Scrounging for Research Dollars

I don't have time for this, I need to get back to writing grants!  Image courtesy of David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons.
I don't have time for this, I need to get back to writing grants! Image courtesy of David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re a scientist these days, getting the money to do your research is a lot like getting into Stanford or Yale. Assuming you aren’t rich or connected, being incredibly skilled, hardworking and accomplished isn’t enough. You need to get lucky too.

The big difference is that in terms of funding for research, there aren’t really any back up schools. If you don’t get into your Ivy League college, you don’t get your college degree. The best you can do is scrape together a few part-time jobs to stay in business so you can apply over and over again to the same school. No wonder so many scientists are becoming discouraged.

For those of you who don’t know how scientists at universities get their money, here is a quick, crash course. First off, scientists aren’t paid by a university to do their research. They are expected to raise that money on their own. They are given a bit of money to get started, but the university supplies almost no money after that. In fact, they take a good chunk of the money you manage to raise for overhead costs (buildings, electricity, name recognition, etc.).

This didn’t used to be a big deal. Yes, it was an inconvenience but there was enough money so that if you had a good idea and some data to support it, you had a pretty good shot at getting funded. This is no longer true.

These days most higher-level scientists are spending less and less time doing science and more and more time writing grants to try to get research funded. If they don’t have a big name and/or come from a big school, odds are most if not all of the grants won’t be funded. And even if they have the reputation and come from what is deemed to be a big school, they still may end up penniless.


Someone I know at Stanford summarized his situation like this:

This year I'll be submitting six RO1 grants, each of which take about a month's worth of effort. Given that the current funding levels are less than 10%, I'll be lucky if one gets funded so I can keep doing my research. Three of these proposals are seeking funding to continue existing research projects that serve the scientific community; if they aren’t funded, those projects will stop.

As you can tell, he is writing as fast as he can to try to keep at least some of his projects going. He is not doing much research on his own, he is just trying to get enough money so the graduate students and other people in his lab can do some science. Not what he was trained for!

Not only that, but as he says, some of his ongoing projects will lose their funding. This isn’t because they aren’t worthy. Instead they won’t be funded because they didn’t get the lucky six numbers to win the lottery this round.

President Obama recognizes the problems with science funding.
President Obama recognizes the problems with science funding.

Chaotic funding like this slows research down as ideas are not allowed to flower but instead die or go dormant. And even if they are picked up again, research is slowed as the new group has to learn the subtleties of that particular project. This is no way to run a business!

At least some people in government are recognizing this reality. President Obama in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences suggested that sequestration could cost two years of research. And this is just the sequestration; it doesn’t include the lost years from the drop off in funding that has already happened in the last few years.

As you might expect, this isn’t just a U.S. problem. A recent article in the Guardian points out that the same sorts of things are happening in Europe and Australia too.

In a time of decreased funding, we have to decide if having fewer scientists able to do research is OK. If it is, then we can keep the same system in place and have scientists writing grant after grant, trying to raise money for their research. Hopefully the best grant writers are also the best scientists.

If we want more scientists able to do research, then we have to decide what to do. One idea might be to streamline the granting process to save money so that more grants are funded. The occasional stinker of a project might slip through, but that might be OK if many more grants can be funded. Another idea would be more money for research, but you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. There simply may not be the money to fund research under the current system so that a scientist has a reasonable chance at getting funded.

The worst part is we have to count on Congress to try to deal with this. I suspect things will go on like they have been for a very long time.