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Opinion: Good, But Not Good Enough

Funding only outstanding researchers is increasing the gap between good and great labs and forcing some out of science in search of a bigger paycheck.

By | February 22, 2012

image: Opinion: Good, But Not Good Enough Flickr, Images_of_Money

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The system for funding scientific research is broken.

This declaration came to my mind after I experienced three separate occurrences. The first was my application for a European research grant. At the end of the evaluation procedure, the reviewers wrote that my proposal was interesting, I had a good track record of publications, and the project had been well described. Nevertheless, they had to reject my application since I am a “good” but not “outstanding” researcher. This reply was received after I had applied for dozens of research grants without success.

My reading of a comment by John P. A. Ioannidis in Nature (477,529–531 2011) was the second occurrence. He wrote: “...the research behind 30 percent of the pivotal papers from Nobel Laureates in medicine, physics, and chemistry was done without direct funding.” The third occurrence was the refusal by a grad student of mine to enroll in my PhD program. He replied to me: “Thank you for your offer; I am proud of it, but I have to find a way to earn money in a better way. Prestige is not something you can use to pay bills.”

When these three events occurred last year, it made me realize the pervasive problems that exist in the current research funding system. It is obvious that at a time when there is a shortage of funding, only those scientists who are truly outstanding have a good chance of receiving grant awards. I myself know that I am a good scientist, but that there are individuals out there who are better scientists than me. Nevertheless, I do my job to the fullest and make my own contribution to the advancement of science. Funding only the extraordinary may only serve to widen the gap between top laboratories and other scientific institutions and could actually be detrimental for the progress of science. Indeed, there are good researchers from less known facilities who would greatly contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge if they had access to financial support. To avoid this, reviewers of grant applications should not have a bias toward proposals coming from well-established and already highly financed labs.

The current funding regime also discourages curiosity-driven research. We have to write boring applications, always identifying the possible impact on human progress and health. We must precisely indicate what will happen at the end of the research study, and what the short- and long-term expectations are. We have to foresee all the possible pitfalls and caveats. It is true that a research project should have a research plan with expected results, possible alternative plans, and an understanding of the potential impacts on scientific advancement. These, however, are not the only criteria upon which reviewers should evaluate a project. Consider this: if everything goes as we reasonably hypothesize, why do we have to waste time performing research? Science is not done to confirm the obvious. The 2006 Nobel Prize winners Andrew Z. Fire and Craig Cameron Mello, for example, were studying a gene involved in body axis formation when they stumbled upon RNA interference phenomena that have completely revolutionized biology and medicine. It was a curiosity-driven study that produced unexpected results not written in any research proposal.

Day in and day out, modern society is based exclusively on money. Education is considered less important for obtaining and measuring success. The fact that so many individuals without a college degree get paid higher salaries than a competent scientist who has successfully completed a degree in higher education is simply wrong. Why should I be shocked by my student’s reply if at the university level scientists are evaluated by their peers mainly for their ability to get money? Where are the defenders of sheer science? I guess they lost their way.

I do not want to make a useless complaint. Below you will find some proposals that may be amended, ameliorated, or discarded. Additional or alternative ideas are highly welcomed.

1) Equalize the power: If a company or firm holds a position of such economic power that allows it to operate in a market without being significantly affected by competition and engages in conduct that is likely to impede the development or maintenance of effective competition, it is considered an abuse of its dominant position. The same idea should also be applied to scientific institutions, research groups, and individuals. For example, for new grant applications, it should be mandatory to indicate all the research grants and endowments a given person/institution has. If two research proposals have roughly the same scientific value, the grant agency should favor the proposal of the less endowed group/institution, rather than the group with the more impressive track record.

2) Avoid personal bias: As in the case of NIH, all grant agencies should have scientific panels composed of 20-25 experts whose names are disclosed and not hidden, and the applicant can choose the panel to whom to send his/her application. He or she does not know who among the members of panel will be selected to review his/her grant but, for will be able to avoid panels on which there are persons who may potentially have a bias towards his or her proposal.

3) Reward the “good” ones, too: Usually grant applications require the h-index and/or impact factor of the principal investigator in order to give a global score to the research proposal. Highly cited scientists take it all. I suggest offering research awards dedicated to “good but not outstanding” scientists, analogous to the awards available to only “young investigators.” This could be done, for example, by accepting applications from only scientists with a good but not outstanding h-index (track record of papers, etc.).

