Monthly Archives: April 2014

WHY IS “GRANTSPERSONSHIP” A FALSE IDOL FOR RESEARCH SCIENTISTS, AND WHY IS IT BAD FOR SCIENCE?

 

Grantsperonship in 2014!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Grantspersonship in 2014!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

            With research grants now being so all-important for university science faculty conducting experimental research, skills and good tactics with acquiring these awards have become especially valued.  For getting research grant awards, there can be no question that some doctoral scientists are very much more successful than many others.  The reasons why and how some are more successful are hard to pin down, but it is commonly said that they have more or better understanding about exactly how the research grant system works.  Grantspersonship, formerly referred to as grantsmanship or grantswomanship, is the use of applied psychology, business skills, cleverness, manipulations, sophistry, unconventional approaches, and whatever-it-takes to win a research grant award.  Tactics for acquiring research grant awards are not explicitly taught during the graduate school education of most professional scientists; instead, they are learned and incorporated by the emulation of those having more successful results in dealing with the current research grant system. 

            I have already introduced the hyper-competition by university scientists for research grants (see earlier article in the Scientists category on “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?”).  In the present condition, grants are everything, everyone is competing with everyone else, and failure to get a new grant or a renewal easily can be the kiss-of-death for university scientists.  Far too many modern faculty scientists have had personal experience with having their research grant applications being turned down or receiving evaluation scores such that they only will receive awards for partial funding.  Many grant-supported university scientists now are trying hard to get a second research grant, in order to (1) obtain additional laboratory space, (2) undertake an additional research project, (3) receive some security in case their first research project does not receive a renewal award, and (4) increase their status and salary.  Of course, these efforts also greatly increase the hyper-competition.  The time and emotional effort needed for this infernal hyper-competition is enormous and detracts from the ability of any scientist to personally conduct research experiments in their lab (see my earlier article in the Scientists category on “What’s the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?”).  Accordingly, very many university faculty scientists indeed would love to obtain more success by increasing their level of grantspersonship. 

            Using grantspersonship to become more successful seems justified to many scientists at modern universities, since obtaining research grant awards is so very important for their career.  Increasing one’s grantspersonship indeed can produce more funding success, but also readily results in several bad effects.  At its worst, some scientists engage in corrupt and unethical practices (see my recent article in the Big Problems category on “Why is it so Very Hard to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?”).  Even if remaining completely honest, researchers using grantspersonship become sidetracked from their aims in being a scientist. 

             Applications for research grants should be judged on the basis of objective evaluations for merit (i.e., having the best approach to answer an important research question and/or more effectively investigate a needed topic), capabilities of the scientist (i.e., adequate background and previous experience, a record of producing important  publications, availability of the necessary facilities and required policies, etc.), compatibility with program objectives of the granting agency, good performance with previous awards, etc.  The use of grantspersonship subverts these traditional criteria, and substitutes inappropriate, irrelevant, and subjective considerations into the evaluation of applications for funding (e.g., association with a given institution, ethnicity, personal friendships, personal interactions with agency officials, professional relationships, professional status, publications in a certain journal, etc.).  All of this subversion of objective evaluations is bad for science. 

 What makes Grantspersonship Wrong?  How does Grantspersonship have Negative Effects on Science? 

            Although grantspersonship appears to be universally accepted today, few have ever examined what are its effects upon scientific research.  The concept of grantspersonship commonly is seen as the application of business skills to science; it deals with obtaining money, and has only an indirect connection to the production of good research.  There is no obvious reason to think that either most very acclaimed great research scientists could simultaneously also be outstandingly adept businesspersons, or, that the presidents of giant multinational corporations could also win a Nobel Prize for their lab research studies.  Business is fundamentally different from scientific research!  The business world previously has given more emphasis than does science to commercialism, contracts, monetary rewards, personal deals, semi-legal actions and outright deception, trading of favors, etc.; these characteristics are not traditionally prominent in the world of science.  Both business and science are useful and needed by society, but they are not the same and they are not interchangeable! 

