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.