Are scientists becoming an endangered species? The way we live–now

What spurred me to put pen-to-paper, if that phrase has any remaining meaning, was reading about the recent proposals at the US National Institutes of Health to again revamp the grant review system. The previous revamp, just several years ago, changed the rules so that instead of 2 possible resubmissions of a given proposal, only the initial submission and one revision could be submitted. After that stage, researchers would need to present a significantly different proposal, if they expect their grant to be reviewed. The issue of what significantly different means, and whether it is even feasible for a researcher to significantly change research areas/strategies in the absence of funding, is a matter for a significantly different blog. But we shall leave it at that, for now.

The new idea being batted around would hold that either the grant is funded on the first attempt, or the scientist would need to quit and do something else. Retirement and golf, come to mind. No resubmissions or modifications would be allowed.

Now this isn’t just akin to putting a band aid/plaster on an arterial wound; it’s actually not even putting the band aid on the correct part of the body!

I would like to discuss the way the scientists live–now–in this age of uncertainty. So if you are interested, bear with me as I ramble my way to the point.

As a short aside, my portion of the title “The way we live–now” is derived from having recently watched (for the second time) the BBC’s production of Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now” with a stunning performance by David ‘Hercule Poirot’ Suchet as the Shylock-like Jew-swindler, Augustus Melmotte. The story brings to light the anti-Semitism of the times–despite Disraeli being Prime Minister, as Melmotte’s pyramid-Ponzi schemes are derailed by his own ambition to settle down and become “one of them;” a respected English nobleman.

Perhaps the most poignant anti-Semitic event is portrayed when a young women of a noble (but cash-poor) English family is engaged to an older, wealthy Jewish banker. When he finally realizes her prejudice and releases her from the engagement, she is horrified at having been ‘jilted by a Jew.’ In the light of rants made by English Lords and famous actors (Ahmed and Gibson, to name a few), sometimes one wonders how much has really changed.

As another interesting aside, I was debating the possibility that the enigmatic figure Cromercrox might have actually invented the town of Cromer. However, the town must have been in existence for many years, for the seaside town of Cromer is mentioned as a possible retreat in the film.

Back to the way we scientists, at least in the US, live now. Well one does not need a Ph.D. in mathematics or economics to figure out the problem: the number of researchers and grant proposals being submitted continues to grow annually, whereas the pot of money used to support these researchers and their research remains the same, or drops slightly. Especially if inflation is figured into the equation. Net result: it’s becoming more and more difficult to obtain grant funding.

This is the reason that grant reviewers are finding themselves in impossible situations. If the funding level is somewhere at 7 or 8%, can reviewers possibly distinguish between the ‘quality’ of the 8th percentile grant and the 12th percentile grant? A frequent comment that comes up is “whether the research aims–if achieved–will end up being taught in textbooks.”

Is this the way to go? Is science not built brick upon brick? Should scientists be punished for following up an initial key finding by drudging through the solid, time-consuming and careful science that needs to be done before the next ‘breakthrough’ can be achieved?

All of this leads back to the initial problem. A band-aid or new format of review will not solve the problem. In fact, it’s a waste of time. There are only three options:

1)   Status quo–researchers and science suffer from lack of funding and impossible situations, which will lead to poor morale and loss of a generation of scientists. This is the evolutionary view of scientists–survival of the fittest.

2)  Increase the pool of money allocated to research to support research grants (best option!).

3)  Decrease the number of researchers in science. Stop hiring. Effectively, this would be similar to the status quo, because this will happen if the current situation isn’t improved.

It’s time for the public to act, and it’s time for scientists to fight. Without this, we are clearly on our way to becoming an endangered species.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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10 Responses to Are scientists becoming an endangered species? The way we live–now

  1. Stephenemoss says:

    Steve – a 7% funding rate must be truly dispiriting. In the UK most funders are still hitting double figures, though we’ve never really had inflexible dictats concerning resubmissions. Nevertheless it is generally understood, if not stated in the regulations of some funders, that resubmissions of rejected grants are not permitted, yet there are instances when a panel will invite a resubmission. Such invitations are rare, and to resubmit without one would generally be considered a very long shot indeed.