            Most university scientists see grantspersonship as a means to the end of getting a research grant award.  Anything that will improve the chance for success is viewed as being good and acceptable.  If that really is true, then it logically follows that a new breed of non-scientist grant writers will arise and have many customers; in fact, there already are some of these new commercial offerings already.  Such “editorial grant advisors” officially will be paid to improve or rework any application so as to be more fundable; some also will be able to write an entire research grant application using only minimal input from the scientist submitting the application.  Editorial grant advisors undoubtedly will have a commercial contract with their numerous customers, and might even guarantee at least a certain priority ranking.  Of course, it will be highly unlikely that expert reviewers for the granting agencies can recognize this dual authorship when that is not stated on the application form; some applicants will maintain that they alone are the true author since they must supervise and approve of anything composed by the advisors.  Many scientists, including myself, will consider such dual authorship to be unethical; on the other hand, the concept of grantspersonship will fully accept this subterfuge. 

            What makes grantspersonship wrong?  Grantspersonship is wrong because it has bad effects on science, and on the objective evaluation of research grant applications.  In particular, the concept of grantspersonship: (1) implies that research capabilities mainly relate to construction of a grant application; (2) means that good business skills are somehow equivalent to scientific expertise, even though there is no obvious evidence for that view; this falsity is evidenced by the fact that some pre-eminent Nobel Laureate scientists have had enormous difficulties with business aspects in the modern research grant system (see my earlier article in the Scientists category on “What’s the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?”); (3) confuses and subverts the objective evaluation of grant applications, because it is unknown what comes from the applicant and what comes from some extraneous co-author;  (4) sidetracks the essential goal of science (i.e., to find or critically study the truth) and substitutes that with the target of getting research grant funds; in other words, the real goal becomes to get the money, rather than to uncover new knowledge; and, (5) counters integrity of scientific research by making the goal be obtaining a grant award, rather than discovering important new knowledge through experimental investigations. 

Concluding Remarks

            From all the foregoing, I conclude that grantspersonship is a false idol for modern scientists doing research, andhas bad effects upon science.  The true aim of scientific research is not the acquisition of money! 

            The only way I can see to remove this anti-science mess is (1) to get the granting agencies to adopt much more rigorous standards for objectivity in reviewing research grant applications, and (2) to get the universities to either stop or greatly diminish the hyper-competition for research grant awards, since that underlies the current flourishing of grantspersonship.  Regretfully, both of these needed changes seem very unlikely to be instituted. 

            Whenever I get depressed at realizing that there now is an overwhelming desire for more grantspersonship amongst university scientists, I always begin laughing because I start wondering which will be the very first university to hire some modern Jesse James (i.e., an outlaw and notorious USA bank robber from the second half of the 1800’s) as the newest member of their science faculty, since he would bring much more money into the university than any grant-supported scientist could do!

 

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ALL ABOUT POSTDOCS, PART II: WHAT SHOULD YOU WORK ON AND LEARN AS A POSTDOC?

Bright  and  Eager  Young  Postdoc  in  2014!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Bright  and  Eager  Young  Postdoc  in  2014!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            This second part of a pair of articles about Postdocs is intended specifically for graduate students and current Postdocs.  It presents useful advice and information about how to be a successful Postdoc and how to maximize your rewards for doing lots of good research work.  This part differs enormously from the introductory first part, which is intended to be informative and interesting to general readers (see “All About Postdocs, Part I: What are Postdocs, and What do they Do?” in the Basic Introductions category). 

 Quite a few practicing scientists working in universities or industries will readily admit that their earlier time as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow was amazingly important for their career, and actually was very much fun (see my recent article in the Scientists category on “What is the Fun of Being a Scientist?”)!  Any Postdoc must work very hard, but this effort will be recognized later as having been a sublime chance to do really good research, because there were not yet any of the usual job worries about grants, teaching responsibilities, or bureaucratic intrusions. 

 How Do You Decide What to Work on as a Postdoc? 