4) Consider the environmental advantage: Grant agencies also evaluate the scientific environment to see if the research will be carried out in a scientifically encouraging institution. Of course, they claim that the better the institution is, the better the research will be done. Reverse this idea. Do you think it takes the same effort for researchers in less developed countries that do not invest much in research to publish a decorous research in a good journal (say, with an impact factor between 5 and 10), as it does for researches in wealthy nations? Even inside wealthy countries there are inequalities. Do you think it takes the same effort to publish if a researcher works in a prestigious American institutions (Yale, Harvard, Cold Spring Harbor, etc.) or in less known and endowed teaching universities? I believe that those scientists who do objectively good research but who come from an unfavorable environment are the ones who should be awarded the funding.

5) Get to the point: Research application forms must be simple, not like the nightmarish forms of the European Community. Reviewers should focus on the core of the project and not the short-, middle- and long-term impact on scientific progress.

Umberto Galderisi is a molecular biology professor at the Second University of Naples in Italy and an adjunct professor at the Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine Center of Biotecnology Temple University in Philadelphia.  He is also the president of Stem Cell Research Italy, a young scientific association that gathers more than 200 Italian researchers. He can be reached at umberto.galderisi@unina2.it.

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Comments

February 22, 2012

Thanks for an interesting article. You raise some important and challenging points.
Suggestion number 1 and 2 seem very reasonable. There could be a maximum amount of money an investigator can receive as I feel sure that there is a maximum number of people somebody can manage. This might stop some of the empires that occur although you can never eliminate this. Certainly avoiding personal bias is a good plan although your friends know your only 'good' too.
I am a little uncomforatable about your suggestions number 3 and 4. Suggestion 3 seems to suggest that grant awarding bodies shouldn't give their money to the 'best' but rather to the 'good', i.e. the 'second best. Suggestion 4 seems to be a variation on this. Can these ideas be the right way forward? I don't think so.
Suggestion 5 that applications should be simplier gets a big thumbs up from me!
Finally, I would like to suggest some sort of value for money index. Divide H score or impact factors by the amount of cash raised by the investigator. Is an investigator giving value for money? Sometimes value for money seems to decrease or even decrease in large labs when similar projects are funded by more than one agency. 

My homepage: www.science2therapy.net 

February 22, 2012

Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking article.
You make some very good suggestions: point 1, 2 and 5 but I am a bit unsure about points 3 and 4. Point 4 in particular seems to suggest that you think grants should be awarded to 'good' rather than 'best'. Is this not 'second best' by another name? I don't think this can really be the right way forward!
However, making it simplier (point 5), less biased (point 2) and maybe putting a cap on the amount of cash one investigator can raise (point 1) could be implimented.
How about considering value for money? Sometimes in large labs with multiple grants for similar projects, money seems to be wasted. This could be considered when awarding a grant: euros per impact factor, paper or H-score point.
My home page: www.science2therapy.net

Avatar of: Mark Riggle

Mark Riggle

Posts: 6

February 22, 2012

I understand the frustration the author has about not receiving the desired funding and feeling that he deserves more.  However, it is very easy to forget what is really being asked for -- the allocation of resources from society to what you want them for; for what you think is more important than other allocations.  The author's statement shows this view:" The fact that so many individuals without a college degree get paid
higher salaries than a competent scientist who has successfully
completed a degree in higher education is simply wrong."  Why is it wrong?  If the idea is to maximize the well being of society now and in the future, market drivers of productivity is a pretty good method.  Not all (or perhaps even most) research was worth doing; that is the resources allocated to that unimportant research would have had much better pay-off if allocated to something else.  This is called the opportunity cost. 
Are there better ways to maximize productivity and minimize opportunity costs than the current granting methods?  Very likely, but deliberately assuming highly productive individuals fail in that and thus should have allocations shifted to less productive individuals does not seem a better way.  

Avatar of: Kay_U

Kay_U

Posts: 9

February 22, 2012

 Define "less productive". Someone may appear "less productive" if he/she has significant less financial support.

Avatar of: BobHurst

BobHurst

Posts: 31

February 22, 2012

You assume that these highly funded investigators truly are outstanding and that increasing their funding would increase their productivity proportionally. If productivity is measured on papers published, then I question whether output is a linear function of funding. Appearances may be deceiving. Consider if I have 2 grants and publish 6 papers in a year. However 4 of those papers list both grants as funding sources. This makes it appear as if each grant published 5 papers, but this is not correct. And, there is a need to maintain diversity within the scientific community. Once we all think the same way, then we become like a species that is superbly adapted to a highly specialized ecological niche. That is fine so long as the niche remains static. If conditions change, adaptation my become impossible because diversity within the population is lost. Finally, more productive and less productive may not have meaning over a longer time scale than a snapshot of the present.

