After a recent web seminar I hosted to help people write grants that are more likely to get funded, I got a note from a writer overseas that raised an interesting point about “fundability” and the progress of science (we’ll call him A to preserve anonymity).

He wrote:

THe major point I am raising though refers to the type of science. IN the western society model, incorporating science as one among other activities, the spiral has been closing down and down on the equation “potential applicative outcome=easy funding” Now I am not arguing against the need for new technology and new achievements, but basic science has been the foundation of every possible applicative science, while now the almost desperate need for immediate money leads the investors to neglect, or even worse, to design selection procedures that will specifically leave basic science out of most of the funding schemes.
If you have been working for a lifetime now (I am 53) in basic science and, very sadly, you are still strongly convinced of its value, it is very difficult to pretend to be a different type of scientist to adapt to the various funding strategies/topics.
BAsic science has never had “the brilliant idea that makes a project cool” at least not “a priori” though afterwards it gave us things such as DNA structure and fucntion or cyclin-cdk mechanism for cell cycel progression control, among others. Because it is felt as almost useless nowadays (as if we knew everything almost), it makes it really difficult to build a gap, a contrast, nothing.
Have you elaborated on this aspect? How would one get to the same strategy if the basical “why do we need it” is only very hardly fulfilled, especially considering the balance (money spent vs money income due to the results)?
I agree completely that the “desperate need for funding” forces investigators to focus on near-term outcomes.  This can and does often lead to short-sighted science, rather than allowing investigators to take the long view.
Make no mistake: it is still science, but it is often focused on only incremental results, rather than the big leaps.
Is this truly impeding scientific progress?   My instinct is with A on this one.  I think that it does impede progress to focus only on the short-term, rather than on the longer-term.  I don’t have hard scientific “proof” to back that up.  But it doesn’t matter.
Because, ultimately, what gets funded all boils down to values.
There was a long period in the 20th century when society highly valued science and scientific progress. Hence, that same society was willing to invest lots of money into science for its own sake.  We all benefitted greatly from that investment.
But that period seems to be waning. Most of the populace no longer seems clear on the “value” of science.  They are much more apt to ask the question: “what have you done for me lately?” – which leads to the myopic, short-term view of research that we find ourselves in now.
There’s really only one fix for this conundrum: for scientists themselves to become better communicators of the value of science to the world.  That’s a hard job, because most of us weren’t trained for it.  Most of us, when asked by a relative what we’re doing, tend to spout off a long array of buzzwords that leave the would-be listener behind by the time the second word leaves our lips.
That’s because we’ve become a bit spoiled by that great input of funding that society graced us with in the last century.  We didn’t have to learn to elaborate clearly on the value of science, because it was just seen as being “intrinsically good.”
Interestingly, this difficulty in elaborating on the value of what we do underlies not only the big-picture funding woes for science, but also underlies the microcosm of many people’s personal struggles with getting their grants funded.  Ultimately, it’s the same deal: it is more vital than ever to be able to clearly elaborate on the value of what we do as scientists, both in general terms to a general audience (such as the public), but also in more specific terms to our colleagues when they review our grants.
Whether we like it or not, an age is upon us when we have to clearly explain the value of what we do to others.  If we can’t explain that clearly, then the funding is unlikely to be there to support what we do.  While it might be nice to harken back to a time when that funding flowed freely, it isn’t the present reality.

11 thoughts

  1. well, I found a way to research at my will… I become an engineer. I do not need grants. However, there is a problem: I cannot publish my work anywhere because I am not a scientist…

    1. Alf, Yes you are a scientist and yes your work is applied science like mine. when are we going to start collaborating instead of separating the two. I regret not setting up more projects so that they could be published. So many great works get lost to the future and have to be reinvented or done.
      elsa

  2. A few comments:
    All science is applied. Satisfying a curiosity is a very viable application. Every scientist is a sales person. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries scientists had to seek support. Often it came from saving miners with safety lamps, improving canons, understanding the thermodynamics of steam engines, entertaining with laughing gas, curing disease and so forth. Like all sales people, you can sell one thing and, on the sly, use those resources to do better things. This is expected and encouraged. Purity is not a productive concept. Excite the taxpayers and their representatives. Otherwise they owe you nothing at all. There are a lot more of us today than in 1960. That makes it harder to share the beans in the pot.

  3. Pete hits on something very critical: more people sharing the beans. I went to a workshop at NSF on retention of underrepresented groups in science and there were a lot of new assistant professors from small “non-R1” institutions that were there because their universities/colleges were demanding that they secure big competitive federal funding in order to get tenure. Many of them were at schools without graduate programs, or at least without PhD students. So they were being expected to land grants with few supportive resources and no actual hands to do the work (on top of a 4-classes per year teaching load). Clearly, these “non-research” institutions see federal overhead dollars as a way to supplement their budgets and are creating this expectation for their faculty to raise it. Thus, the explosion in the number of grants submitted to NSF and NIH, and the sharp decline in funding rates. It sounds brutal, but we should ask whether all such institutions should be aspiring to have large research programs. Easy for me to say, coming from an R1 institution with history of getting truckloads of federal funding….

    On top of this, you have the growing crisis of funding universities. State schools in particular are hurting like they have never before, so there is even more pressure to bring in grants to generate the overhead to keep the lights on. The present trajectory is unsustainable and very depressing. I’m not sure what the future holds.

