Funding the elite is not the real problem

I have a guest blog over at the Times Online today (May 6th):

A response to Sir Paul Nurse: it’s not only the elite who are feeling the strain

Note: May 17th – I’ve now posted the whole thing here (with minor updates) in case it got rather lost amid the Election Day fever. And in the hope it will encourage a few more readers, and particular commenters

Sir Paul Nurse’s remarks about science funding, widely reported a couple of weeks ago just after the announcement that he was likely to become the next President of the Royal Society, ruffled a few feathers amid the rank and file of UK science. Nurse was describing his view that a scheme for “no strings” funding of a small number of elite scientists, modelled on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US, would be a good idea.

Several critiques of Nurse’s remarks have appeared in the science blogosphere (e.g. by Bob O’Hara at Nature Network, or here, or by Sylvia McClain here). Some have pointed out that elite scientists are actually already likely to be among the best-funded in the country. Others, in similar vein, have noted that a variety of schemes offering longer-term, and sometimes renewable, research funding already exist (see, for instance, the Wellcome Trust’s switch to “Investigator Awards” for staff in established posts). In many comments is an undercurrent that any funding for such schemes would necessarily reduce the “response mode funding pool” – the pot of money which funds most scientific research in the UK, and which scientists compete for by writing grant applications for specific projects, usually of 3 years duration.

However, the misgivings evoked by Nurse’s remarks also reflect, I think, a deeper underlying worry among UK scientists. This is that his thoughts are directed at something which most of us think is a side issue. In the minds of most scientists in UK universities that I know, the key problem facing UK science is the unsustainability of a system where almost all scientists are required to spend more and more time filling in grant application forms, and less and less time doing science.

I have been working in UK science for a quarter of a century, give or take. Over that period the fraction of scientists’ time that goes on chasing funding – writing research grants – has increased inexorably. The other thing that has changed is the ability to do research in universities if you do not have a sizeable research grant; this has vastly decreased to the point of being close to none. Funding that comes directly through Universities nowadays underpins academics’ salaries and some infrastructure only, with little or nothing to meet the direct costs of doing research.

This second change also goes some way to explaining the first change, since without a research grant these days a scientist in many disciplines is basically dead in the water. They will have no lab technician to support their work – nowadays technicians only come with successful grants. They will also be less likely to have a PhD student; many departments prefer to send students to labs with grants, on the unsurprising grounds that without any grant funds the lab will struggle to support the cost of the student’s experimental work. Other PhD students are funded off -you guessed it -grants.

In football and in science, relegation is too often a one-way street

Having the 3 or 4 year research grant run out in British science nowadays is akin to getting relegated from the Premier League in football; you have one, perhaps two years to get back on track before the “parachute payment” – the papers derived from the last grant – run out. After that the climb back up again will become incredibly difficult. So the reality is that people in this setting will do no science whatsoever while they desperately scramble for funding.

This would not matter so much if the chance of success in the grant system was something people could live with. But the current overall grant application success rate is around 20%, or one in five. And for most labs the “effective” rate will be considerably less than that. This is because grants at the top end of the pile (from “elite 50” labs, or people with a super-hot project or a recent super-hot paper) will have a much higher change of funding. So it is widely believed that the success rate for ordinary mortals – which means most of the professional scientists working in UK universities – is well below the one in five figure.

And with most people viewing deep cuts in public spending as inevitable, no scientist believes the success rate – or the total number of projects funded – is going to rise. Every single one I have talked to expects it to fall. In other words, the days of “a one in ten chance” of being funded, if they are not already with us, are in sight.

This is not, I should make clear, to say that competition for grant funding is a bad thing. Some sifting of research proposals in competition is clearly necessary – it is a key part of ensuring that poorly-thought-out ideas are sifted out, and that the available money is spent wisely. However, “some competition is good” does not equate to more competition is necessarily always better. If one goes down that road, one eventually reaches a point where all time is devoted to the act of competing and no time to anything else.

“Get funded or die trying”

And here lies the problem. The current “get funded or die trying” grant chase, with its dismal success rate, devours the time and energy of academic scientists. It is particularly harsh on those in their first five years a university job. This is the stage directly after you have spent the best part of a dozen years learning to be a first-rate professional scientist. At which point, people have to stop being scientists, and have to become deal-makers, paper pushers, and indefatigable salesmen. One of the starkest accounts of this is given by the Cambridge academic Peter Lawrence, who subtitled his October 2009 article in the journal PLoS Biology

“The granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them”

Another analogy might be spending ten to fifteen years training a consultant surgeon, and then making sure he or she spends almost all their time, not operating, but instead writing proposals to get someone to give them the money to pay an assistant surgeon do their operating for them.

