Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Real lives and white lies

The title of this post is stolen borrowed from a new opinion piece by Peter A. Lawrence in PLoS Biology titled "Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research."* Go read it (open access - it's free!). Lawrence is mostly referring to the current system in Britain, but there are clearly parallels with the system here in the U.S.

Lawrence is concerned with the fate of young innovative scientists. However, many of the opinions cited in Lawrence's piece come from well-established scientists, so it's not clear how some of the suggested "fixes" (shorter grant applications, a tiered system of fixed five-year funding blocks followed by review, etc.) would work for young scientists. One of the quoted scientists complains about a 2.5 year funding gap after 30 years in research, which is easy to interpret as the whining of one of those old farts CPP loves to hate. Maybe he is, maybe he's not. Still, it's an interesting read.

Some highlights:

On the system-
“What a strange business this is: We stay in school forever. We have to battle the system with only a one in eight or one in ten chance of getting funded. 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

On the advantages of large groups-
"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].'

And perhaps my favorite paragraph-
"Universities have whole departments devoted to filling in the financial sections of these forms. Liaison between the scientists and these departments and between the scientists and employees of the granting agencies has become more and more Kafkaesque."

Kafkaesque indeed...

* Peter A. Lawrence (2009) Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research. PLoS Biol 7(9): e1000197


Arlenna said...

I know--but what do we do? It would be kind of awesome to go back to the days of finding some wealthy patronage who would just give you money for being you, so we could explore crazy ideas and be truly innovative. But then, other things NEED to be studied in relatively non-innovative ways: some of the science that needs to be done is boring, but it still contributes to the body of understanding about something. So some of this system is just inherent in humans and how we look at the world, and also inherent to the world/nature of reality itself...

Note: Feeling a combination of philosophical and overwhelmed today produces comments like the one above. :)

Odyssey said...

I don't know what the answer is. I do think that the system is broken (and I say that as someone who is funded and has been for a while). I think the evolution of the grantmaking system into the current form has largely been driven by two forces - bureaucrats and older investigators who "grew up" in times of plentiful funding. The latter will eventually retire, but we will always be stuck with the former. And we now have a system that "works" for deans and other administrative types...

As far a innovation goes, my own work tends to be done using rather non-innovative methods - the system we're studying simply hasn't required anything else as yet. Frankly I find the whole "innovation" thing in NIH/NSF instructions to reviewers a crock - as you said, not all research requires innovation.