Thursday, October 15, 2009

What I already did or won't actually do but will promise....if only you'll gimme a grant

The problem
An important commentary appeared in the September PLoS Biology, though we have only just stumbled across it. It has already been viewed close to 30,000 times but seems to have generated little discussion, either on the PLoS website or in the blogosphere. Indeed, we wonder why so few have wanted to comment, since the article points to serious problems that we all know about, and describes them accurately. We think the subject deserves more attention.

In his paper, with a title that says it all, "Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research: the Granting System Turns Young Scientists into Bureaucrats and then Betrays Them", Peter Lawrence, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge and Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, United Kingdom makes a strong case for the need for drastic change in the way science is funded. Lawrence is a highly regarded developmental biologist, with a long and distinguished research record in patterning in general and the genetics of development of the fruit fly in particular. He also has many times confronted problems in the politics of science head on. He has no qualms about telling it as he sees it; his is a very welcome and needed voice. Since he has not been a research failure, his views can be taken seriously: they are not just sour grapes.

In the paper, he argues that the status quo is not good for young scientists. The incessant need to apply for research money takes far too much time, encourages conventional thinking, and even lies. As he says,
To expect a young scientist to recruit and train students and postdocs as well as producing and publishing new and original work within two years (in order to fuel the next grant application) is preposterous. It is neither right nor sensible to ask scientists to become astrologists and predict precisely the path their research will follow—and then to judge them on how persuasively they can put over this fiction. It takes far too long to write a grant because the requirements are so complex and demanding. Applications have become so detailed and so technical that trying to select the best proposals has become a dark art. For postdoctoral fellowships, there are so many arcane and restrictive rules that applicants frequently find themselves to be of the wrong nationality, in the wrong lab, too young, or too old.
And, he tells his own story:
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 implications
This will resonate with anyone who has written a grant proposal--or taken a class on 'grantsmanship'. The process is less about good ideas than about gaming the system, and this takes more and more time. Science, we are proud to boast publicly, rests on truth and trust--that's why plagiarism or fudged experiments are treated so harshly.

But what about the routine kinds of dishonesty that our system fosters? People rarely admit it publicly, but it is absolutely routinely acknowledged in private that, along with the dissembling Peter describes, proposals are submitted for large amounts of funds for work that has already been done, or that the investigator knows won't deliver what is promised (and, often, simultaneously hyped in the public media). What about dissembling by the manipulation of data to present it in a technically honest way that nonetheless biases the impression of the importance of the data and of the authors' conclusions?

These issues are but the tip of a potentially destructive iceberg. The current system builds big empires with large, long-term and hence unstoppable entrenched budgets. The system encourages large teams of workers, hires large numbers of post-docs as its cogs, and actively lobbies publicly and privately to secure its funding base. Peter discusses how large groups can cover for the low-yield of many of their members.

Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting funds for your research. But when it becomes institutionalized, is based heavily on competition, and careers (and university budgets) depend on a steady stream, the pressures unite in the direction of grantsmanship: gaming the system first to secure funding and then, if there's time, to do something innovative. But when you're preoccupied with securing the funds, there's much less time or even incentive to think about the real science questions.

Fundability often means safety and that means predictability which in turn often means incremental rather than major advances. Research in some areas of biology is very expensive, to be sure, and new technologies definitely do help reveal facts we could not otherwise obtain. But sequestering of resources in a few hands, or for a few technologies, deprives other avenues of resources. The safety-first system encourages (forces?) most investigators to use the technology for various understandable reasons: being fashionable, hiding a lack of ideas behind the predictability of at least some descriptive results if new technology is applied, and equating large-scale with importance. This systematically rewards investigators and of course pleases their Deans who get the overhead.

To be sure, a lot of good science is being done! No system can guarantee that more than a fraction of science will have lasting value. Most papers are hardly ever cited other than by their own authors, and the shelf-life of most research in these overheated days is very short. The distribution of quality has probably always been skewed towards a majority of trivia. And it is reasonable that we have some ways to weed out sluggish or useless yet costly research. This is especially true when there are more claimants than funds, and this is one direct consequence of the system we have now.

But when the rewards of successful grantsmanship are great, they lead to manipulation of the system, as we have seen over the past few decades, and everyone's research becomes "paradigm shifting" on the proverbial cutting edge.

Peer review, designed as one means to reduce the clubbiness of the OldBoy system, has done some of that, but people are hierarchy builders and have long ago figured out to build new kinds of OldBoy systems. Bureaucrats, too, want their portfolios of funded clients, as that helps them (the bureaucrats) build their own careers. But portfolios are jeopardized if there isn't continuity, so investigators have relatively clear paths to continued funding....whether or not they have generated really solid ideas.