The relentless competition, and the morale-sapping and attrition of those who are unsuccessful, also means a decreased “diversity” of the UK research base. Unfashionable research areas, or experimental techniques, gradually disappear as those in them fail to get funded. If it is possible to keep going in a minimal way without a big grant, such labs can keep slowly ticking over and the skills and ideas they have developed do not die out. But if the labs need a grant to survive at all, they go under. And if the fashion later changes – then you have to set up special new initiatives to re-train scientists in the lost skills, since the older scientists who used to teach people these things are now retired or not doing research any more. If this scenario seems far-fetched, it has already happened in the UK for “in vivo” skills – that is, the skills to do experiments on anaesthetized animals – and probably for other things too.

The only way to increase the present unsustainable grant success rate, it seems to me, is to decrease the number of applications relative to the amount of available funding. Some universities have already decided how they are going to address this – by trying to retire or make redundant the staff without research grants.

Of course, this strategy means that the typically large amount of teaching and university paperwork done by these people will then fall increasingly on the staff that do have the research grants. It is not a scenario that is set to make anyone happy. I also doubt it will raise the grant success rate, or the rate of scientific discovery.

There is an alternative. It is to look to a time before the grant chase became mandatory. When I started working in British universities, people still carried out, and published, high-quality research funded on a modest budget via the University itself. They also trained graduate students. More ambitious or upwardly-mobile people also applied for external research grants, as now.

The major objections to this old system, largely retrospective, were seen to be unaccountability and that it fostered, and indeed funded, complacency. However, is the present system, with its funding of (at best) one in five, and probably more like one in ten, research proposals, an improvement? Not as far as I can see.

So what to do?

Here is a vaguely radical proposal. I would suggest that ALL academic post-holders in UK science departments that are rated above a certain research attainment threshold should receive a minimal level of baseline research funding – say £5,000 to £15,000 per year. This would be “seed-corn” research funding to enable people to do stuff, whether “bridging” a research assistant’s salary for a month or two, subsidising a PhD student’s work, replacing equipment, funding their own experiments – whatever. I have lost count of the academic scientists I know who tell me that they are stymied because the grant has run out and they don’t have the money, or personnel, to wrap up the experimental work and publish it until they get another grant. A scheme of this kind would directly address this problem.

If this seems far-fetched, consider the current hidden cost of the response-mode system with its one-in-five to one-in-ten success rates. Writing grants takes time. A lot of time, And time means salary costs. A recent study by two Canadian academics concludes that the cost of the grant system, and the time spent penning fruitless applications, exceeds the cost of simply giving every qualifying University scientist in Canada £20,000.

I am not even suggesting baseline funding at this level – just some seeding money which would “lubricate” the system, and potentially reduce the number of desperate applications overloading the response mode grant system. One could also imagine various refinements to a baseline funding system like this – “banding” the direct support depending on past productivity would be one obvious idea.

Of course this sort of scheme would necessarily take some money out of the “response mode” pool. But at least this way it would be spread more widely, and into places where it would likely have more effect than a system which currently tends, by its nature, to reward those with the most funding by giving them even more of it. Most scientists do not believe, I suggest, that key advances arise predictably from the “top 50”, or even one hundred, labs. And few would believe that giving a sixth large grant to a lab which already has five achieves more than giving five small grants to labs with none, or second grants to labs with one. Indeed, one of the UK’s traditional science strengths has been precisely doing good science with small amounts of funding. Smaller labs do good science. They also still train most of the country’s PhDs. They are just as necessary to the “health” of the UK scientific enterprise as are the elite. And they are under threat.

Anyway, Sir Paul Nurse’s remarks suggest that he worries about the effect of having to pitch repeatedly for money, and be tied to targets, on the UK’s scientific elite. But the problem is far wider that that. I hope that, if he becomes Royal Society president, he will be looking to lobby for more than just the Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas of the system. UK science needs its mid-table, Championship, and League One and Two sides as well.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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11 Responses to Funding the elite is not the real problem

  1. Stephen Curry says:

    Extremely well done Austin – it’s a fantastic article. I have left a comment on the Times site.

  2. bryan perp says:

    definitely a great blog. Thank you. pharmacy technician salary

  3. Åsa Karlström says:

    Very interesting and well written! I hope that people read this and give it some thought (and maybe change a few things too).

