The quarter-eating shower machine (and the apparent futility of grant writing)

by morgan · 9 comments

 

If you’ve ever been camping at one of those RV park places, you’ve probably experienced the pay shower.  In order to get hot water to flow (or any water), you have to periodically feed in quarters.

Now here’s the thing. Say you only have two quarters. And, say that each quarter only buys you 2 minutes of water.

After your first dose of precious hot water runs out, you fumble around, all lathered up, for your second quarter… by the time you get it into the slot, you’ve got goose bumps building from the cold.  (Why would they bother heating the bathrooms?)

With only two minutes left, you hurry to get your hair washed.  But you’re not quite fast enough… when the clock ticks off the final 119th second, and the water goes off.. your hair isn’t quite rinsed.

Now you’re cold, lathered, and out of water.  After toweling off, you go over to the sink (that has only cold water) and try to fit your head under the tap to get the rest of the soap out of your hair.

Just then, a family walks in, and one of the kids says: what’s that lady doing with her head in the sink?

Never again, you swear. You stop trying to jam your head under the tap (which didn’t really fit, anyway), and go looking for a few quarters to finish your shower.

You walk across the campground to your vehicle, dig through your stuff, and locate a few dollars.  You head over to the campground office, and after giving the 16 year old clerk a few choice words about their oh-so-stingy-showers, you get some more quarters and head back to the shower room.

20 minutes later, you’ve finally had a complete shower, you’re re-dressed, and ready to start your day for real.

“What a waste of time and energy that was!” you think to yourself, “I could have been out enjoying myself on the trails an hour ago if it weren’t for the stupid quarter-eating-shower!

 

That’s exactly what’s happening with research funding

 

We go through a very similar rigamarole just to do our research.  In this metaphor, “the shower” is the funding that flows to maintain our research.

The “quarters” we plug into the slot to keep the funding flowing are the grant proposals that we write.

Yet… there’s one important distinction from the coin-operated-shower in the story above.  When it comes to grant funding, the quarter-taking shower machine is broken. It only turns on the shower (i.e. funding) for about 1 in 8 of the quarters that you put into it.

You can up the odds a bit through careful quarter selection, and by developing the perfect quarter-insertion-technique (with just a little lilt to your wrist as you drop it in to give it the perfect spin)… but no matter how hard you try, you can’t get it above about 1 in 3 odds…

Does it sound ridiculous? It is. Nobody would put up with a shower machine that operates like that.  They’d either complain to management and ask for a refund, or just never come back again.

Can you imagine going to your PhD alma matter and asking them for a refund? “Hey, you set me up for a defective career! I want my tuition money back!”

Maybe I should try that.  Watch out Wisconsin, here I come!

 

Ok, if you’re not going to ask for a tuition refund, then what?

 

I got a semi-panic’d email recently from a group that has been lobbying for better US federal funding for the sciences. They’re freaked about budget sequestration.  Budget sequestration is what will happen here if congress and the president don’t agree on a plan for resolving looming “automatic cuts.”

It would mean a substantial drop in federal funding for the sciences next year.

The researchers on that list were discussing how things are already desperate, and this will just make it so much worse.

I empathize with that view.

 

But I fundamentally disagree with the complaining

 

As our quarter-eating shower machine illustrated, funding has become a very silly game.  You can get better at it, but even then it is a stupendous waste of time.

Yet, I believe it’s all part of a process that can have a positive outcome… but only if we look at it appropriately.

How do humans get inspired to create anything new? (Those creative acts being the source of all human progress…)

More often than not, the inspiration comes from a challenge.

 

In the book I’m writing on creativity, I talk about the story of the Wright brothers. They had tons of challenges building the first successful, powered airplane.  One of them ended up in the hospital. They crashed many planes. But it was those challenges that ultimately helped them achieve flight.

What if, after one of their many crashes, they’d just looked at the situation and said, “It’s hopeless! We’ll never fly!”

Someone else would have eventually figured it out, and we’d have never heard of Orville and Wilbur Wright.

 

The risk in the current problematic funding situation is making the very same mistake.  We can look at the ridiculousness of it all, and bemoan how bad it is, thinking that it’s all over.  We can get depressed and just try to get by, watching things slowly get worse and worse over time until it becomes unbearable.

Or, we can do what all creators of great inventions and ideas have done throughout time.  We can look at the present challenge as a helpful definition of what it is that we don’t want, in order to bring further clarity to what we do want so that we can start creating that.

The system we have wasn’t planned intentionally. It just happened as a fairly random evolution of the question “how do we fund research?”  So we ended up with an odd quirk of evolution, a “flying buffalope” that is not long for this world.  That’s where we are… the only question we should be asking is: “what do we do next?”

The real danger is sticking with the status quo.  The status quo isn’t working. The plugging-quarters-into-the-machine model does not work. At least not without adequate safeguards that the water isn’t going to run out every few minutes (or years on the scale of grants).

 

So, the present frustration should be a rallying cry, a defining moment, that helps us all realize that there’s something better out there.

We just have to understand that the present challenges are part of a process of defining what doesn’t work on the evolutionary scheme of research funding, so that we can better figure out what does work!

I’ll share some of my own ideas in future blog posts – but ultimately, this needs to be a community effort.

 

The NIH seems to be thinking along the same lines, with it’s new “sustainable research” initiative.

Other researchers have proposed the innovative idea of “research bonds” to help address our funding woes.

From the undesired situation, new solutions are arising. More will come over the next few years, because the situation we have isn’t tolerable for the long-term.

So, the only thing we have to do as individuals is to a) survive for long enough that we can benefit from the new solutions, and b) be a part of suggesting and creating those new solutions, rather than being stuck in the mire of day-to-day existence.

 

On the “survive long enough” front, I have a few suggestions:

  1. Get better at grant writing.  If our situation is one where “the fittest survive,” (until we do figure out a better way), then if you want to survive, you need to be one of the fittest.  The fittest in any evolutionary tableau are those that make most efficient use of the resources available. There are plenty of other resources on this blog for becoming more fit at grant writing, including my newsletter.
  2. Be entrepreneurial.  A key defining point for entrepreneurs is that they don’t sit around waiting for opportunity to drop in their laps. Instead, they’re on a continual search for how to create opportunity!  Those that can do this in the current environment will survive far better than those who wait for opportunity to fall from the sky.
  3. Set a good example. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that academic culture has become a very dysfunctional place. Most people think that the way to survive is by working all the time with no balance in life, spewing out an endless stream of “spam” grant proposals, with no clarity of thinking and no quality of writing.  However, if you come along, and show your colleagues that it is possible to have balance in your life, to do quality work, and to get a reasonable amount of funding to support your research… that’s the way you’re going to change the system.  People will take notice, and will ask you “how do you do it??”  This is a far more effective way of changing the system than just trying to combat it.

Oh yeah, and one more: hang in there. It may get worse before it gets better, but it always does get better as long as there are people who desire that outcome.  Be a part of the group that looks forward to and stewards us into a future of a better way to support research, instead of being a part of the problem.

 

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