Avatar of: Pablo Fuentes-Prior

Pablo Fuentes-Prior

Posts: 1457

February 22, 2012

I agree 150%.

Avatar of: Palmipede

Palmipede

Posts: 1457

February 22, 2012

May be it is time to set clear boundaries between Science and State. It's well for politics to be informed by morality and reason but there has to be a separation that works both ways.

Avatar of: Mark Riggle

Mark Riggle

Posts: 6

February 22, 2012

If this is satire, it almost works; but if not, I have no idea what you mean.

Avatar of: Mark Bisby

Mark Bisby

Posts: 1457

February 22, 2012

I'm also very sympathetic to the frustration experienced by so many talented researchers who have their grant applications turned down, but, if, as the author writes "
only those scientists who are truly outstanding have a good chance of receiving grant awards", then the grant review system is working exactly as it should!

The question being avoided here is: how many not-quite-so-outstanding curiosity-oriented researchers can/should governments afford to support? If you resent being asked to predict the value to the economy or society that might come from your publicly-funded research, as the author does, then you should not be surprised if governments are unwilling to support it. 

Avatar of: Kay_U

Kay_U

Posts: 9

February 22, 2012

I completely agree with Umberto’s assessment that the
current funding criteria discourage curiosity-driven research. We even teach
our students hypothesis-driven research goals that are achievable and
foreseeable and pretend to know the outcome and downplay the pitfalls. How
boring is this? I try to emphasize to students to be open minded and critical,
in particular to papers published by the science celebrities who receive huge
financial support compared to others. It often turns out that their papers are not
that exceptional, but they certainly have the inside track to get their work
reviewed (also with more respect), and they will receive a more favorable
treatment by the editorial board. After all, journals worry the most about their
impact factors, and they have to drop famous names in ads and calls for
submission. Subsequently, articles in high-visibility journals result in even
more funding. If someone looks carefully at the NIH Nexus statistical reports,
it is evident that the number of PIs with more than 3+ NIH grants increases.
This doesn’t include the big money they get from the industry and consortia. In
times like these where funding is tighter than ever, this is a death sentence
to the “middle classâ€쳌 that includes the people with paradigm-shifting ideas. If
you have ideas that truly challenge exiting paradigms, don’t expect to be
rewarded by the peer-review mechanism (the modern day inquisition), in
particular not now when 90+ of the people in a review panel have to give you a
thumbs up. In such a competitive environment, everybody has a conflict of
interest in one way or another. 

Unfortunately, it is not as simple to improve the success
rate for funding as Umberto suggested in his four points. We should realize that
ultimate decisions about funding are not made by peer reviewers who are active
scientists. This is also true for many of the ‘high-impact’ journals, were most
editors are not involved in every-day research. In fact, many grant
administrators, editors, etc. are dropouts, often from top institutions, who
were incapable of doing competitive science on their own. So, don’t expect them
to be unbiased. I got used to the fact that even a grant that scored exceptional
may not receive a single dime if some non-scientist advocates (such as those sitting
in the US DoD Integration Panels) can unscore applications that ranked on the
top of the pile for dubious reasons. I was under the impression that NIH would
never adopt a similar system, but what is the reality now? The top 5-6% of NCI
grants may receive money, and from there the administrators can pick
who they know and what they like to have in their portfolio of funded grants.
So, writing an excellent grant, being productive, and having your grant
reviewed by supportive peer reviewers is not enough. You also have to know the
people who make the ultimate decisions about funding. More power to
administrators, advocates, and lobbyists in addition to lower funding rates all
work against the peer review system, which is currently not the most optimal
but still the best way to promote research. Since more and more people are involved
in the decision making process until a grant is funded, everything becomes more
subjective; and it is more evident than ever that: In Science it is not only
WHAT you know, but it is equally (or sometimes more) important WHO you know to get the appropriate
recognition and support. For that matter, science is no different than any
other business.         

Avatar of: Mike

Mike

Posts: 1

February 22, 2012

Bart Kosko, author of "Fuzzy Future" and who I believe holds a Ph.D. himself, argues that over-subsidization of research leads to survival of the not-so-fit.

Of course when he wrote that, over 12 years ago, there was more cash available to researchers. Dr. Galderisi says that today the opposite is true, and research is greatly under-funded.

At the same time the sheer volume of research projects inevitably means duplication and reinvention of the wheel. Even in the most specialized corners of science, who has the time to keep up with the literature?

