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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 24, 2009

The Grant Application Treadmill

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Posted by Derek

There's a (justifiably) angry paper out in PLoS Biology discussing the nasty situation too many academic researchers find themselves in: spending all their time writing grant applications rather than doing research. The paper's written from a UK perspective, but the problems it describes are universal:

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.

And a related problem is how this system tends to get rid of people who can't stand it, leaving the sorts of people who can:

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 author is no freshly-minted assistant professor - Peter Lawrence (FRS) has been at Cambridge for forty years, but only recently relocated to the Department of Zoology and experienced the grantsmanship game first-hand. He has a number of recommendations to try to fix the process: shorter and simpler application forms, an actual weighting against large research groups, longer funding periods, limits to the number of papers that can be added to a grant application, and more. Anyone interested in the topic should read the whole paper, and will probably be pounding on the desk in agreement very shortly.

The short version? We think we're asking for scientists, but we're really asking for fund-raisers and masters of paperwork. Surely it doesn't have to be this way.

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry) | Who Discovers and Why


1. Lucifer on September 24, 2009 12:22 PM writes...

Financial shell games, academic shell games, pharma research shell games.. and we wonder why things don't progress quickly and innovation is so uncommon (inspite of funding).

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2. milkshake on September 24, 2009 1:02 PM writes...

I hate the grant system and the self-promotional baloney it promotes, and the giant sweatshop groups and long, long PhDs and postdocs that became the norm in US - but at least awarding the money is based on merit the and managerial skills of the grantsman boss. It is the generous government support of research and the possibility of getting decent-sized grant that has made the US the research powerhouse it is today. Look at the groups in Western Europe - often they have pretty good PIs who are crippled by the limited number of people they can employ.

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3. name on September 24, 2009 1:10 PM writes...

Keep on coming. If there is one thing we have discovered is that the internet, blogs in particular, can really drive small (but hopefully significant) changes. We need more people to get outraged at a poorly functioning system. It's a plus if they can give positive feedback!

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4. AlchemX on September 24, 2009 1:41 PM writes...

As a grad student I can tell you that even my boss knows this game all to well and it is very similar to the PLoS article. My boss has no managerial skills besides being cheap and taking credit (like all of it), has a large group and produces massive amounts of idiots, plus a few smart folk who then Post-Doc, oh well.

It's sad to see people in there thirties continuing to hit the pause button on their lives. But we have to do it, or else we will become ghosts in science at just the BS/MS level. Who would take Derek Lowe seriously on this blog if he had just a BS or MS? We're fighting to keep our voice, but we are also destroying our minds in the process.

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5. emjeff on September 24, 2009 1:45 PM writes...

There are two types of people in the world who are never happy

1) Farmers - they complain of either too much or not enough rain.

2) Professors - There is never enough money and it is too hard to get.

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6. Arjun on September 24, 2009 3:46 PM writes...

Very true.

Science moves in fits and starts, a fact quickly becomes obvious to any practitioner. It is likely obvious to the funding agencies as well, but they have created a world in which everyone must pretend that it is not the case.

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7. Eric M on September 24, 2009 5:07 PM writes...

And yet you vote for antiscience cheapskates...

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8. Anonymous on September 24, 2009 7:56 PM writes...

oh boo hoo @#$@#in hoo........I feel bad for those that have "permanent" jobs while I am out of work as a scientist in the private sector..............Don't like your cushy permanent job come join me in the private sector.


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9. AlchemX on September 24, 2009 8:09 PM writes...

Hey, #8 does have a point. Do what normal people do, move somewhere else. What's that? There's no jobs you say? Well why do you keep pushing those grad students out?


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10. Anonymous on September 25, 2009 7:05 AM writes...

Fresh out of my very successful PhD I applied to the EU programme which allowed young, inexperienced researchers to go to another EU country to postdoc for 2 years. I set up a great institution/adviser in Germany (Max Planck Institute) and set about the proposal. It took weeks. I then found out (4 months later) that I had been declined, as I was (and I quote) 'young and relatively inexperienced'. Err...?

Nothing like what some academics go through of course, but I fast realised that wasn't the life for me. In fact, having read this blog I'm now somewhat relieved I did get binned!

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11. John Harrold on September 25, 2009 7:44 AM writes...

When I started graduate school, I fully intended to get a faculty position after graduation (after a post doc really). I then spent the next five years watching my adviser essentially beg for money. In the balance, I'd say he did a better than average job of it and managed to get tenure.

It wasn't uncommon for my adviser put in about 70 hours a week. No don't get me wrong, I don't mind working long and hard hours. But to do this with so much uncertainty as to the return at the end of it is just ridiculous.

No, now I'm more than happy to sell my soul to some pharmaceutical company. Though, it may not be better than the devil I know.

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12. S on September 27, 2009 5:12 PM writes...

The situation is much the same in Australia. I left academia for much the same reason. The very idea of outlining what you will discover in the next three years before you get your money, then doing what you predicted and writing as many fragmentary papers as possible to bump up your publication statistics...its a pathetic bureaucratic imitation of what real science should be. No wonder we end up wasting all our time doing unimaginative incremental science. We are all too terrified to take on real problems and difficult questions in case we get to the end of the three year funding cycle and haven't cranked out enough papers.

