Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"The granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them"

Lawrence PA (2009) Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research. PLoS Biol 7(9): e1000197. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000197
In this article, Lawrence convincingly describes (in a Kafkaesque fashion) the present system - with the help of a number of quotes from working scientists - as broken:
The problem is, over and over again, that many very creative young people, who have demonstrated their creativity, can't figure out what the system wants of them—which hoops should they jump through? By the time many young people figure out the system, they are so much a part of it, so obsessed with keeping their grants, that their imagination and instincts have been so muted (or corrupted) that their best work is already behind them. This is made much worse by the US system in which assistant professors in medical schools will soon have to raise their own salaries. Who would dare to pursue risky ideas under these circumstances? Who could dare change their research field, ever?Ted Cox, Edwin Grant Conklin Professor of Biology, Director of the Program on Biophysics, Princeton University [quoted in article]

Lawrence also offers up how to solve the science-numbing effects of the present research granting system (of most western countries), again with the assistance of a number of scientists:

“My solution? Everyone should get slotted into a funding category and assessed every five years. If you're productive, you get five more years of resources. If productivity is down, you are moved down a category. If it is high, you can apply to move up. Starting PIs are in a different category and must apply to get onto the treadmill. The difference: PIs would be judged by overall productivity, not grantsmanship. We can stop wasting our time writing grants, and the system can be more easily calibrated to train a sustainable number of postdocs. It is depressing to train people who will struggle for funding.

A peer-reviewed, 5-year renewable, productivity-based ‘track’ system with a set amount of money at each level would stabilize funding, encourage innovation and productivity, allow each PI to control how their money is allocated, and permit us to make nationwide decisions about the size of our science enterprise. It also has the merit of simplicity.”—Ross Cagan, Professor of Developmental and Regenerative Biology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine [quoted in article]

A simpler, more efficient, fairer, and more productive system is that operated by research institutes, such as the IMCB in Singapore, where investigators are given a budget, allowed to get on with their research and reviewed after five years.Philip Ingham, Professor, Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Singapore/MRC Centre for Developmental and Biomedical Genetics, University of Sheffield [quoted in article]

Lawrences own solution distills down to:
  • Shorten grant applications (less time writing and less time reviewing)
  • Grants last longer, like 5 yrs
  • Large groups making grant submissions need to be scrutinized on their ability and time availability to manage people, project, etc.
  • Limit # publications supporting the granting submission

As a side note, I believe this is one of the first scientific papers (albeit a perspective/opinion piece) that has a citation to a US presidential inaugural speech that I have seen.

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