 A very big question for graduate students finishing their thesis project involves asking themselves who they should work with as a Postdoc, in order to become an expert researcher in some field of special interest?  In turn, new Postdocs ask themselves a corresponding question, about exactly what they should work on?  Both questions are important, and really are the same in the practical sense.  Ideally, graduate students should find their new home as a Postdoc according to what kind of scientist they want to become; similarly, Postdocs should work on some research project which has their personal interest and will prepare them to become a professional expert researcher in that area of science.  The reason these 2 questions are equivalent is that all research activity in modern universities is determined by research grant awards (see my earlier article in the Money & Grants category on “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities”).  Hence, postdoctoral research opportunities directly depend on the research plans approved and funded by those grant(s) held by the Postdoctoral Mentor; this successful scientist often is famous, and will be your teacher, supervisor, supporter, and guide during your period of postdoctoral work.  The Mentor’s obligations to their research grant(s) automatically either define or circumscribe what any new Postdoc in their lab can work on. 

             The Mentor might even explicitly assign a research topic to their new Postdoc, along with indications about which methodologies will be used.  The extreme example of this scenario is where some extremely famous and very long-funded senior scientist greets their new Postdoc and then goes over to a giant map displayed upon a wall; together, they look at the large branching tree-like diagram where an entire lifetime of connected research studies is depicted, along with the names of previous graduate students and Postdocs who have worked on each of the many small branches.  The supervisor then informs the Postdoc which of the next steps is their assignment.  At the other extreme, a Mentor might give the new Postdoc vastly more freedom, and state that anything is okay so long as their new lab investigations are within the scope of the Mentor’s research grant; of course, the Postdoc’s designs for new experiments should be submitted for review and criticism by this Mentor before anything begins at the laboratory bench.  Most new Postdocs will find their situation to be somewhere between these 2 extremes.  It is best not to get emotional about any restrictions or mandates, since a large part of the goal for all Postdocs is to learn many new and different research approaches; even any directed work will fulfill this goal nicely.  

 Graduate students should recognize that advertisements (e.g., in each issue of the journals,  Science and Nature) inviting applications for open postdoctoral positions almost always state a particular research subject or domain, meaning that there will not be any completely open choice for what will be investigated.  As an example of this situation, assume that you are a new Postdoc coming to work with a Professor in a Department of Materials Science.  This Mentor is a well-known expert on dynamical aspects of self-ordering chemical polymers, and has a research grant involving experimental studies of one class of organic polymers.  It would be extremely unlikely that this Postdoctoral Mentor would or even could let you concentrate of working with either inorganic polymers or organic crystallography.  However, this same Mentor might acquiesce to your having a small (5-10% effort) exploratory project in those areas, provided that such will be done in addition to your large (90-95% effort) main project dealing with self-ordering organic chemical polymers; the rationale for accepting this new aspect would be that the additional exploration could serve to expand the capabilities of the lab’s research operations and the scope of a future grant application.  Despite any anxiety about priorities, Postdocs should never hesitate to discuss their ideas for new experiments with their Mentor; this will produce useful criticism from the Mentor’s longer experience.  Postdoctoral Mentors are your research partners, and almost always are eager to discuss new ideas and science questions from their postdoctoral associates. 

             In general, it is a good idea for Postdocs to work on several projects and to also participate in some joint effort(s) with other researchers in the same lab.  This will make the Postdoctoral Fellow more valuable, and provide them with more publications.  Regardless of what you work on, it is important to start realizing that the clock is always ticking, and you are expected to produce good publications and abstracts from the beginning of your postdoctoral period.  Presenting an abstract about your thesis research at a science meeting will be okay only if you also give a second abstract about recent results from your postdoctoral project. 

 What is Expected of All Postdocs?  What should Postdocs Actually Learn?    

             Young scientists can think of the postdoctoral experience as a chance to show what they can do in the research laboratory, and, as an opportunity to learn how to do much, much more.  All Postdoctoral Fellows need to produce good research results of publishable quality from their hands-on experimental investigations.  Postdocs must dive right in and produce good results within their first year of work.  This means that there are very different time limits than were present during the period of graduate studies leading to a doctoral degree (i.e., many graduate schools set a time limit of 7-10 years for a thesis to be completed and defended successfully).  The message here is that since Postdocs have to produce publishable results, there is no time to waste any time! 