    It is interesting to question what would happen if a part of research was “already funded and free” so to speak, whereas compared to today when many grants need catch phrases and a tonne of primary data that are in line with “fashion of the time”. I don’t mean that that is a bad thing, primary data, I just know that there are several huge discoveries that started out as “aimlessly looking” or “basic research” and then things spiralled when the interesting nugget saw light.

    Today, I wonder what would have happened with all those labs that got university funding and had a few technicians etc?

  4. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks Asa

    Agreed about the “just looking”.

    For those with long memories, it is funny how these things change over time. If one goes back far enough, papers often had NO hypotheses/aims. Then people started saying this was ridiculous – a famous example is Peter Medawar’s essay from the early 60s – and that of course one commonly had an idea or ideas that one was testing.

    Subsequently, the “hypothesis testing, aims and objectives” approach has become so dominant that now anything else is derided as “a fishing expedition” – and in grant proposals there are “plans of work” with all these elaborate contingencies:

    “If A works then B with a view to C, if A doesn’t work then D and then E, unless of course F happens, in which case..”

    Anyway, I think it has all gone too far the other way. Grant proposals in particular are now judged as if they were “How it will happen”, when everyone knows this is basically a fiction.

    Re what would have happened to the old-style labs under the current system, my friend David Colquhoun tells a story about how he once said this to a funding agency big cheese about Bernard Katz – i.e. how would BK have functioned under the current money-chase, and pressure to “build up a Professorial research group”. The answer was, apparently, that “[Katz] would have adapted”. David says:

    “Of course, that was missing the point. What I meant was, if [Katz] had “adapted”, and played the game, would he have made the same kind of ground-breaking discoveries?”

    Now, I suspect that Paul Nurse in some sense thinks that this is the point of “Elite Funding”, namely to give folk like Katz the freedom not to do the funding chase, but to get on with the science. And as an aim, that is laudable. I just think that you have to address more than the 50 top labs, otherwise you are in effect telling everyone else to get stuffed.

  5. Eric-Wubbo Lameijer says:

    Great post!

    If I remember correctly, there is an old SciFi story about a billionaire who wants to stop the progress of science (things are going too fast for him anyway) and asks for counsel. He is advised to instate an elaborate granting scheme, which occupies the time of half of the top scientists to sit in committees and decide who is getting a grant, and the other half of scientists scrambling over each other to write grant proposals instead of doing actual science. It is odd how the current system seems to be going in that direction. It is not even rewarding excellence; in the Netherlands, at least, the best scientists have been found to be LESS likely to get grants than the average ones (blame their unconventional creativity), though the worst ones are fortunately also excluded.

    In the end, the best ways may be to move from lots of tiny grants to a few big grants (enough to support a six- or seven-person group for five years), which may reduce the proportion of time spent on grant-writing. In addition, either universities selecting excellent scientists themselves and/or a lottery system may work. Of course, a lottery system may not guarantee that the ‘best’ scientists will surface, and universities may revert to at least a part of cronyism, but a ‘suboptimal’ solution in which some above-average scientists can devote all their time to research may be more fruitful than a system in which certainly all the ‘best’ scientists are wasting their brain power on grant writing.

  6. Kay Walker says:

    Yep- Australia seems the same- top people get lots of grants, although there are plenty of up-and-coming researchers who were previously attached to the biggies. What struck me when I was involved as a 2nd or 3rd investigator was the fact that the “top” people in a research team are often MAINLY lending their reputations and names to the grant-writing/winning enterprise. It is often the more junior investigators who have the leading ideas and who do the bulk of the “writing”- not in all cases of course. However, it seems to me that it is difficult for the same top researchers to continue to have world-beating ideas in their own field, while managing more and more grant supervision. Ultimately the top researchers I have seen have actually started to forge ahead in a new area or have receded into the “depths” of curriculum writing and administration. There is also a lot of “fashion” in handing out research grants- for instance, some years ago there was a huge push in Australia to examine the health of women (both mental and physical). Huge longitudinal studies were set up, large teams of researchers at various universities were given over to only researching this one area. Now that results are coming out and people are diligently completing their programs of work, there is relatively little interest. The top scientists from these projects have gone on to other topics while the 2nd and 3rd investigators are now experts in an area that is not “fashionable” any more! Perhaps there ought to be a special effort to fund researchers who have served their “apprenticeships” and who have shown promise of being excellent researchers in a new area, rather than only continuing to fund their former bosses.

  7. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Eric-W and Kay. Sorry for not responding before – been frantically finishing up other things.

