Today, the effort to acquire more research grant funding is first and foremost for university science faculty. This daily struggle goes way beyond the normal useful level of competition, and thus must be termed a hyper-competition. Hyper-competition is vicious because: (1) every research scientist competes against every other scientist for grant funding, (2) an increasing number of academic scientists now are trying to acquire a second or third research grant, (3) absolutely everything in an academic science career now depends upon success in getting a research grant and having that renewed, (4) the multiple penalties for not getting a grant renewal (i.e., loss of laboratory, loss of lab staff, additional teaching assignments, decreased salary, reduced reputation, inability to gain tenured status) often are enough to either kill or greatly change a science faculty career in universities, and, (5) this activity today takes up more time for each faculty scientist than is used to actually work on experiments in their laboratory.
This system of hyper-competition for research grant awards commonly causes destructive effects. I previously have touched on some aspects of hyper-competition within previous articles. In this essay, I try to bring together all parts of this infernal problem so that everyone will be able to clearly perceive its causation and its bad consequences for science, research, and scientists.
How did the hyper-competition for research grants get started?
Hyper-competition first grew and increased as a successful response to the declining inflow of money into universities during recent decades (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Three Money Cycles Support Scientific Research”). The governmental agencies offering grants to support scientific research projects always have tried to encourage participation by more scientists in their support programs, and so were happy to see the resultant increase in the number of applications develop. Hyper-competition continues to grow today from the misguided policies of both universities and the several different federal granting agencies.
Who likes this hyper-competition for research grants?
Universities certainly love hyper-competition because this provides them with more profits. They encourage and try to facilitate its operation in order to obtain even greater profits from their business. Additionally, universities now measure their own level of academic success by counting the size of external research funding received via their employed science faculty.
Federal research grant agencies like this hyper-competition because it increases their regulatory power, facilitates their ability to influence or determine the direction of research, and enhances their importance in science.
Faculty scientists are drawn into this hyper-competition as soon as they find an academic job and receive an initial research grant award. They then are trapped within this system, because their whole subsequent career depends on continued success with getting research grant(s) renewed. Although funded scientists certainly like having research grant(s) and working on experimental research, I know that many university scientists privately are very critical of this problematic situation.
What is causing increases in the level of hyper-competition?
The hyper-competition for research grants, and the resulting great pressure on university scientists, are increased by all of the following activities and conditions.
(1) The number of applications rises due to several different situations: more new Ph.D.s are graduated every year; many foreign doctoral scientists immigrate to the USA each year to pursue their research career here; universities encourage their successful science faculty to acquire multiple grant awards; the faculty are eager to get several research grant awards in order to obtain security in case one of their grants will not be renewed; and, the research grant system is set up to make research support awards for relatively short periods of time, thereby increasing the number of applications submitted for renewed support in each 10 year period.
(2) Hard-money faculty salaries increasingly depend upon the amount of money brought in by research grant awards, and the best way to increase that number is to acquire additional grants.
(3) The number of regular science faculty with soft-money salaries is rising. Since only very few awards will support 100% of the soft-money salary level, this situation necessitates acquiring several different research grants.
(4) Professional status as a member of the science faculty and as a university researcher now depends mainly on how many dollars are acquired from research grant awards. The more, the merrier!
(5) Academic status and reputation of departments and universities now depends mainly on how many dollars are acquired from research grant awards. The more, the merrier!
(6) In periods with decreased economic activity, appropriations of tax money sent to federal granting agencies tend to either decrease or stop increasing. This means that more applicants must compete for fewer available dollars. In turn, this results in a greater number of worthy awardees receiving only partial funding for their research project; the main way out of this frustrating situation is to apply for and win additional research grants.
What effects are produced by the hyper-competition for research grant awards?
It might be thought that greater competition amongst scientists would have the good effect of increasing the quality and significance of new experimental findings, since the scientists succeeding with this system should be better at research. That proposition is theoretically possible, but is countered by all the bad effects produced by this system (see below). I believe the funding success of some scientists only shows that they are better at business, rather than being better at science. I know of no good effects coming from the hyper-competition for research grant awards.
Several different bad effects of hyper-competition on science and research now can be identified as coming from the intense and extensive struggle to win research grant awards.
(1) Science becomes distorted and even perverted. Science and research at academic institutions now are business activities. The chief purpose of hiring university scientists now is to make more financial profits for their employer (see my early article in the Scientists category on “What’s the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?”); finding new knowledge and uncovering the truth via research are only the means towards that end.