    The enlightened solution, as you note, would be for governments to increase science funding. In the UK we lag way behind the G8 average on percent GDP spent on research, which is something those heroic campaigners at Science is Vital are currently attempting to address.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      7% is tremendously dispiriting. As a reviewer with a pile of 10 grants, imagine knowing there’s a good likelihood that not a single one will be funded! It’s unreal.

      The situation is compounded by the overall system, though–which could be another stand-alone blog. Universities and departments want to ‘grow,’ because every gant received by a researcher brings in indirect costs (like overhead costs for the institute) which are usually 50% or more of the direct costs to the investigator. So a typical 4 y grant of ~$250,000/y (~$1,000,000) might easily bring to the institute $500,000.

      With this in mind, universities are keen to take on new investigators–and of course this further increases the pool of applicants for a fixed amount of money. So even assuming the wonderful circumstance of a sudden NIH budget doubling tomorrow (which would truly be great, but isn’t going to happen!), I fear that within a few years, without some kind long-lasting vision about how the system works, we could well end up at 7% again fairly quickly…

  2. cromercrox says:

    If Cromer had not existed, one would have had to have invented it. One can get Matzot in the local Morrison’s (that’s ‘Safeway’ for colonial readers) but there must be more than one Jewish family in Norwich as they were fresh out when we got there last week. We had to go as far as Waitrose in North Walsham, 7 miles away.

    A 7% funding rate does indeed sound dispiriting. As a comparison, that’s the acceptance rate of manuscripts at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N. We will, if we must, allow more than two submissions of a manuscript, though we don’t generally encourage multiple revisions – we find that after two or three rounds of review the referees get fed up, and one finds oneself in diminishing-returns territory. But at least, when that moment comes, a researcher still has a wide choice of journals to which he or she might submit their work.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Matzot? Aren’t those the Braille-like short stories?

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Seriously, though, one can view publishing in N. (or any other journal) as a luxury. But for those of us out in the field–or more accurately in the labs–it’s the grants that are our bread and butter.

      • cromercrox says:

        That’s what I mean – a grant acceptance rate of 7% makes being a researcher at all something of a luxury. Which I guess is your point.

  3. The net effect of the harsh funding conditions is to rapidly move the US along your option 3 toward extinction. The survival of the fittest is indeed occurring, but only among the mid and senior level investigators. Any student or junior investigator with common sense will avoid this mess. It seems to me we have already lost a generation of scientists and we working on discouraging generation number 2. The Brain Activity Map is a huge proposal coming out soon that many scientists deride, but may help the situation somewhat.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Despite attempts to bolster the new investigators with a variety of early investigator awards and perhaps modestly relaxed standards (arguably) for grant review–for those who are crazy enough to get into this business–I think the new investigators are suffering from exactly the same strain as the mid and later career researchers. It’s all one boat, and whether you are in the stern or the bow, the likelihood of sinking is similar.

    • aeon says:

      The survival of the fittest is indeed occurring

      I doubt this. The “fittest” in science never was, and never will be, the person who has the largest number of high-impact publications.

      This, IMHO, is going to break our neck and driving science as it once was to extinction. And I would strongly suggest that we do not see the proliferation of publications (more journals, more papers) as a measure of progress. The publish-or-perish model of science seems related to economics, and to continuous growth. While (as Steve stated) the resources we actually and literally live on do not grow accordingly, we are asked to produce more and in less time. (I would also argue, with less thoughtfulness and insights.) It’s not inherently scientific to publish at least three impact-papers during your PhD, and at least four impact-papers a year as a postdoc as nowadays is expected in most life sciences.

      External factors continue to put a strong selective force on us.
      As does an environmental pollution. It’s not the scientifically fittest who will survive. It’s the one who proliferates with the highest speed. The outcome may become a pest to science itself.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        1) The survival of the fittest is occurring through grant funding (or lack thereof)–not related (directly to publications).
        2) The publication of quality science in peer reviewed journals was and still is one of the main mechanisms for evaluation of success in a scientific career. The reliance on publication in “high-impact journals” is an issue that is highly debated among many researchers. Please refer to the blogs of Dr. Stephen Curry, who makes a strong case for open-access in journals. But few debate the necessity of publishing papers as a measure of scientific success.