In his 1970 book "Future Shock," Alvin Toffler suggested that already back then society was changing too rapidly for us to be able to adapt. I would support a radical slow-down in the rate of innovation, especially in the light of the adverse side-effects of so much new technology.

Avatar of: dnamj

dnamj

Posts: 1

February 22, 2012

I agree completely with the author's thesis that the funding system is broken. The root of the problem may lie in a fundamental disagreement over the value and purpose of publicly funded science. There are many in Europe and America both who would eliminate it altogether, since so much scientific discovery conflicts with their worldview. However, if we are to survive the pressures of the future (including climate change, overpopulation and their related symptoms such as pandemics), education, innovation, and technology surely must be our most powerful tools to enable finding the solutions that will  aid in our adaptation to a changing earth. Encouraging and funding raw curiosity is the only way to ensure that the right people (the smartest and most creative) are in place when answers are needed.

February 22, 2012

it is unfair however why can not the system be changed like
-blind review with no info about from which lab or university the proposal comes from
it holds good even for article review.
- on other hand why not have categories based on outstanding or young or good researcher and fund each category so that competition is between good vs good or outstaning vs outstanding researchers.
i know its difficult to find solution overnight but i think new thoughts or process should be tried by the reviewing committees

Avatar of: akd_the_saint

akd_the_saint

Posts: 1

February 22, 2012

Its not the first time I have come across such an article where the author/researcher is trying to highlight the problems faced by the "good but not outstanding" individuals. I face a similar issue (though in a different context) and all i keep thinking is, why didn't someone inform me about this mess early into my education? If i would have known about all these issues, i would have probably switched fields and pursued something which paid more, has less work pressure and most importantly, less time investment (in training).
  So, my stand on this topic is, it's time we let the kids (who plan on becoming scientists) know as early as possible about the pitfalls of being "good but not outstanding" and give them the facts. This might not be a good solution to fix the system but hey! at least the individuals won't have to pay the price. Lets leave science to the truly talented, dedicated and outstanding, and let the lesser mortals steer clear of research.
 

Avatar of: David Adams

David Adams

Posts: 1

February 22, 2012

Like the author, I am one of the "99%" of good but not outstanding investigators.  I have two comments:
1.  The Howard Hughes Institute (and now the Wellcome Trust) model is based on the concept that only a few, elite scientists make most of the progress, which justifies limiting their funding to these select individuals.  I have not seen the data to support the concept, but I accept it with the understanding that many of the outstanding scientists' contributions depend on the ideas and diligent lab work of the 99%ers in their group.
2.  Mother Nature doesn't consult CVs when she shares her secrets.  Every good scientist can make a contribution and should have the opportunity.

My suggestion:  every PI should devote a minimum 20% effort to a particular grant (this was actually recommended by the community in a recent NIH survey, but rejected).  That would limit investigators to 5 major grants, which I feel is a reasonable compromise.  In the case of my field - cancer research - the more minds we have dedicated to the problem, the better.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

Thanks for an interesting article. You raise some important and challenging points.
Suggestion number 1 and 2 seem very reasonable. There could be a maximum amount of money an investigator can receive as I feel sure that there is a maximum number of people somebody can manage. This might stop some of the empires that occur although you can never eliminate this. Certainly avoiding personal bias is a good plan although your friends know your only 'good' too.
I am a little uncomforatable about your suggestions number 3 and 4. Suggestion 3 seems to suggest that grant awarding bodies shouldn't give their money to the 'best' but rather to the 'good', i.e. the 'second best. Suggestion 4 seems to be a variation on this. Can these ideas be the right way forward? I don't think so.
Suggestion 5 that applications should be simplier gets a big thumbs up from me!
Finally, I would like to suggest some sort of value for money index. Divide H score or impact factors by the amount of cash raised by the investigator. Is an investigator giving value for money? Sometimes value for money seems to decrease or even decrease in large labs when similar projects are funded by more than one agency. 