            Postdocs can not push things into the future (e.g., “I want to learn this new method, but I do not have enough free time to do that now”).  Instead, they simply must accomplish that and do it right away.  It is a very poor idea to take up postdoctoral time to finish publishing their Ph.D. thesis research; some Mentors even will refuse to accept any recent graduate for work as a Postdoc in their lab unless that person already has finished publishing their thesis results.  Thus, the work and time schedules of Postdocs typically are very much more intense than was the case for their thesis research in graduate school. 

 In addition to enlarging their expertise with new kinds of lab experiments, Postdocs should also seek to learn many other important new skills.  In science, these will include large expansions of knowledge, research capabilities, problem solving, critical judgment about experiments and data interpretations, and the organization of scientific investigations.  Postdocs also will learn much outside the laboratory, including how to construct applications for research grants, criticize the published output of both other scientists and themselves, deal with business and regulations, handle the resolution of problems and disputes, and, manage time and money.  Some of this will be accomplished simply by doing and observing, but other aspects necessitate requesting time with the Mentor for personal instruction.  Various philosophical and practical issues for being a successful modern scientist commonly are encountered by Postdocs; these include how to avoid wasting time or money, be able to say either “No!” or “No thank you”, correctly evaluate priorities and decide what is possible now and what should be put off until later, evaluate and judge the output and capabilities of other lab workers, learn the importance of always adhering to professional ethical standards (see my earlier article in the Big Problems category on “Why is it so Very Difficult to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?”), plan ahead for hours, days, weeks, months, and years, etc., etc.

How are Postdocs Evaluated? 

Evaluation of the quality, progress, and success of Postdoctoral Fellows traditionally is done by scoring the number and importance of their research publications, and, by inspecting where they are able to later find employment.  Being a good Postdoc will be a big help for you in both aspects, and later will aid you in meriting research grant awards.  The Postdoctoral Mentor also benefits notably from your level of success with researching and publishing. 

Graduate students are not always clear about the differences between their graduate thesis research and their postdoctoral work.  There are major differences in the number of experimental studies conducted, the number of other lab personnel working with you, the types of research instruments and experimental approaches utilized, and, the speed with which progress must advance.  Here, I will limit myself to explaining the key paradigm of “promise versus performance”, when used as a yardstick.   A typical doctoral graduate in science has acquired basic knowledge, some advanced skills, a thesis, and some small number of research publications.  Most of this initial performance (i.e., What has this student already done?) barely registers in the domain of promise (i.e., What can this young scientist do in the future?).  During the subsequent postdoctoral period, the young professional develops more and more performance through their new research findings, new publications, new advanced skills, new levels of expertise, and a growing reputation as a researcher; as a consequence of that, their promise also increases dramatically during the postdoctoral period.  When Postdocs later will be considered for their first real job position, they often are viewed as having advanced to reach a level of around 25% performance and 75% promise.  In universities, after new faculty appointees have acquired research grants, achieved more good publications, shown that they are successful in teaching courses, and given evidence of their good independent judgment, their reputation and status will advance so they are valued about equally for both performance and promise (i.e., continued success in the future).  The chief message here is that the postdoctoral period should produce large increases in both performance and promise. 

Working with Your Postdoctoral Mentor

             For all Postdocs, the Postdoctoral Mentor is your teacher, supervisor, and coworker.  The main job of a Postdoctoral Mentor is to guide you to become a successful professional scientist.  Ideally, this Mentor will be a scientist who has your admiration, conducts studies that fascinate you, always impresses you by their expertise, is someone with whom you can communicate well, and serves as a model for exactly what kind of professional scientist you would like to become.  The Mentor even can become your friend!  Picking a good Postdoctoral Mentor thus has several big consequences for your career in science.  The choice of a Mentor often is finalized in coordination with your selection of where you will work as a Postdoc and afterwards (i.e., industry or university, research institute or hospital, domestic or international location, big or small institution, large or small lab, etc.). 

Both your thesis advisor and your Postdoctoral Mentor play important roles for your future life as a scientist, and both deserve your respect and gratitude for their efforts on your behalf.  Both can serve as your main role model for being a professional scientist.  But, they also have some significant differences.  The thesis advisor typically regards you as a student colleague, while the postdoctoral mentor looks at you as a collaborator and coworker for their research project(s).  Hence, the latter often interacts with you in a more flexible way than is the case with the former.  You will not often openly disagree with your thesis advisor, but it usually is much easier to disagree and challenge your Postdoctoral Mentor.  This becomes particularly important when you are discussing exactly what experiments to work on and how to conduct them; there can be much more give and take with your Mentor as your co-worker in research.