(2) The integrity of science is subverted by the hyper-competition for research grants. The consequences of losing research funding are so great that it is very understandable that more and more scientists now eagerly trying to obtain a research grant award become willing to peek sideways, instead of looking straight ahead (see my earlier article in the Big Problems category on “Why would any Scientist ever Cheat?”). There are an increasing number of recent cases known where corruption and cheating arose specifically as a response to the enormous pressures generated on faculty by the hyper-competition for research grant awards (see my article in the Big Problems category on “Important Article by Daniel Cressey in 2013 Nature: “ ‘Rehab’ helps Errant Researchers Return to the Lab”).
(3) Seeking research grant awards now takes up much too much time for research scientists employed at universities. This occupies even more faculty time than is used to conduct research experiments in their lab (see my article in the Scientists category on “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists so very Hectic?”)!
(4) Because the present research grant system is defective, the identity of successful scientists has changed and degenerated such that several very unpleasant questions now must be asked (e.g., Is the individual champion scientist with the most dollars from research grant awards primarily a businessperson or a research scientist? Should graduate students in science now also be required to take courses in business administration? What happens if someone is a very good researcher, but has no skills or interests in finances and business? Could some scientist be a superstar with getting research grant awards, but almost be a loser with doing experimental research?).
(5) If ethical misbehavior becomes more common because it is stimulated by hyper-competition , then could “minor cheating in science” become “the new normal”? Integrity is essential for research scientists, but the number of miscreants seems to be increasing.
(6) Inevitably, younger science faculty working in this environment with hyper-competition start asking themselves, “Is this really what I wanted to do when I worked to become a professional scientist?” The increasing demoralization of university science faculty is growing to become quite extensive.
Grantspersonship refers to a strong drive in scientists to obtain more research grant awards by using whatever it takes to become successful in accomplishing this goal (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Why is ‘Grantspersonship’ a False Idol for Research Scientists, and Why is it Bad for Science?”). Grantspersonship and hyper-competition both are large drivers of finances at universities. The Research Grant Cycle is based on the simple fact that more grant awards mean greater profits to universities (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Three Money Cycles Support Scientific Research”). The hyper-competition in The Research Grant Cycle is very pernicious, since the primary goal of research scientists becomes to get the money, with doing good research being strictly of secondary importance. Grantspersonship sidetracks good science and good scientists.
What do the effects of hyper-competition lead to?
All the effects of the current hyper-competition for research grant awards are bad and primarily mean that: (1) science at universities is just another business; (2) the goal of scientific research has changed from finding new knowledge and valid truths, into acquiring more money; (3) the best scientist and the best university now are identified as that one which has the largest pile of money; (4) corruption and dishonesty in science are being actively caused and encouraged by the misguided policies of universities and the research grant agencies; and, (5) researchers now are being forced to waste very much time with non-research activities. Hyper-competition thus results in more business and less science, more corruption and less integrity, more wastage of time and money, and, more diversion of science from its true purpose. It is obvious to me that all of these consequences of hyper-competition are very bad for science, bad for research in academia, and, bad for scientists.
Can anything be done to change the present hyper-competition for research grants?
The answer to this obvious question unfortunately seems to be a loud, “No”! The status quo always is hard to change, even when it very obviously is quite defective or counterproductive. Both universities and granting agencies love this hyper-competition for research grant awards, and this destructive system now is very firmly entrenched in modern universities and modern experimental science.
Big changes are needed in the policies of educational institutions and of federal agencies offering research grants. Until masses of faculty scientists and interested non-scientists are willing to stand up and demand these changes, there will only be more hyper-competition, more corruption, more wasted time and money, and, more wasted lives. In other words, science and research will continue to decay.
Hyper-competition for research grant awards in universities now dominates the academic life of all science faculty members doing research. Although it pleases universities and the research grant agencies, this hyper-competition subverts integrity and honesty, changes the goal of scientific research, wastes very much time for faculty scientists, and sidetracks science from its traditional role and importance.
I know that many dedicated scientists on academia accept this perverse condition because they are successful in getting funded and want to stay funded. Winners in the hyper-competition for research grant awards would not dare to ever give a negative opinion about this system, for fear of losing their blessed status. They justify their position by stating that they would never cheat, they are too good at their research to ever be turned down for a grant renewal, and their university employer definitely wants them to continue their good research work. It is sad that many will find out only when it is too late that they are very mistaken and very expendable.
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