We also have a crazily proliferating number of journals, and they allow piles of 'supplemental information' (often sloppily written) to be included. This leads to a tsunami of content that we simply can't keep up with, even within specialty areas--we've commented on this before on this blog. And the pressures mitigate against teaching, because rewards are for funded research. Scientists aren't stupid: we go where the rewards are!

The solution?
We undoubtedly must live with inefficiency in science. If you're really exploring the unknown, you can't know what you'll learn. Most ideas don't pan out. But a kind of evolutionary ecology perspective is worth taking: an ecosystem is most robust to environmental change when it is most diverse. A larger number of funded scientists, perhaps all with less funding, with high-end resources housed in technology service centers, could foster a higher probability and faster flow of really new ideas.

The problems are deeper and more subtle even than all of this, though. It's become a positive-feedback system. Status depends on having students, and the more the merrier. Rather than being sane, and mutually paring back to, say, generational replacement levels in which we each train only one or two students in our careers, the system encourages us to take more graduate students, to help us write more papers and get more grants, and then to do the work on the grants. That means more competition for fewer jobs and grants. We can't taper back because everyone would have to agree to that, and we're not in an altruistic mode these days. So, the squeeze is on--mainly on the young aspirants to science careers. Our university, like your university, wants more!

There is no easy solution for a positive-feedback system, particularly because universities have become so fundamentally dependent on overhead money from grants. Professor Lawrence proposes the shortening of grant applications. But daily life out here in the field immediately reveals that such changes simply encourage many more applications per person, since it's less work to do each one and they can be parceled, packaged, slightly modified and so on, in many ways. The overall probability of funding probably will go down, if anything. The US Stimulus grants showed that, when some 20,000 or so applications were submitted--because the applications were relatively easy--for around 200-300 grants. And the administrative overhead, of preparing and submitting grants can't change much per grant, so will go up and up and up, eating further into the useful amount of funds.

One can say that this is a harsh system but that, like natural selection, it screens out the worst and favors the best. That's true certainly to some extent. But who says that human life must be made harsh, to feed the self-interest of a few?

The burden will fall on the new people who are entering, or hope to enter, the fields of science. We owe it to them to resist a system that systematically grinds the spirit, or even the careers, out of so many.

We may all have dreams, and may all seek dream jobs. But not every dream is fulfilled, and not every dream job turns out to be a dream. Some, even as students, look at their research professors' lives and say "not for me!" Others are lured by the status system into high-pressure, grant-dependent careers that turn out to be relentlessly tense, by which time it may be to late for the person to taper back and get a less-intense job.

But the system as it now exists is structured to make you feel like a failure if you don't have grants, don't publish frequently in 'High Impact' journals, or --heaven forbid -- like to teach! Nobody should feel disappointed, disillusioned or like a failure because they didn't live up to somebody else's -- to the System's -- notion of success, a notion that is in their, but perhaps not your, self interest. But it's very hard to resist the allure of illusion.

Beyond shorter grant applications, what other solutions does Lawrence propose? Smaller, less costly labs, longer lasting grants (5 years minimum), the option of being judged on past research rather than future plans, less reliance on citation counts. Others have proposed more radical changes, such as all researchers being given a research allowance, that automatically gets renewed for those doing good work -- the obvious problem with this is that it's readily gameable too.

These issues are deep and many, and need to be discussed. The system needs to reward good science again, and young researchers need to be able to expect to retain their love of science long into their careers.

Peter Lawrence lays out the problems in an honest and straightforward way. If you're a scientist, particularly if you are just embarking on your career, you owe it to yourself to read, and talk about, his paper. We'll write more about this in our next post, but meanwhile, your thoughts and comments are most welcome.

-Anne and Ken


coturnix said...

Actually, there were dozens of blog posts (as well as discussions on Twitter and FriendFeed) about this article. Go to and type in "Real Lives and White Lies" into the search box (pick 'everyone') to see a lot of them (why doesn't this comment box allow copy and paste!? - I wanted to make it easy for you by putting in a link, but cannot paste it here).

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks for letting us know. We were traveling in Europe with very little web access at the time, and didn't think to check when we made our own post. Peter Lawrence has written several other quite cogent commentaries, too (PubMed searching can locate them).

Again, thanks for letting us and others who see this blog about these other resources.

Arjun said...

I'm not sure if you've read this before, but I find it all the more pertinent in light of your and Lawrence's discussions:

Anne Buchanan said...

Arjun, yes, and the Feynman talk is also relevant to our posts of Oct 19 and 20, another reminder that the age of science has escaped a lot of us. What's convincing evidence to scientists is irrelevant to much of the world.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks, Arjun. I had read that a long time ago, but had forgotten it. We are all only human, and egos and mistakes and so on will always be part of life. But that can't be a legitimate reason not to keep watch and try to keep the system as perfected as imperfect beings can do.