Concluding Remarks for GraduateStudents and Present Postdocs

Developing your professional reputation as a researcher in science often depends mainly upon what you have done as a Postdoc.   Regardless of what area you work in, your job as a Postdoctoral Fellow is to become an expert scientist, to produce excellent research results, and, to publish important research reports.  For many successful professional scientists, the postdoctoral experience is seen many years later as one of the most creative and productive portions of their entire career. 

Make the best of your research work and time as a Postdoc!  Dr.M wishes you much good luck with everything!

 

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ALL ABOUT POSTDOCS, PART I: WHAT ARE POSTDOCS, AND WHAT DO THEY DO?

 Bright and Eager Postdoc in 2014!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Bright  and  Eager  Young  Postdoc  in  2014!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

What in the world is a “Postdoc” in the arena of science?  Why do most new science Ph.D.’s spend at least one additional year as a Postdoctoral Fellow?  What do Postdocs work on?  What do Postdocs get for their efforts? How are Postdocs important for scientific research?  Most people in the general public have no idea about answers to these questions!  This article is the first of a pair about Postdocs.  All in Part I is intended for general readers who are not scientists, but who have curiosity about scientific research and wonder how it is accomplished; it will  inform you about the why’s and wherefore’s of being a Postdoc.  The subsequent Part II will not have interest for general readers, and is specifically aimed at advising graduate students and current Postdocs. 

What are Postdocs?  Why are 2-8 Years in Graduate School Not Sufficient to Make a Scientist? 

             Postdocs officially are Postdoctoral Research Fellows. They aim to become much more experienced, independent, knowledgeable, skillful, and versatile than are the raw products of any graduate school program.  As nascent research scientists, Postdocs work (e.g., 1-4 years) to greatly expand their understanding and insight in experimental science, broaden their research skills, increase their research publications, advance their reputation as a productive researcher, and, mature into independent professional scientific investigators. 

             Why would any new doctorate in science need to get this advanced training and additional experience in scientific research?  The basic answer is that a new science Ph.D. mostly has knowledge only in one subject area, and practical experience with only a small number of research approaches.  The training acquired during coursework and the laboratory experiments that served as the basis for a Ph.D. simply are just a foundation that is not sufficient to make the young researcher qualified for university employment as a faculty scientist.  New graduates need to go far beyond what their graduate school training and experience provided.  They need to greatly widen their experience, deepen their expertise, and more firmly establish their professional identity, before they are qualified to find employment as a professional scientist.  To do that, Postdocs work with new kinds of research instrumentation, new research systems, and new research questions.  They also learn much about being a professional scientist and dealing with all the non-science problems that will arise during their later career.  Postdocs thus work to become fully-fledged independent professional scientists.  Postdocs do not receive any certificate or diploma for successfully completing their efforts; instead, they obtain confidence that their new high-quality research publications and advanced know-how will be a big help in finally finding a good job as a scientist and researcher. 

             Readers who are not scientists might better understand the purpose of the postdoctoral period if they will view it as being analogous to the advanced training of a professional chef.  Being able to make a mousse dessert or cook a stuffed goose is not enough to be a master chef.  To achieve that rank, they must work in a number of different apprenticeship positions before finally having enough of both specialized culinary knowledge and on-the-job experience to become a head chef, and later a restaurant owner.  For hiring new university faculty in science, the postdoctoral experience is essential.  For hiring at industrial research and development centers, there is a less rigorous demand for postdoctoral training, particularly because these employers generally have an extended and highly specialized training program for all their newly hired scientists; that program can be considered as being equivalent to a mini-postdoctoral experience.    

 What Do Postdocs Actually Do? 

