay yourself out of your grant.

    The scientists at the hospital research institutes are paid a salary by the hospitals. In most cases those salaries are higher than the salaries for comparable scientists on the university campus. They have plenty of responsibilities beyond just running a research lab. Almost all of them teach courses on the university campus.

    The important point is that there are plenty of scientists who take jobs where tenure is not an option. Nobody in the biotech companies has tenure, for example, and you don't get tenure in government labs.

    Tenure is a special privilege. It's meant to protect academic freedom and nobody has come up with a better way of doing that.

    My colleagues in the hospital research institutes don't have that protection and there have been some spectacular cases where it became obvious that academic freedom isn't one of the privileges that they enjoy.

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