My homepage: www.science2therapy.net 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking article.
You make some very good suggestions: point 1, 2 and 5 but I am a bit unsure about points 3 and 4. Point 4 in particular seems to suggest that you think grants should be awarded to 'good' rather than 'best'. Is this not 'second best' by another name? I don't think this can really be the right way forward!
However, making it simplier (point 5), less biased (point 2) and maybe putting a cap on the amount of cash one investigator can raise (point 1) could be implimented.
How about considering value for money? Sometimes in large labs with multiple grants for similar projects, money seems to be wasted. This could be considered when awarding a grant: euros per impact factor, paper or H-score point.
My home page: www.science2therapy.net

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

I understand the frustration the author has about not receiving the desired funding and feeling that he deserves more.  However, it is very easy to forget what is really being asked for -- the allocation of resources from society to what you want them for; for what you think is more important than other allocations.  The author's statement shows this view:" The fact that so many individuals without a college degree get paid
higher salaries than a competent scientist who has successfully
completed a degree in higher education is simply wrong."  Why is it wrong?  If the idea is to maximize the well being of society now and in the future, market drivers of productivity is a pretty good method.  Not all (or perhaps even most) research was worth doing; that is the resources allocated to that unimportant research would have had much better pay-off if allocated to something else.  This is called the opportunity cost. 
Are there better ways to maximize productivity and minimize opportunity costs than the current granting methods?  Very likely, but deliberately assuming highly productive individuals fail in that and thus should have allocations shifted to less productive individuals does not seem a better way.  

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

 Define "less productive". Someone may appear "less productive" if he/she has significant less financial support.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

You assume that these highly funded investigators truly are outstanding and that increasing their funding would increase their productivity proportionally. If productivity is measured on papers published, then I question whether output is a linear function of funding. Appearances may be deceiving. Consider if I have 2 grants and publish 6 papers in a year. However 4 of those papers list both grants as funding sources. This makes it appear as if each grant published 5 papers, but this is not correct. And, there is a need to maintain diversity within the scientific community. Once we all think the same way, then we become like a species that is superbly adapted to a highly specialized ecological niche. That is fine so long as the niche remains static. If conditions change, adaptation my become impossible because diversity within the population is lost. Finally, more productive and less productive may not have meaning over a longer time scale than a snapshot of the present.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

I agree 150%.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

May be it is time to set clear boundaries between Science and State. It's well for politics to be informed by morality and reason but there has to be a separation that works both ways.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

If this is satire, it almost works; but if not, I have no idea what you mean.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

I'm also very sympathetic to the frustration experienced by so many talented researchers who have their grant applications turned down, but, if, as the author writes "
only those scientists who are truly outstanding have a good chance of receiving grant awards", then the grant review system is working exactly as it should!

The question being avoided here is: how many not-quite-so-outstanding curiosity-oriented researchers can/should governments afford to support? If you resent being asked to predict the value to the economy or society that might come from your publicly-funded research, as the author does, then you should not be surprised if governments are unwilling to support it. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

I completely agree with Umberto’s assessment that the
current funding criteria discourage curiosity-driven research. We even teach
our students hypothesis-driven research goals that are achievable and
foreseeable and pretend to know the outcome and downplay the pitfalls. How
boring is this? I try to emphasize to students to be open minded and critical,
in particular to papers published by the science celebrities who receive huge
financial support compared to others. It often turns out that their papers are not
that exceptional, but they certainly have the inside track to get their work
reviewed (also with more respect), and they will receive a more favorable
treatment by the editorial board. After all, journals worry the most about their
impact factors, and they have to drop famous names in ads and calls for
submission. Subsequently, articles in high-visibility journals result in even
more funding. If someone looks carefully at the NIH Nexus statistical reports,
it is evident that the number of PIs with more than 3+ NIH grants increases.
This doesn’t include the big money they get from the industry and consortia. In
times like these where funding is tighter than ever, this is a death sentence
to the “middle classâ€쳌 that includes the people with paradigm-shifting ideas. If
you have ideas that truly challenge exiting paradigms, don’t expect to be
rewarded by the peer-review mechanism (the modern day inquisition), in
particular not now when 90+ of the people in a review panel have to give you a
thumbs up. In such a competitive environment, everybody has a conflict of
interest in one way or another. 

Unfortunately, it is not as simple to improve the success
rate for funding as Umberto suggested in his four points. We should realize that
ultimate decisions about funding are not made by peer reviewers who are active
scientists. This is also true for many of the ‘high-impact’ journals, were most
editors are not involved in every-day research. In fact, many grant
administrators, editors, etc. are dropouts, often from top institutions, who
were incapable of doing competitive science on their own. So, don’t expect them
to be unbiased. I got used to the fact that even a grant that scored exceptional
may not receive a single dime if some non-scientist advocates (such as those sitting
in the US DoD Integration Panels) can unscore applications that ranked on the
top of the pile for dubious reasons. I was under the impression that NIH would
never adopt a similar system, but what is the reality now? The top 5-6% of NCI
grants may receive money, and from there the administrators can pick
who they know and what they like to have in their portfolio of funded grants.
So, writing an excellent grant, being productive, and having your grant
reviewed by supportive peer reviewers is not enough. You also have to know the
people who make the ultimate decisions about funding. More power to
administrators, advocates, and lobbyists in addition to lower funding rates all
work against the peer review system, which is currently not the most optimal
but still the best way to promote research. Since more and more people are involved
in the decision making process until a grant is funded, everything becomes more
subjective; and it is more evident than ever that: In Science it is not only
WHAT you know, but it is equally (or sometimes more) important WHO you know to get the appropriate
recognition and support. For that matter, science is no different than any
other business.         