             Being a Postdoc almost always is a particularly exciting time.  It involves intense learning, development of skillful expertise in hands-on experimental investigations, maturing of critical judgment and ability to organize efficient research efforts, and, establishing one’s identity and reputation as a professional research scientist.  Each year, hard-working Postdocs analyze their new data and then publish their research results, give presentations at a national or international science meeting, and ponder exactly what sort of job they will seek later.  Postdocs must dive right in and try to produce good publications with important new research results within their first year of work.  Thus, the work and time schedules of Postdocs are much more intense than was the case during their years of graduate school studies. 

             In addition to their laboratory experiments, Postdocs seek to learn many new skills outside the laboratory.  These include observations and instructions about how to handle rules and regulations, deal with problems of time and money, criticize both their own work and that of other scientists, compose manuscripts, present research reports orally, apply for research grants, and, work in coordination with a team of laboratory co-workers.  In their research investigations, some Postdocs even are given the opportunity to direct the operations of a research technician or graduate student.  All of these instructive situations vastly increase the competence of the Postdoc to deal successfully with future activities and responsibilities arising later in the course of their career. 

             Many research scientists hold more than one postdoctoral position, either by choice or of necessity, before they find a good job in academia, industry, or elsewhere.  Postdoctoral salaries now are at good levels so that this is a realistic proposition; quite a few Postdocs already are married.  In modern times where good jobs are not so plentiful, some scientists even work in postdoctoral positions for over 10 years.  I myself held 2 postdoctoral positions, one in France and the second in the USA; both were unique, exciting, utterly wonderful, and very valuable experiences for me!  

What are Postdoctoral Mentors, and Why are They Important? 

             Not all university scientists have Postdocs in their labs, largely due to their relative lack of success with the research grant system.  The supervisor of Postdocs, denoted as the Postdoctoral Mentor, is a successful research scientist who can offer time, financial support, good research facilities, experienced critical judgment, and professional guidance to their Postdoctoral Fellows.  For the Mentor, Postdocs are a big prize and contribute greatly to the success of the Mentor’s research projects.  The several Postdocs in my own research laboratory all were invaluable for research progress and much fun to work with. 

             The Mentor has a very important role because it is during the postdoctoral period that most scientists solidify their professional identity as a researcher specialized in some particular branch of science (e.g., microbial cell biology, or virology; materials science, or alloy metallurgy; lithium inorganic chemistry, or geological chemistry; astrophysics, or theoretical physics; etc.), and establish their basic reputation as a researcher.  The Postdoctoral Mentor guides the maturation of the new scientist and often serves as a role model for what a Postdoc aims to become.  Both the Postdoctoral Mentor and the thesis advisor certainly deserve some credit for what their younger associates later accomplish in the world of research. 

 How are Postdocs very Valuable for Science? 

             Postdocs have several characteristics as researchers that are different from both graduate students and employed scientists.  Postdocs typically are: (1) semi-independent workers, and so do not need constant supervision; (2) particularly suited for carrying out difficult experiments since they are ambitious, eager, energetic,  and highly motivated; (3) still young and more readily able to adapt unconventional approaches and make improvements to experimental research practices; and, (4) dedicated to completing research projects with efficiency (i.e., on time), so that they can publish their new results and thereby increase their reputation.  These characteristics mean that Postdocs play an important role in grant-supported research, and comprise the next generation of scientific researchers. 

 Concluding Remarks

             In Part I, I have presented the role of Postdocs within modern scientific research, and explained the importance of Postdoctoral Mentors as shapers of future research scientists and leaders.  Those who have never previously heard of Postdoctoral Research Fellows now should be able to understand and appreciate their important role in the research enterprise.  Questions about this topic and article are welcome via the Comments section.  

 

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WASTAGE OF RESEARCH GRANT MONEY IN MODERN UNIVERSITY SCIENCE

 

Wastage of Research Grant Money Should be a No-No !!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Wastage of Research Grant Money Should be a No-No !!      (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

            Money is required to conduct modern scientific research, and plays a very large role in determining exactly what gets done by scientists (see my earlier article in the Basic Introductions  category on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research”).  To construct one new 3-4G synchrotron research facility costs billions of dollars, while a newly-appointed Assistant Professor might need only $150,000 for his or her first research project.  Research grant funds routinely are spent by professional scientists for many different kinds of direct costs and for all indirect costs (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Research Grants: What is Going on with the Indirect Costs of Doing Research?”.  Without money, no experimental scientific research can be conducted in modern universities. 

