Friday, October 16, 2009

I'll get right on soon as I've finished my grant application

Ken writes:
I was about to work on a second installment of a response to Peter Lawrence's very clear commentary on the state of the grant system in science, at least in some countries like the UK and US. But I had to run off to hear a seminar. When I got there, I learned that the seminar had been canceled at the last minute. When I asked why, the organizer told me it was because the speaker had to get a grant application finished before a deadline.

This is in every way typical, a daily kind of event. It used to be said, with some truth, that when two people (well, two men) got together, it didn't take long for their discussion to turn to sex. Such a satisfying Darwinian fitness-related notion is, sadly, no longer true. Now, the subject quickly turns to grants. Moaning, or bragging (indirectly, and without seeming to, of course) about funding.

We wanted to write a second post on this, to discuss possible solutions but, as we said yesterday, as long as the system is based on fiscal competition and exponential growth, there is no real fix beyond some kind of economic collapse--and that would be more hurtful than what we already have.

The exponential growth required to sustain the system can't continue. We simply cannot go on each of us training a steady stream of graduate students--and being pressured for our own career's sake, our status, and, yes, our further funding, to keep doing so. As long as 'more' = 'better', the system will not change. Yet, understandably, administrators are rewarded by a system that endlessly seeks 'more'.

Even the idea that we'll produce many PhD's, of whom but a few succeed, doesn't fly. It might be a stable, but harsh system, but we are driven to increase our funding level per capita as well, and that too requires exponential growth.

At some point the paying and investing public may tire of exaggerated promises and decide something else is worthier of their investment. We know of some examples, like energy, global climate, and combating infectious disease that would pay off much better to society.

If the health care bill becomes too large, or we finally accept that genetic variation is not the cause of all human ills, then money may be shifted to better uses. But that will not be good for the science system, and in particular for research that is not about, or that is skewed to seem to be about, health.

Shorter applications, reliance on track record rather than descriptions of proposed work, longer funding periods, and the like, that Peter suggested, sound great and should be great. But they are at odds with anthropological facts about human societies and how they work.

We think that the only self-imposed, as opposed to catastrophe-imposed, solutions involve one thing above all: system-wide self-restraint. There would need to be a cap on how many applications, and how much funding, any one person could have, and some way to prevent this being gamed by various kinds of collaborative groups. Likewise, research institutions (departments, universities, institutes) would have to be capped. Projects would have to have duration limits.

Investigators would have to have funding that was based on real accountability--achievement in relation to what is important (not just paper or dollar counts). And success in terms of what investigators promise will be the benefits of their research. Program bureaucrats would have to show real societal benefit from the projects they sponsor, not just flurries of statistical obfuscation, or their portfolios would be reduced.

But, nothing like this will happen. Those in power are certainly as entrenched as, say, the health insurance industry or investment banking industries are in the US today. Radical change is not on. Follow the money -- who benefits the most from the system the way it is? Universities and government bureaucrats; scientists are lured into it the system with the carrots of promotion, tenure and raises if they bring in funding, and certainly these are real benefits, but what scientists do for their university administrators in the form of overhead money and bureaucrats at the granting agencies in the form of portfolios is much more important in maintaining the system as it is.

We think that's too bad, but we also believe that changing the system is just not in our current cultural makeup. Of course, imperfect as it is relative to the above kinds of ideals (or pick your own set), life does go on, science does progress, and inequity isn't exactly novel to human affairs.

More broadly speaking, science is thriving. More scientists are doing more projects than ever before in history, by far. In genetics, at least, knowledge is accumulating at break-neck speed. There have been some important new findings in genetics, though it must be said that our basic 'paradigm' is not really different from what it was decades ago. But overall, in these senses, we're in a boom time. Opportunities for women and minorities are of course much better than, say, 50 years ago. More universities than just the traditional elites have first-line faculty members doing research projects.

Every generation complains about the 'good old days'. That means that in the good old days they complained about the imperfections of former eras. In a sense, the current complaints, though correct, just happen to be this era's imperfections.

Still, while science is booming, the complaints we have discussed, and that Peter Lawrence describes, are real, and palpable. Just because every system is imperfect does not mean we cannot and should not try to reduce the imperfections of our own time.

Finally, I repeat, there are many honorable ways to have a life in science besides working in a high-octane research factory. Teaching affects more people by far than most research, and there are of course many, many jobs teaching science.

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