Scientific research in recent times certainly is very costly (see my earlier post on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” in the Money & Grants category). Everything in a university research laboratory is quite expensive and costs keep rising each year. Even such common inexpensive items as paper towels, phone calls, xerographic copies, and keys to lab rooms need to be paid for at many universities. To handle all these expenses, faculty scientists must apply for a research grant, obtain an award, and then work hard to later get it renewed. Unless a faculty member is working at a small undergraduate college, it simply is not possible to conduct research using only internal funds and undergraduate volunteer lab workers. Without having laboratory co-workers, research comes to a screeching halt whenever the faculty member must be out of the lab while teaching, attending a committee meeting, eating lunch in a cafeteria, or going to see the dentist. In addition to paying salaries for postdoctoral fellows, research technicians, and graduate students, faculty scientists must buy research supplies and equipment, get broken instruments repaired, and pay for many other research expenses (e.g., business travel, costs of publication, use of special research facilities on- and off-campus, etc.). Thus, to conduct scientific research in a university, it is fundamentally necessary to obtain and maintain external research funding; without a research grant, laboratory research projects in universities now are nearly impossible.
Although the federal government each year thankfully provides many billions of dollars to support experimental studies, the present research grant system in the US is not able to fund all the good proposals submitted by faculty scientists in universities. Of those overjoyed applicants meriting an award, many receive only part of their requested budget. The U.S. National Science Foundation, a very large federal agency offering research grants in nearly all branches of science and engineering, reports awarding research funds to only around 28% of the many thousands of investigators applying for research support each year .
Today, the professional reputation of individual faculty scientists depends mostly on the total number of dollars brought in by their research grant award(s) each year. It also is true that different universities compare their reputation for quality in education and scholarly prestige primarily on the basis of the annual total amount of external research grant awards generated by their faculty scientists. Many universities seeking to elevate their financial profits from research grants now urge their science faculty to try to obtain a second or third external award (i.e., for a related or unrelated project); universities also can increase their profits from research grant awards simply by hiring more science faculty.
Failure to get a research grant renewed is no longer unusual, due to the ever-increasing large number of doctoral scientists vigorously competing for new and renewal funding. Any such failure means a rapid loss of assigned laboratory space, loss of graduate students working with the faculty member, a diminished professional reputation, and the necessity to henceforth spend all of one’s time trying to get re-funded. Although non-renewed faculty scientists can continue researching and publishing using supplies at hand, such activity usually declines to some small level within about one year of not being funded. This unwelcome failure is a disaster that often causes a midcareer crisis (e.g., denial of promotion to tenured rank); having a second research grant does provide some welcome protection in this distressing situation.
Each and every faculty scientist is competing against each and every other scientist for a cut of the government pie. While ordinary competition generally has good effects upon human activities, this most prominent of all science faculty efforts is so extensive and generates such high pressures that it must be termed a “hyper-competition”. The hyper-competition for research grant awards downgrades collegiality, subverts collaborations, and encourages corruption; each of these has very destructive effects on the research enterprise. Applying for a research grant always is very stressful; for each renewal application (i.e., after 3-5 years of supported research work), one must compete with a larger number of new and renewal applicants than was the case for the previous application. Since the consequences of dealing with the research grant system are so very important for the career progress of any faculty scientist, one might wonder why graduate students in modern science are not being required to also receive an MBA degree, in addition to their Ph.D.?
There is an increasing tendency for faculty scientists to form research groups, ranging from 3 to over 100 individuals. Joining a small research group means that the failure of one group member to get a renewal application funded does not either kill anyone within the group or stop the entire project from continuing. Giant research groups typically are headed by a king or queen scientist, and can have their own building; these giant groups automatically provide more brains, more hands, more research grant money (from awards to multiple associated individuals), and more lab space than any individual scientist or small group can obtain. In the large associations, group-think typically can become the usual condition; in such cases, the role of each individual doctoral scientist in the group often devolves into serving only as a highly educated technician, with little need for individual input, creative new ideas, or self-development. Today’s research scientists who work as individual researchers in academia know they have a fragile status in the hyper-competition for research grants, and usually are extremely careful to select a niche project where there is little likelihood of competing with any giant research group; that mistake would be the kiss-of-death. Although the federal granting agencies do currently endeavor to give initial awards for 3 years to many newly-appointed science faculty, they also seem to favor the funding of very large research groups; this is readily understandable, since such awards usually provide these agencies with a much firmer likelihood that the proposed studies will be completed on time, and, the anticipated research results will be found and published (i.e., because the proposed experiments actually have already been completed!).
Inevitably, the former prominence of individual research scientists becomes diminished by any policies favoring the formation and operation of very large research groups. The acknowledged curiosity and creative initiatives of individual researchers have been the main source for new ideas, new concepts, and new directions in science. Basic research is the necessary progenitor of all the advanced technology arising in the modern world. Both the granting agencies and the academic institutions should change their priorities and policies so as to increase and encourage, rather than decrease and discourage, the vital activity of individuals (i.e., young basic scientists) who contribute so importantly to research progress. When basic research is de-emphasized or disfavored, so too is creativity in science also being diminished.
Another negative aspect of the enlarged importance of money for today’s scientific research is the commercialization of experimental studies in modern universities. Commercialism is widely accepted as the primary driver of research and development within industry; currently, it is being extended and expanded into all university research efforts (see my earlier post on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” in the Big Problems category). Basic science thereby is increasingly diminished, and many efforts are being targeted toward some commercial development or industrial goal. That scenario refuses to recognize the proven history that both applied research and engineering developments almost always follow from one or more preceding very basic experimental studies; those basic investigations typically have no practical usage foreseen at the time of their publication. Many detailed examples, ranging from the transistor [e.g., 2] to paternity testing based on DNA technology with the polymerase chain reaction [e.g., 3,4], show that although some highly imaginative or theoretical idea for a new device or process might have stimulated much interest, very important commercial products only arise much later after the initial basic results are modified and developed by many applied research and engineering efforts.
Scientific research at universities now is only a business activity. I have seen this perverse situation in person during my own career experiences, and believe that these problems and issues with money and university profits now have changed the very nature of being an academic scientist. I can only conclude that money today is just about everything for scientific research at modern universities. This new emphasis creates many secondary problems for science progress and puts many roadblocks in the way of individual research scientists. The traditional goal of scientific research is to find more new knowledge, not to acquire more and more money. Counting the number of dollars in research grants cannot be a valid and meaningful measure of the professional status and value of individual faculty scientists. Readers should know that I am certainly not the only scientist to state all these views with dismay (e.g., A. Kuszewski, 2010. What happened to creativity in science? Available on the internet at: http://www.science20.com/print/72577 ).
 National Science Foundation, 2013. About funding. Available on the internet at:
 Mullis, K.B., 1987. Conversation with John Bardeen. Available on the internet at:
 Universal Genetics DNA Testing Laboratory, 2013. Paternity DNA test. Available on the
internet at: http://www.dnatestingforpaternity.com/paternity-test.html .
 Ingenetix, 2013. Paternity testing. Available on the internet at:
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