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

Bart Kosko, author of "Fuzzy Future" and who I believe holds a Ph.D. himself, argues that over-subsidization of research leads to survival of the not-so-fit.

Of course when he wrote that, over 12 years ago, there was more cash available to researchers. Dr. Galderisi says that today the opposite is true, and research is greatly under-funded.

At the same time the sheer volume of research projects inevitably means duplication and reinvention of the wheel. Even in the most specialized corners of science, who has the time to keep up with the literature?

In his 1970 book "Future Shock," Alvin Toffler suggested that already back then society was changing too rapidly for us to be able to adapt. I would support a radical slow-down in the rate of innovation, especially in the light of the adverse side-effects of so much new technology.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

I agree completely with the author's thesis that the funding system is broken. The root of the problem may lie in a fundamental disagreement over the value and purpose of publicly funded science. There are many in Europe and America both who would eliminate it altogether, since so much scientific discovery conflicts with their worldview. However, if we are to survive the pressures of the future (including climate change, overpopulation and their related symptoms such as pandemics), education, innovation, and technology surely must be our most powerful tools to enable finding the solutions that will  aid in our adaptation to a changing earth. Encouraging and funding raw curiosity is the only way to ensure that the right people (the smartest and most creative) are in place when answers are needed.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

it is unfair however why can not the system be changed like
-blind review with no info about from which lab or university the proposal comes from
it holds good even for article review.
- on other hand why not have categories based on outstanding or young or good researcher and fund each category so that competition is between good vs good or outstaning vs outstanding researchers.
i know its difficult to find solution overnight but i think new thoughts or process should be tried by the reviewing committees

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

Its not the first time I have come across such an article where the author/researcher is trying to highlight the problems faced by the "good but not outstanding" individuals. I face a similar issue (though in a different context) and all i keep thinking is, why didn't someone inform me about this mess early into my education? If i would have known about all these issues, i would have probably switched fields and pursued something which paid more, has less work pressure and most importantly, less time investment (in training).
  So, my stand on this topic is, it's time we let the kids (who plan on becoming scientists) know as early as possible about the pitfalls of being "good but not outstanding" and give them the facts. This might not be a good solution to fix the system but hey! at least the individuals won't have to pay the price. Lets leave science to the truly talented, dedicated and outstanding, and let the lesser mortals steer clear of research.
 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

Like the author, I am one of the "99%" of good but not outstanding investigators.  I have two comments:
1.  The Howard Hughes Institute (and now the Wellcome Trust) model is based on the concept that only a few, elite scientists make most of the progress, which justifies limiting their funding to these select individuals.  I have not seen the data to support the concept, but I accept it with the understanding that many of the outstanding scientists' contributions depend on the ideas and diligent lab work of the 99%ers in their group.
2.  Mother Nature doesn't consult CVs when she shares her secrets.  Every good scientist can make a contribution and should have the opportunity.

My suggestion:  every PI should devote a minimum 20% effort to a particular grant (this was actually recommended by the community in a recent NIH survey, but rejected).  That would limit investigators to 5 major grants, which I feel is a reasonable compromise.  In the case of my field - cancer research - the more minds we have dedicated to the problem, the better.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 23, 2012

Completely agree... the current funding philosophy is turning a lot of potentially great scientists away from a research career. In the years to come we will reap this bitter harvest.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 23, 2012

Motto : *Science is not an end in itself.* (Albert
Einstein)

They refused too my application for European
research grant in 2009.

Why?

Because I asked for funds to certify the
existence of paternal mitochondrial DNA in xifoid process, *one of the man's
ribs* (Geneses 2.21).