    The problem with E-W’s idea of “just a few big grants” is that then you make it very hard for newer/youger people to get started – there is obviously reluctance to give a tyro / newbie a seriously huge amoung of money, even if they came out of a well-known lab. Even costing out a standard 3 yr project grant (one postdoc salary + consumables + equipment) under what is called in the UK “Full Economic Costing” – essentially including all the institutional “indirect” costs, inc fractions of PI salary, infrastructure, admin backup etc etc – is now running out at in excess of half a million pounds. That is a serious sum to be “betting” on someone. And of course the idea that only the big labs train good scientists is itself highly suspect.

    In addition, what E-W is describing already exists as “Programme Grants”, which are typically for 5 yrs, fund at an enhanced level (say 2 postdocs and a technician), and may even be extendible /renewable. This is another of the things that makes me say that what Nurse is suggesting actually already exists.

    Like most people in the trade, I think that what is needed is a “mixed economy”. You need fellowships, and Programme Grants, and Project Grants, and small grants, and (as in my suggestion) baseline funding. You need lots of different avenues to get funded, basically, because one size definitely does NOT fit all.

    @Kay – the Australian funding set-up is very much modelled on the UK one, so I’m not surprised it’s similar. I agree with much of what you say about senior scientists often “transitioning” away from the nitty-gritty. I have seen some that do and some that don’t, but it is definitely a temptation. The difficulty when it does happen is that it inevitably places those people in a somewhat exploitative relationship with their junior people.

    “Fashion” in science is definitely a problem. You also see it in the phenomenon of people frantically “re-positioning” what they do into the area where the money now is. The current example of this is stem cells, with everyone desperately trying to re-badge what they were already doing (like cell growth, or analysis of phenotype) as “stem cells” or (groan) “regenerative medicine”.

    Grant Committees are made up of human beings, of course, and they have a natural tendency to want to fund “really good science _in hot/happening areas_”. But it gets even worse when you have the kind of targetted funding initiatives (“Initiative-itis”) you describe. In my opinion this kind of area-picking is a complete waste of time, as the “buzz” in the trade directs science to the hot areas already without the heavy-handed Govt/funding agency prioritising. But the politicos love to interfere, and so the research councils have to craft these “missions” and “key priorities” blah blah blah. Being even more cynical, I think the funding agency bosses may like “setting priorities” because – though I doubt they would ever admit this – they believe it decreases the total number of applications they receive.

  8. Radoslav Bozov says:

    Into my opinion, the way scientific research is conducted must be adapted to the global challenges for scientific progress. The problem is hidden within its implementation.

    With the advance of information technology many experiments are unnecessary as free databases can serve a good way for data gathering.

    I think the cycle of repeating the same experiments is wrong as equipment cost goes down, but many produced pieces of equipment are non-degradable which increase the risk for environmental damage. Then later pay for that. Technology improvements should substitute old technology immediately since its first implementation and drive the cost down. It is the demand that sets up the price. Here comes well coordinated educational system.

    Linear flow of money may be insufficient, therefore single technology use is highly insufficient.

    PhD must be awarded only to scientist with well defined thesis who can drive science forward. Cycling is illusion and waste of time and money.
    Theoretical biologist must be separated from experimental biologist, however, working in a good dialogue and interaction that will feed up both sides in self propagated manner.

    My father, a history teacher told me one thing I will never forget, the two disadvantages of democracy are bureaucracy and inflation. The inflation comes from creation of new technology which devalues money. Thus, theoretical biologist must pay experimental biologist as they define experiments. However, greediness must be diminished, at the end of the day we don’t need neither castles nor diamonds to live elevated spiritual life and decent material life. Health is priority of humanity.

    Physics methodology such as NMR, modern mass spectra etc. shell run in parallel with sequence technology. This will enhance the understanding of both systems analysis and local space functional definition. At the end it all must be confirmed with quantum mechanics. It is time to integrate disciplines so that we can differentiate life form and LEARN from the most efficient machines, therefore improve our lives not only materialistically but also spiritually. Science and art interfere in space and time and love will save the world. Love is a scientific phenomena, and only people who love science will be successful. Science is NOT fishing, there is no single piece of DNA that will solve our problems. They work together like electrons work together. That is the emergent property we look for, and they can be found as we expand in space.

    Regenerative medicine comprises everything we have learned so far, but requires understanding of multi-dimensionality of variables defined in the four classic dimensions- mass energy, space and time.

    New technology can save lots of money in a long term if used appropriately. Good Luck. And top scientist must work hard to generate new generation of young scientists capable of outpacing old generation.

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