Research grants pay for all the many expenses of doing scientific research in universities, and now are the primary focus for faculty scientists. Size and number of grants determines salary level, promotions, amount of assigned laboratory space, teaching duties required, professional status and reputation, and, ability to have graduate students working in a given lab. Research grants typically are awarded to science faculty for 3-5 years; grant renewals are not always successful, or can be funded only partially. Without continuing to acquire and maintain this external funding, it is basically impossible to be employed or doing research as a university scientist in the United States.
This condition causes many secondary problems, all of which impede research progress. In my opinion, the very worst of these is the hyper-competition for research grants (see: “All About Today’s Hyper-competition for Research Grants” ). Every scientist is competing with every other scientist for an award from a limited pool of money. For university scientists, this activity consumes giant amounts of time that would and should be spent on research experiments, burns up large amounts of personal energy, distorts emotions and disturbs sleep, causes and encourages dishonesty, and, is very frustrating whenever applications are not successful. I previously discussed how all this causes so many university scientists to be dissatisfied with their career (see: “Why are University Scientists Increasingly Upset with their Job? Part I” , and, “Part II” ).
This essay gives questions about the present research grant system that usually are not asked, and my best answers to them no matter how disturbing that might be. I have phrased these questions just as they would be given by non-scientist readers of this website. Everyone should know that I have reviewed grant applications as a member of several special review panels, held several research grants (for which I am very thankful!), and, also had several of my applications rejected. Hence, my responses to these questions are based upon my own personal experiences as a faculty scientist.
Maybe the hyper-competition actually is good! Isn’t it true that the very best research scientists always will be funded?
Not always! Sometimes the “best research scientists” also get rejected, or are only partially funded; despite their status, they can get careless, arrogant, or too aged. Nevertheless, leading scientists are favored to stay funded because they understand exactly how the grant system works, and have easier interactions with officials at the granting agencies. In my opinion, only indirect correlations exist between success in acquiring very many research dollars, and production of many breakthrough research results. Excelling in either one says little about results in the other.
Do scientists doing very good research always get funded?
Not always! Getting a grant or a renewal always is chancy and never is certain, since this decision involves strategy, governmental budgets, contacts with officials at the granting agencies, which side of the bed reviewers get up from, and many other non-science factors. Young scientists spend very many years with their research training and early work as a member of some science faculty, but then can be abruptly discharged for having trouble or failing at this business task; remember that these scientists are trained to be researchers, and are not graduates of a business school!
Don’t university scientists mainly need to get good research publications?
The main job of university scientists today is no longer to get good publications, but rather is to acquire more research grant funds! I doubt that science graduate students ever intend to work for over a decade to become a faculty scientist just so they can spend their professional life chasing money (see: “What is the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?” ). But, that is exactly what the hyper-competition forces them to do! For most researchers, the hyper-competition for grants in universities badly distorts what it means to be a scientist; hence, I believe it is very bad for science.
Aren’t scientists trained about how to deal with this research grant problem when they were graduate students or postdocs?
There certainly are no organized sessions or courses in finance, commerce, or business given to graduate students in science, even though university science now certainly is a big business (see: “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” .
Isn’t there some way faculty scientists can avoid this situation?
Yes indeed, but it ain’t so easy! Switching to a research job in industry or to a non-research job outside universities will resolve this problem situation. The main way university scientists try to preclude this problem is to acquire 2 (or more!) research grants; then, if one award later is not renewed, the other one then will keep the faculty scientist’s career intact. Of course, this strategy of seeking to acquire multiple research grants has its own costs and directly serves to make the hyper-competition even more intense.
Why not simply require all faculty scientists to get 2 research grants?
This idea ignores the fact that running a productive research lab in academia takes up a huge bunch of precious time. Faculty scientists with 2 research grants usually become so short of time that they must switch gears so as to function as a research manager, rather than continue as a research scientist. Some managers even reserve one half-day per week where they are not to be interrupted for any reason by anyone while they work in their own lab. Another fact to be recognized is that most university scientists today do not ever hold 2 concurrent research grants.
Isn’t there counselling and help given to faculty members who lose their grant?
At some universities this now is done, thank goodness! However, at many others, the affected professionals must try to get funded again all by themselves. It is a sign of the vicious nature of the hyper-competition for research grants that any scientists who try to help a fellow faculty colleague (i.e., a competitor) necessarily are also hurting themselves.
Cannot some research experiments be done without a grant?
This could be done, but it is not permitted! Upon rejection of an application for renewal, faculty scientists soon lose their assigned laboratory space, thus precluding any more experiments; at some institutions, each then is viewed as a “loser” and is suspected of being a “failed scientist”. I consider this system of “feast or famine” to be horribly ridiculous; nevertheless, it does show loud and clear what is the true end of scientific research in modern universities (see: “What is the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?”).
Is there some other way to support science without causing such difficult problems?
This is theoretically possible, but in practice it is nearly impossible because the present research grant system is so deeply entrenched. There is a very large activation barrier to making any changes since universities and leaders at the granting agencies both are very happy with the status quo (i.e., universities get good profits from the research grants of their science faculty, and research grant agencies receive an increasing number of applications for financial support). Although this question is discussed in private by university scientists, I am not aware of any open general discussions about trying out some alternative approaches to support research activities in science.
If the research grant system really is so troubled and has such awful effects, why don’t all the university scientists protest?
Every university scientist holding a research grant knows better than to complain about being a slave in the modern research grant system, because they want to continue being funded. As the saying goes, “Do not bite the hand that feeds you”!
My comments and conclusions.
I see the present problems with the research grant system as being very unfortunate for science. The current situation has bad effects on research progress and clearly is very vicious to some scientists. This system is strongly supported by both all universities and the granting agencies. Any proposals to make any changes will be strongly opposed by all the beneficiaries of this system, including funded scientists working at universities.
My main conclusions are that (1) business and money now rule science, and (2) everything about scientific research at universities now is money (see: “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” , and, “3 Money Cycles Support Scientific Research” ). I certainly am not the only one to reach these conclusions (i.e., search for “money in science” on any internet browser, and you will see what I mean!).
Quality of experimental research, creative ideas for experiments, derivation of innovative concepts, and working hard with a difficult project are no longer very important. All that matters now is to get the money! All these negatives form a strong basis for why I regretfully believe that science now is dying (see: “Could Science and Research Now be Dying?” ).
GO BACK TO HOME PAGE OR SCROLL UP TO MENU
UNDER THE WEBSITE TITLE