I propose an entirely different funding system. A body of established scientists is picked out to begin. Every year they can admit new junior scientists to their group. Each scientist has a limited number of funding points. Each year they allocate their own funding points to another scientist who they think are doing good work. There would have to be some basic rules about how widely each scientist would have to spread their points. The end result- an "old boys club" or "mutual back patting society". This would function exactly the same way the current system does but with 90% less bureaucracy. And then the post docs who spent those long years learning how to do research could get back into the lab.

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13. AlchemX on September 28, 2009 5:10 AM writes...

AlchemX's Revolutionary Ideas:

Get rid of tenure and force universities to compete on the open market for scientists. They may be forced to come up with better conditions.

No more PhDs! I say determine a scientists worth with the Hirsch factor + Continuing Education. May be a great way to separate the good scientists from the drones. Also get more well rounded scientists.

Hire employees, not graduate students. Just do research with employees instead, they will be more motivated and their boss will be more motivated to keep the highly valuable labor.

Fund research with some profit for once. Universities should try to come up with some patents or something to carry them along with other researchers. Find a way to wean themselves away from the government tit. It's bad milk, ask public housing and people that have student loans. The government has never funded very good decisions (Irag war, drug war, welfare, medicare, housing bubble....Research?)

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14. lylebot on September 28, 2009 9:47 AM writes...

Is writing grants really that bad? I frankly enjoy it--rather than taking time away from research, writing grants is when I do most of my research. If I didn't have grants to write, the millions of other responsibilities I have as a junior faculty member would be taking away research time instead. At least with grants I can say "no, I can't do that, I have to write a grant" and my bosses and colleagues understand.

Also, I think eliminating tenure (which so often comes up in these discussions) is short-sighted. I'm willing to bet that most university scientists are state employees. Without tenure, those faculty positions would become cushy rewards for political campaign supporters. The number of "real" positions that scientists could actually compete for would drop to the number that private universities could support, and we'd all be worse off for it.

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15. milkshake on September 28, 2009 10:24 AM writes...

tenure: If you have tenure at Sripps and cannot get grants or other source of funding, you keep your job but the institute management will eventually pull the plug on your research group, take away your lab space etc. So the tenure there does not really mean that much.

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16. AlchemX on September 28, 2009 4:52 PM writes...

There is just something very undemocratic about tenure. I don't see the point in it. Are our professors that easily bought off that they need tenure? Damn, what a bunch of snakes.

My point about sticking to employees and cutting tenure is that making universities compete for researchers can improve conditions. As a grad student I can say that some awful people have gotten tenure in my department and they are practically dictators now. I'm just tired of seeing students waste their lives in this field, giving up their youth and creativity to the tenured. When they come out, they just want a job, they don't want to change the world anymore.

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17. eugene on September 30, 2009 7:01 AM writes...

That article summarizes the main reason that I do not want to go into academia right now. I enjoy the research and the teaching, but the trade-off in bullshit is too much at this point. There is a point when 40-50 hours a week in industry for more pay starts looking more inviting.

lylebot, if writing grants is when professors do most of their research, then it's a pretty sad situation. I always imagined doing most of my research by working in the lab, doing calculations, or talking to graduate students and looking over the data together. After the research was done, then we could write articles. Maybe you meant it's where you get most of your ideas, but even there I have to disagree since most of the grant is providing boring background for one single idea that eventually takes several weeks to lay down in condensed 12 page format. Maybe by research you mean the experiments you write down in a grant that you then tell the graduate students to do? How often does it work out exactly like that?

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18. Anonymous on September 30, 2009 10:37 AM writes...

"here is a point when 40-50 hours a week in industry for more pay starts looking more inviting."

That's a hoot....where you going to find a job in "industry" there isn't a biological/chemistry industry in this country anymore. G'luck finding a job!

Oh and another thing..professors are paid quite a bit these days. I wouldn't say they are starving. My brother-in law who is a professor makes more money than I do for comparable experience/skills etc.

This is a fallacy just like "public" employees don't make as much as private sector positions. Sorry but they actually make as much, have better benefits and *gasp* pensions. Remember those???

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19. AlchemX on September 30, 2009 4:03 PM writes...

It's my understanding professors are not paid very much. A lot of campuses top out at $80-90K/yr, but thats after jumping through a lot of hoops for thirty years. Many start out at $45K/yr. I am familiar with state campuses though. So I think things vary a lot. Their pay can be increased by getting grants though, especially at PhD granting institution where a grant can fetch a professor $30-40K by itself. So profs "can" make a lot of money, but they have to be good at the grant treadmill.

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20. eugene on October 1, 2009 3:11 AM writes...

"That's a hoot....where you going to find a job in "industry" there isn't a biological/chemistry industry in this country anymore. G'luck finding a job!"

anonymous, I'm not limited to the USA, if that's the country you mean. I also decided that "screw it, I'm going to give up on the lab research that I love so much and do other stuff given the chance". I would urge other Americans not to be so limited either.

Also, yes, assistant professors at my PhD uni were paid relatively, a lot. Much more than an assistant professor at my undergraduate uni. Regardless, I already make a little more (due to some strange factors) than my previous boss when he started as an assistant professor. The job is temporary, but the pay level really makes me look at the grant treadmill from a different perspective. A public employee is not necessarily a professor as well.

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21. Brendan on October 22, 2009 11:50 PM writes...

It is funny that the article mentions the grant system in Singapore. I work at a university in Singapore and for many grants they don't even supply us with reviewer's comments. It is kind of hard to argue that the system is transparent. It especially impacts young assistant profs trying to get a research program going.

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