  4. Hi, this is A, as Morgan has very kindly named me. I don’t have any issue about disclosing my first name, so feel free. I am not doing it now just in case there were rules I am not aware of.

    Pete, yes, we have always been selling our brains. The problem is who buys them and why. Expecially the why is a critical point, as we can easily loose control on that. These days our thoughts are conditioned by media and our brains are bought by the same people who try to control the media and move (own?) the most of the money un the world. They have decided to use their power to exploit the immediate business-capability of certain kind of scientific research. Morgan is correct when she says there is only one fix, the ability to convince how important our science is. I am only afraid we’ll never succeed if there isn’t an immediate financial outcome.
    Someone from drug industry told me “we don’t want to find the solution, we don’t want to cure, we aim at making it chronic….” and that was a biiiiiiiiiiig company…..

    1. Hi Adriano – I didn’t use your name out of respect to you, since I hadn’t asked for permission to post it publicly. But thank you for your email and comment here… it seems this has stirred quite a controversy.

  5. All research needs to have a defensible goal, whether it is hypothesis-driven exploratory research or goal-oriented R&D. The difficulty is, as pointed out, in making clear the value of fundamental hypothesis-driven research when there is no clear or clearly predictable outcome. Goal-oriented R&D is much easier because there is something recognized as a “product” as an outcome, and everyone regardless of training can recognize the value of arriving at a product. However, without fundamental research the pipeline of new knowledge that feeds the goal-oriented science gets shut off, and ultimately the pipeline will run dry. That situation is now on our horizon because of the current funding environment and NIH’s increasing focus on goal-oriented projects and “big science” at the expense of the “small science” that develops the real understanding of phenomena uncovered by “big science”.

  6. Ultimately, it comes down to deliverables. As basic research ventures farther and farther away from everyday phenomena, and as the costs to do so increase dramatically, it becomes more difficult to justify supporting such efforts. Basic science projects such as the Large Hadron Collider ($9B), the Hubble Space Telescope ($6B+) and so on are widely praised by the scientific community, but bear little relevance to most taxpayer’s lives. In fact, as scientific fields such as physics (string theory), cosmology (multiple universes) and chemistry (nanoscience) become ever more esoteric, the “discoveries” announced must usually be taken as a matter of faith by those paying the bills — similar to how religious adherents pay tithes without ever knowing to a certainty the ultimate benefit. John Horgan’s “The End of Science” is a thought- and argument-provoking book that asks the questions “Are we facing the limits of true knowledge?” and “Is this the twilight of the scientific age?” The answers he gets from the dozens of interviews with scientific luminaries such as Roger Penrose, John Wheeler, and Stephen Hawking can be as disturbing as they are insightful.

  7. I only half agree with this view that the funding opportunities limit or impede scientific progress. It was very clear some time ago that whenever the amount of research dollars increases, a proportionate but larger increase in the hands seeking those dollars occurs. Thus, there is always keen competiton. My research has been funded for over 40 years, through times thick and thin. Often not pleasant, but the race goes to the original and persistent. Now, today, we face a new set fo problems. First, the doubling of the NIH budget has lead to more researchers, more buildings, more competition, and our universities have become addicted to overhead money, to the extent that many resercahers must raise their own salary or leave. Second, a very substantial portion of our population is actively anti-science and education. Many would rather substitute a complete faith in a benevolent supreme being for understanding of the mechanics of the universe, the planet and its inhabitants. To this nonuniform but very real group, science has little purpose unless it can somehow reinforce their faith.
    Nonetheless, I think the competition is destructive creation. We are evolving as researchers and continue to produce startling new insights. Ms. Giddings advice and methods are but one of many that can lead to success. Having served on innumerable study sections and review panels, I know that the pressure to see useful results exists but it also is far from dominant.

  8. I think the statement “bear little relevance to most taxpayer’s lives” describes well the root of the problem. Science is bound to reveal something unknown -I think that’s why they are called “discoveries”- and in principle it should be impossible to tell the relevance of the results before one knows what they are. Pretending to be able to do so is a risky exercise. At the time of the discovery of the structure of DNA none of the taxpayers would have thought that it would have led to personalized medicine in 60 years. DNA structure was of almost no relevance to probably all of them, and if the balance between cost of science and taxpayer benefit had been used we would still ignore what’s a basepair.
    I don’t see the link between the problem of underfunding basic research on one side and the fact that there are more buildings and more researchers and that a substantial portion of the population is anti-science on the other side. I rather think these two are good examples of how we made it wrong by building up a system that is totally based on the logic “money to make more money”. Most universities have lost contact with science, and what matters is the underlying business depending on the balance between student fares and running expenses + personnel salaries. Science and public health are similar, they cannot depend on private money, or they will only benefit the owner(s) of the money.
    One more evidence in support of the idea that something is deeply wrong in our system is the attitude of governments that think of facing the crisis by cutting on university expenses to “save” science and research. As if teaching, science (knowledge in general), and research were independent entities.
    It is very well described here https://www.nature.com/news/2011/110112/full/469133a.html
    and I need not add anything on top of that. Just take it as a good point to start thinking that “science” might be different from what the most of funding agencies are pursuing now.

  9. If you string together A’s consecutive all-caps, you get “THINBADNA”, which, of course, is a reference to to “Thin, Bad, Sodium”.

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