Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research

While you await the final enhancements to the NIH grant application process, you might be interested in this thoughtful piece by Peter Lawrence in PLoS Biology entitled Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research (h/t whimple). Although written with from the UK granting perspective, the anecdotes and underlying premise apply all too well to those of us laboring under the NIH (& other federal granting agencies), and many of the contributed comments (in the paper itself, that is) come from US scientists. Of course, the NIHers could tell the UKers that even 5 years between renewals isn’t enough in terms of reducing grantwriting burden … though a damn sight better than 3 years certainly … assuming you get an R01 in the first place.



  1. antipodean said

    one of the most depressing things I’ve read this year…

  2. “Enhancements.” So that’s what the kids are callin’ ’em this year. Back in my punk-rock-tinged youth we called ’em “shit sandwiches.”

  3. BB said

    K as in the protagonist of Kafka’s “The Trial?” No wonder I often feel as if I’m in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

  4. BB said

    I meant “The Castle.” Though “The Trial” feels closer to the mark.

  5. D said

    Nothing I haven’t heard before. But, it doesn’t make it any less sad. What makes the article even sadder is that the “solutions” are soooooo laaaammmmme. Let’s be blunt there isn’t enough money in the Federal Gov’t Research budget to fund all the excellent scientists the US produces. Even adding in foundation and company money isn’t enough. We tried doubling the NIH’s budget and you see where that got us. The extra $10 Billion in ARRA money is having the opposite effect…crashing paylines. So money clearly isn’t the answer because schools rapidly expand to sop up as much available cash as possible.

    My suggestion is to force Universities and Medical Schools to Guarantee at least 75% of a faculty member’s salary. That is lets go back to the days of grants covering Summer Salaries. This will have three effects. First, schools will have fewer faculty slots so that the demand for grants will go down and paylines will go up. Second it will free up Grant dollars for supplies, techs, etc and three, faculty will have to spend less time writing grants.

    If someone hates to teach but wants to do research head to Scripps or a soft money job at a company. .

    On the downside it will lead to smaller yearly bonuses for Deans and Provosts (which are often tied to how much indirect dollars they bring in), smaller and fewer vanity Departments and a bigger focus on faculty teaching and service. The two legs of the tenure tripod that “everyone” knows are nearly meaningless in Tier 1 research school tenure decisions. (and yes, I place this as a downside because I am mildly sarcastic and cynical).

    Ahhhhh. That felt good to get out…

  6. D said

    PS. This suggested change

    “An important reform would be to set a maximum limit on the number of papers that could be offered as part of any application or any assessment.”

    Is part of the new NIH biosketch. 15 pubs max..I think. Still kind of lame. Senior folks will just say 15 out of 375 papers. I mean does any grant peer reviewer really read over Dr. Famous’ bibliography in the biosketch?

  7. BB said

    “My suggestion is to force Universities and Medical Schools to Guarantee at least 75% of a faculty member’s salary.”
    D, if you can get my school to agree, you are my new hero for life.

    • D said

      NIH actually tried to do something like this during the early stages of the Enhancing peer review process (e.g., limiting the number or dollar amounts a grantee could have by mandating at least 20% effort on each grant). (See page 22 of this pdf But, to paraphrase NIH “forcing the institutes to more fully support their faculty does not align with the diversity of their business models”. This is quote is in some document but I don’t have the time right now to find it.

      In other words the Deans want their bonuses and new buildings.

    • BP said

      “My suggestion is to force Universities and Medical Schools to Guarantee at least 75% of a faculty member’s salary.”

      This is actually the norm outside of medical schools. Though how much of that 75% can be dedicated to research without covering some of that salary from grants varies. I can expect to spend at 40%-50% of that 75% on research without covering some of my academic year salary, but other places allow more or less.

  8. […] morning I came upon this post from writedit in my Google reader, and I promptly followed the links to read the original article in PLOS Biology, […]

    • Luna Halloween said


      Thanks for posting and directing to the “Dark Art”. I have been for quite some time in the business of writing grants as a researcher (unsuccesfully), have participated in workshops organized by my School of Medicine to master grantmanship. I always thought that “cosmetics” was an important player in success but never could I have imagined the seriousness of the “reality” that is in your comments. You’re absolutely right and realize that I was living in a different world !!. I am getting upset now remembering the “whole industry” on grantmanship/success in getting NIH funded that my School of Medicine was promoting. It was all a sheer farce !!!. It is extremely sad.

      I hope, however, that scientists stand up for a truthful peer review system able to keep the real and best scientists.

      Thanks again

  9. BugDoc said

    “My suggestion is to force Universities and Medical Schools to Guarantee at least 75% of a faculty member’s salary….”

    D – you are right on. There is a clear conflict of interest of those leading research administration (deans, etc) with those actually doing research. Although they chose not to, NIH could mandate requirements for salary support. They already ask us to provide Resources information, presumably to ensure that our institution/department has sufficient equipment, money, etc. It seems like they should be able to require that faculty only get salary support from external grants up to 25-30%. This won’t stop people from getting more grants but would ensure at least that the additional grant money would all go to research, and would decrease the incentive for empire building at individual institutions at NIH expense.

    • Luna Halloween said

      Hi BugDoc,

      I agree with you. NIH could AND SHOULD mandate salary support for faculty, without discrimination between junior or established/senior investigators.

      There is also the issue of “compatibility effort”. Is it realistic to expect of deans to run a medical school and be the PI of several NIH grants ?. I assume that they often delegate, but then will it not be more appropriate that the PI be the one/ones who are really leading the project ?. In European countries there is the so-called “compatibility bills” in Medical Schools and Health Centers.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: