Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Long odds: Proposals and how we spend our time

We just completed the two-day kickoff symposium of the Rice Center for Quantum Materials.  It was a good meeting, and the concluding panel discussion ended up spending a fair bit of time talking about the public policy challenges facing basic research funding in the US (with some discussion of industry, but largely talking about government support).  Neal Lane is an impressive resource, and lately he and Norm Augustine have been making the rounds in Washington trying to persuade people that it's a dire mistake to let basic research support continue to languish for the foreseeable future.

Over the December/January timeframe, I'm spending time on several grant proposals.  Three of them have a priori odds of success (based on past years, dividing awards by the number of initial proposals) less than 5%.  Now, obviously longshots have their place - you can't win if you don't play, and there is no question that thinking, planning, and writing about your ideas has utility even if you don't end up getting that particular award.  Still, it seems like more and more programs are trending in this awful positive feedback direction (low percentage chance per program = have to write more grants = larger applicant pool = lower percentage chance).  Many of these are prestigious center and group programs that are greatly desired by universities as badges of success and sources of indirect costs, and by investigators as sources of longer term/not-single-investigator support.  When yields drift below 5%, it really does raise questions:  How should we be spending our time, one resource that we can never replenish?  Does this funding approach make sense?  When the number of potentially "conflicted" people (e.g., coauthors/collaborators over the last four years for every person affiliated with a big center grant) exceeds 1000 (!), who the heck is left to review these things that has any real expertise?


Anonymous said...

This is why (or rather one of the reasons) why I recently left my postdoc in physics and went to industry. I saw how my friends who were PIs would talk about how they never had time to think about new ideas because they were so busy chasing grants (when they weren't advising students, teaching, do administrative work, etc.), and I didn't want that sort of life.

You recently talked about sensationalizing in the scientific popular media, but these long odds for grants also of course cause grant-writers to sensationalize the impact and benefits of their own research. This is generally considered "normal" and "necessary", but I believe it's as scientifically dishonest as fabricating data. Scientists are not only the judges of what's scientifically correct or not, but they should also be the judges of what's scientifically important (because who else can judge this besides them?). This latter function of scientists has almost completely been destroyed in my opinion over the course of my time in science with the adoption of business-like ethics that academia has increasingly taken on. I don't know if this new "ethics" is caused by the funding shortfall or whether it is related to a general trend in society of caring less about one's responsibility to society and more about how to advance one's own interests at society's expense, but it's problematic nonetheless.

Science needs to be drastically reformed. Of course, the problem with this is the same as that in politics -- those who have the most influence and power also have the least amount of influence for things to change.

Anonymous said...

-- those who have the most influence and power also have the least amount of influence for things to change.

Sorry, I meant to say "the least amount of interest for things to change".

Anon2 said...

I agree completely with the anonymous postdoc from above. I also was a postdoc who left academia very recently. On paper, I think I have good enough credentials to get a decent tenure track position (prestigious groups, high h-index, etc.), but instead, I am also leaving academia for the same reasons as Anon1 mentioned. It has become increasingly obvious to me over the last several years that if I stay in academia, I probably will never do any actual good research. I think I have some good ideas, but I just do not think I could ever work well or have the ability to pursue non-safe ideas within the current funding system/climate. And if I do not think that I will be able to do good novel research, what is the point of going into academia?

I see both the pursuit of ideas that could have a high chance of failure and teaching students as the goals and benefits of an academic career. But increasingly it seems that playing it safe and spending every waking hour pursuing grant money is what is expected instead, especially when applying to grants with such long odds.

I certainly don't think of myself as some sad story of a great researcher who would have changed the world. Quite the contrary - I am just a normal person, and I am also happy with my choice to leave. But I do think that if Anon1 above and I both came to the same conclusion, then there probably is some other person out there who really did have the next great idea, but will leave because our academic research system is changing for the worse. And that is sad.

David Brown said...

Anyone interested in "long odds" research might try to get an FQXi grant.
FQXi grant proposals due Feb. 15, 2015

MisterBee said...


They might, if their scruples permit them to accept theologically tainted funds from the Templeton Foundation.


Douglas Natelson said...

Interesting points of view. I didn't want this to come across as "pity me, raising money is so hard". I've actually been very fortunate over the years at being able to support my group. However, as targets evolve, it makes sense to wonder how we (the scientific community) should be spending our time. For example, take the NSF Science and Technology Center (STC) program. Last time around, there were something like 250 preproposals, 40 full proposals solicited from those, and around 4 awards. Given that the preproposals are already a significant amount of work for a large number of people, you have to wonder if this is the best way to allocate these resources.

MisterBee said...


What is the proposal submission+funding model followed in Europe, for example? Are the proposals shorter and the writing less onerous? Just wondering if either you or one of your readers could comment on this.


Anzel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anzel said...

[Sorry, noticed a few typos in the first comment]

@MisterBee: My lab recently moved to ETH-Zurich, largely because ETH (and EPFL in Lausanne) provide a guarunteed level of funding for their PIs. We don't have the sort of money we had at Caltech, but I know my advisor greatly appreciates having much more time to focus on research itself instead of grant writing.

However, ETH/EPFL are rather special cases, and I believe that grant applications are roughly similar to the US in the EU. I DO know that there are specific Swiss grants one can apply for on top of ETH/EPFL, though they're for not much money and are also a bit of a long shot.