Epilog: *The game is the most elevated form of research.* (Albert Einstein)
 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 23, 2012

A solution that might help in this is to require a calculation of the true price/performance ratio of each applicant's past achievements (absolutely all cost: university funding, grants, everything should be included). It's hard to imagine anything else (but science funding) with major financial impact in the society, done without comprehensive cost/benefit assessment. Then, as in the stock market, funding would go where it would likely find the best yield for the investment. This should also solved the problem described earlier by BobHurst (the same papers listed several times as 100% products of various funding sources). After such a perusal, I'm not sure whether all the currently well-funded outstanding scientists would seem such good investment opportunities after all. And those who would, they are true gems and should be funded.
- fordPrefect

Avatar of: James Sacco

James Sacco

Posts: 1457

February 23, 2012

Completely agree... the current funding philosophy is turning a lot of potentially great scientists away from a research career. In the years to come we will reap this bitter harvest.

Avatar of: alexandru

alexandru

Posts: 1457

February 23, 2012

Motto : *Science is not an end in itself.* (Albert
Einstein)

They refused too my application for European
research grant in 2009.

Why?

Because I asked for funds to certify the
existence of paternal mitochondrial DNA in xifoid process, *one of the man's
ribs* (Geneses 2.21).

Epilog: *The game is the most elevated form of research.* (Albert Einstein)
 

Avatar of: monkThe

monkThe

Posts: 1

February 23, 2012

A solution that might help in this is to require a calculation of the true price/performance ratio of each applicant's past achievements (absolutely all cost: university funding, grants, everything should be included). It's hard to imagine anything else (but science funding) with major financial impact in the society, done without comprehensive cost/benefit assessment. Then, as in the stock market, funding would go where it would likely find the best yield for the investment. This should also solved the problem described earlier by BobHurst (the same papers listed several times as 100% products of various funding sources). After such a perusal, I'm not sure whether all the currently well-funded outstanding scientists would seem such good investment opportunities after all. And those who would, they are true gems and should be funded.
- fordPrefect

Avatar of: Tord Grip

Tord Grip

Posts: 2

March 1, 2012

I'm also in agreement with the idea that funding system has some failings. One particular problem in my opinion lies with the fact that researchers whose salary often comes from a national funding body are expected to spend a big chunk of their time asking for money from the same body. So, having spent a lump of money educating someone, the public purse then pays them a salary to request more money from them.
I agree with dnamj's point regarding this issue being entangled with a bigger question that speaks to the place/value of scientific research in society. To me this is the direction that we need to direct some efforts if we are to increase the  absolute amount of funding and also that available for research that is less directly commercially-applicable.
I'm not sure about the thesis stating that only the funding outstanding research(ers) is a bad thing. I agree that increasing centralisation on resources is detrimental but, ultimately the division between outstanding and good is an arbitrary one defined on whatever basis we choose (e.g. I'm good b/c I have some track record but can't get a big grant; he's outstanding b/c he has Nature publication and $XXXXX in grant funding). I think society should always seek to fund the better science as opposed to poorer. If the pot was bigger then more people would be funded i.e. more 'good' researchers, as well as the outstanding ones.
Great article and discussion though. Thanks to all involved.
Steve

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 1, 2012

I'm also in agreement with the idea that funding system has some failings. One particular problem in my opinion lies with the fact that researchers whose salary often comes from a national funding body are expected to spend a big chunk of their time asking for money from the same body. So, having spent a lump of money educating someone, the public purse then pays them a salary to request more money from them.
I agree with dnamj's point regarding this issue being entangled with a bigger question that speaks to the place/value of scientific research in society. To me this is the direction that we need to direct some efforts if we are to increase the  absolute amount of funding and also that available for research that is less directly commercially-applicable.
I'm not sure about the thesis stating that only the funding outstanding research(ers) is a bad thing. I agree that increasing centralisation on resources is detrimental but, ultimately the division between outstanding and good is an arbitrary one defined on whatever basis we choose (e.g. I'm good b/c I have some track record but can't get a big grant; he's outstanding b/c he has Nature publication and $XXXXX in grant funding). I think society should always seek to fund the better science as opposed to poorer. If the pot was bigger then more people would be funded i.e. more 'good' researchers, as well as the outstanding ones.
Great article and discussion though. Thanks to all involved.
Steve

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 2, 2012

David I really like this idea of demanding a time commitment from PIs to every project. I'm not too sure how it would work in practice, especially where PIs work on studies funded by different bodies but I think it it has potential. Unfortunately I'm also not surprised the idea got hit on the head by a committee which was probably made up of the same people such a decision is likely to effect detrimentally.
These are important issues that impact on the career prospects of researchers, particularly those early in their career. For those interested, check out a blog focused on the concerns of early career researchers in the health care field: www.theicecream.org