            All granting agencies carefully review the budgets proposed by applicants for a research grant, and seek to remove any unnecessary or excessive items.  They also have oversight and accounting controls in place to verify which expenses have been paid validly by the awarded grant funds.  Science faculty receiving research grants additionally have university accounting rules and regulations for all expenditures of their grant awards.  Faculty grantees do have the option to request rebudgeting of their awarded funds, so as to deal with unexpected contingencies and operational changes in their research plan; large changes must be approved by the granting agency, while smaller changes are reviewed and either approved or disapproved by the university financial office.  

            Despite all these regulatory mechanisms, some wastage of research grant funds still commonly occurs.  Wastage here is defined as any expenditures that are not required for the direct conduct of the experiments and activities within an approved research project.  This means that anything not bonafide (e.g., far outside the scope of the research project) or not necessary (e.g., purchase of an excessive number of laptop personal computers, travel to attend a dozen science meetings where no presentation is given, etc.) is a misuse of the awarded funds.  Any such expenditure constitutes wastage of the research grant funds. 

 

Different Types of Wastage of Research Grant Funds

 

            For individual grantees at universities, there are at least 5 different major kinds of wastage of research grant awards: (1) unneeded and duplicated ordinary purchases, (2) purchases and expenditures that are made just to use up some unspent awarded funds before a grant period ends, (3) payments for too many measurements and assays to be conducted at external commercial labs, rather than in the home laboratory of the grantee, (4) misuse of research grant awards due to policies of universities, and (5) misuse of research grant awards due to policies of the granting agencies.  Examples for each of these 5 are given below. 

 

            Some duplicated purchases are needed, but others are not so and must be categorized as being excessive.  Most biomedical research labs need to have extra micropipetters as backups for when those in use need to be taken out of service for repair or recalibration; however, there is no need to have several dozen extras.  This type of wastage constitutes an error by the individual scientist (i.e., Principal Investigator, Faculty-Co-Investigator, Collaborator, Lab Manager, etc.). 

 

            It is well-known amongst grant-holders that all awarded funds must be spent before the grant period ends.  Direct banking of any unspent research grant funds beyond the grant duration is not permitted, and there is no encouragement to ever try to save money; it is commonly rumored that unusual individuals who try to return some unspent grant funds to the funding agency have all future proposed budgets significantly reduced in size.  For this reason, it is commonplace for faculty researchers who have somehow underspent their award to buy additional research supplies during the last year of a grant just to use up any remaining funds.  These purchases really represent wastage of the awarded grant funds.   

 

            Small laboratory groups always are tempted to save precious time by purchasing research work from external commercial service labs, thereby permitting their research staff to work on other activities.  Typically, this involves payment to conduct data collection and analysis; the alternative is to train a graduate student or a research technician to conduct the needed operations in the home lab.  It always seems easier to buy something rather than do it in-house, but when a Principal Investigator lets this approach exceed a certain level, it is wasteful of the awarded grant funds. 

 

            Wastage for unnecessary purchases due to university policies can arise from an absence of regulation, as well as from over-regulation.  At some universities, old research equipment, ranging from ovens and chromatographs to microscopes and large centrifuges, is not reassigned and recycled for further use, but is simply dumped onto the refuse docks and picked up by garbage collectors, scrap metal dealers, or passersby.  The absence of official mechanisms for re-use of expensive research equipment that becomes unused, but still works quite well, causes wastage of funds for new purchases (e.g., why pass along a 5-10 year old research instrument belonging to the late Professor Katsam, when new faculty member Smith can use his first research grant award to buy a new one?). 

 

            Another example of university policy-based wastage of grant funds is produced by some of the official rules for laboratory safety.  At many institutions, the purchase and use of very expensive explosion-proof refrigerators in laboratories is required; faculty grantees can need several of these and typically try to buy only the much less expensive ordinary household refrigerators, but are not always allowed to do that.  To whatever extent the special refrigerators are not actually required, this policy causes  unnecessary purchases and represents wastage. 

 

            Newly appointed university science faculty members furnish their laboratory by purchasing brand new research equipment.  It is not unusual that if there are 3 new Assistant Professors in one science department, that all 3 will mostly buy some of the same items.  It is quite unusual that a university will see that much of this duplication is unneeded and wasteful, since these necessities can be provided by establishment of a common service room where each basic item is available for all to use (e.g., a pH meter, a vacuum oven, an ultracold freezer, light microscope, etc.). 

 

            A different type of wastage of research grant funds involves misguided policies of the granting agencies.  These agencies all make extensive efforts to avoid any duplicate funding or overlapping of grant awards, but almost everyone knows of cases where this has happened anyway; there are so many research grants and so many scientists that it is extremely difficult to prevent this type of error and wastage.  As one illustration of the complex nature of this problem, consider the routine formation of a small research group with several other faculty colleagues.  The group project involves conducting 30 different experiments, with each of the 5 group members supervising 6 parts of the entire study; in actuality, some of the 5 work on 2-20 of these experiments, and some technicians work under several different supervisors.  One large research grant is acquired for the group project, and this provides an equal salary contribution for all 5 faculty co-investigators.  Some of these 5 scientists are successful enough to also have merited their own individual research grant(s), supporting projects that are described as being “related, but different” from that in the large grant awarded to the research group.  In this example, it often is extremely difficult to determine exactly who does what, what time and effort are spent by each person on each activity, and, which grant should pay for what.  In this complex situation there is a definite likelihood that some of the research expenses are being supported by more than one grant; any duplicated research support is redundant and unnecessary, and therefore is wastage. 

 

            A second example where policies of a granting agency create waste in their awards involves the fact that research grants often include a salary contribution for the Principal Investigator (e.g., 10-50%).  If doctoral scientists are soft-money appointees, they must get their entire salary (i.e., 100%) from research grants; this is perfectly usual and honest.   On the other hand, if a university scientist has a hard-money appointment (i.e., their full salary is guaranteed by some source, such as a state government), then any salary contribution by their research grant is unnecessary, makes no sense to me, and should be considered as being wastage.  In that situation, the funding agency in effect returns some of the guaranteed salary to the source or to the university; for universities, this transfer or refund can result in all sorts of manipulations involving provision of salary bonuses, raises, and semi-unrestricted private accounts. 

 

How Much Research Grant Money is Wasted? 

 

            The wastage problems described above initially might seem to be only minor in size and importance, and could even be thought to be somewhat unavoidable.  Many readers then will wonder exactly how much money is being wasted?  Since there are no official figures to cite, let us make estimates by considering the following simple and minimal theoretical examples.  If the amount of research grant money wasted by any one faculty scientist is given as $500/year, then to obtain the national figure this must be multiplied by the many thousands of scientists doing grant-supported research studies.  If the amount of grant funds wasted by any one university science department is given as only $5,000/year, then to get the national total this must be multiplied by the number of science departments at each university.  In addition, we can look at the minimal $15,000 spent by each new faculty appointee setting up their new laboratory; this figure must be multiplied first by all the many new science faculty appointees each year, and then by the number of years being considered.  From  these simple estimates, it is obvious that many millions of research grant dollars could be wasted each and every year.  The total amount of research grant dollars wasted must be described as being “substantial”!

 

Why does Wastage of Research Grant Funds Matter? 

 

            Any misuse and wastage of research grant awards necessarily represents taxpayer money that was misspent.  Due to the limited amount of dollars available for supporting scientific research via grants, too many faculty scientists with worthy projects now can receive only partial funding or no funding at all.  If the substantial amount of dollars in research grants now being wasted would be added to the pool of available funds, then (1) more scientists could get funded fully, and (2) more scientists could be able to have their approved projects funded.  This change will result in more research and better research being done, thereby benefitting all of us. 

 

            To stop this wastage or at least greatly decrease the amount of wastage of research grant funds, changes must be activated in 3 quite separate locations: (1) funded faculty scientists on hard-money salaries, (2) the universities, and (3) the granting agencies.  Like any other attempts to change the status quo, the several parties benefitting from the current substantial wastage of research grant funds will oppose any changes.  Nevertheless, I do not doubt that increased efforts both by scientists and by the public will be able to make these needed changes into a reality. 

 

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