Avatar of: Tord Grip

Tord Grip

Posts: 2

March 2, 2012

David I really like this idea of demanding a time commitment from PIs to every project. I'm not too sure how it would work in practice, especially where PIs work on studies funded by different bodies but I think it it has potential. Unfortunately I'm also not surprised the idea got hit on the head by a committee which was probably made up of the same people such a decision is likely to effect detrimentally.
These are important issues that impact on the career prospects of researchers, particularly those early in their career. For those interested, check out a blog focused on the concerns of early career researchers in the health care field: www.theicecream.org

Avatar of: Jeremy Fox

Jeremy Fox

Posts: 1

March 6, 2012

The Canadian NSERC Discovery Grant system is an alternative, see discussion here:
http://oikosjournal.wordpress....

Briefly, the ideas is to sustainably fund long-term research programs, rather than single projects. This has a number of consequences, including the following:

-the application success rates are over 50% (though the average grant size is smaller than from, say, the US NSF)

-you only have to write one, 5-page grant every 5 years to provide a reliable "baseline" level of funding for your lab.

-there's no expectation that you'll do what you say you'll do. NSERC cares only that you do good science, as evidenced by your track record when you come up for renewal, even if it's not the science that you proposed previously.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 6, 2012

The Canadian NSERC Discovery Grant system is an alternative, see discussion here:
http://oikosjournal.wordpress....

Briefly, the ideas is to sustainably fund long-term research programs, rather than single projects. This has a number of consequences, including the following:

-the application success rates are over 50% (though the average grant size is smaller than from, say, the US NSF)

-you only have to write one, 5-page grant every 5 years to provide a reliable "baseline" level of funding for your lab.

-there's no expectation that you'll do what you say you'll do. NSERC cares only that you do good science, as evidenced by your track record when you come up for renewal, even if it's not the science that you proposed previously.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 16, 2012

Let us also be clear that what makes a researcher "outstanding" versus "good" has very little to do with intelligence or competence.  

To get a grant funded, you need to be at the right place and the right time and lucky.  Your field of research needs to be a hot topic among your peers (something that changes on an annual basis), you need institutional support (and the political maneuvering associated with that), and you need to have groundbreaking new data (certainly not a given in basic science).

Even with this trifecta, you are not guaranteed anything.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 16, 2012

It is absolutely fascinating, and very telling, that neither Umberto Galderisi nor any of the comments to the article deal with the actual and primary reason for why funding is limiting and justifications for awards are increasingly arbitrary.  We all know what it is, but no one is willing to deal with it.  Funding has not gone down, it keeps increasing, but the number of hopeful researchers keeps growing faster and thus the percent of funded researchers keeps decreasing.  The reason for this is the same reason that no one wants to deal with the problem.  In order to be successful the PI must have as many low paid graduate students and postdocs as they can get.  Each PI "breeds" many more budding researchers.  This Malthusian nightmare must be dealt with.  To begin with, there has to be wide spread agreement that there is no such thing as a PhD shortage.  Low paid grad students have to be replaced with decently paid lab techs, or some other new paradigm needs to be created for how to get the work done.  This ain't workin.  It needs to be fixed.

Avatar of: vandew01

vandew01

Posts: 1

March 16, 2012

Let us also be clear that what makes a researcher "outstanding" versus "good" has very little to do with intelligence or competence.  

To get a grant funded, you need to be at the right place and the right time and lucky.  Your field of research needs to be a hot topic among your peers (something that changes on an annual basis), you need institutional support (and the political maneuvering associated with that), and you need to have groundbreaking new data (certainly not a given in basic science).

Even with this trifecta, you are not guaranteed anything.

Avatar of: Michael Holloway

Michael Holloway

Posts: 36

March 16, 2012

It is absolutely fascinating, and very telling, that neither Umberto Galderisi nor any of the comments to the article deal with the actual and primary reason for why funding is limiting and justifications for awards are increasingly arbitrary.  We all know what it is, but no one is willing to deal with it.  Funding has not gone down, it keeps increasing, but the number of hopeful researchers keeps growing faster and thus the percent of funded researchers keeps decreasing.  The reason for this is the same reason that no one wants to deal with the problem.  In order to be successful the PI must have as many low paid graduate students and postdocs as they can get.  Each PI "breeds" many more budding researchers.  This Malthusian nightmare must be dealt with.  To begin with, there has to be wide spread agreement that there is no such thing as a PhD shortage.  Low paid grad students have to be replaced with decently paid lab techs, or some other new paradigm needs to be created for how to get the work done.  This ain't workin.  It needs to be fixed.

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