Tag Archives: Research grants

RESEARCH GRANTS CAUSE BOTH JOY AND DESPAIR FOR UNIVERSITY SCIENTISTS! 

 

The Yin and Yang of Research Grants in 2016! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
The Yin and Yang of Research Grants in 2016!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)

The public often forgets that scientists are people, too!  Your neighbor that you never say more than a “hello” to might even be a scientist!  Most readers have no idea what emotions arise in professional scientists working on research at modern universities.  So that you will learn more about scientists as people, this article looks at the strong emotions commonly caused by the research grant system.

Introduction! 

Officially, research grants pay for all the many different expenses of conducting experiments, and thus provide the essential financial sponsorship all scientists at universities need to obtain in order to (1) conduct research, and (2) keep their employment.  Without a grant, university scientists lose their laboratory, have their salary lowered, reduce their status, and are not promoted.  Research grants now are the difference between life and death for a faculty scientist’s career!  When scientists at universities cannot renew their research grant(s), this typically causes a career crisis that can necessitate either a major shift in job activities (e.g., into full-time teaching and/or administration) or relocation to a new employment.  Getting and maintaining research grants is the very largest goal for any faculty scientist; that target now far overshadows making breakthrough discoveries, publishing in the very best journals, and receiving a prize for meritorious teaching.

Feeling the rewards and problems of funding science with research grants! 

Receipt of official notice that a research grant application will be funded causes great joy and excitement for any faculty scientist.  All of a sudden, the 6-24 months of planning, writing, and revising the proposal seem worthwhile, rather than being burdensome and wearying!  Graduate students and research technicians now can be kept employed in the lab, and there will be time to finish some long experiment!  Sometimes a new piece of research equipment can be purchased, or a postdoctoral fellow can be added to the laboratory team!  A big celebration of this bountiful feast of happiness and satisfaction clearly is in order!

However, research grants are a double-edged sword for university scientists!  Very difficult problems frequently accompany research grant awards and these can cause great distress and anguish.  A few weeks or months after receiving a new grant, the euphoria wears off and the same scientist again becomes aware of the big problems all faculty scientists face with time and money.  After the initial joy, the second emotion to arise is fear!  Fear of what?  Fear of the fact that the clock is always ticking, and fear of the future!  While one is busy hiring and training a new technician, interviewing candidates for an open postdoctoral position, composing a manuscript, dealing with installation of a large new piece of research equipment, teaching in a class with 3 or 300 students, and, doing bench work in the lab, the clock always is counting down the remaining time before important deadlines occur (e.g., sending an annual report to the granting agency, the remaining time left in year-02, getting a large article published, submitting an application for renewal of the current grant at the best time, completing an application for a new (additional) grant now rather than later, etc.).

With regard to the time problem, each grant demands forms to be filled out, reports to be submitted, hours to be scheduled away from the lab, and deadlines to be met.  New lab employees need to be evaluated and then trained.  In addition to time needed for paperwork, administration, bench work in the lab, lab meetings, office hours for class students, and teaching work, the main time demand for all faculty scientists today is to submit more and more applications so multiple research grants can be obtained; the enormous pressures generated by this time crunch will have strong effects upon any human.  For most university scientists, acquiring multiple grants can result in such a large time shortage that there no longer is so much fun with personally working at their research; that stimulates the emotions of despair and depression!

Receipt of another research grant theoretically should solve the money problem for any university scientist.  Instead, the new dollars often have the opposite effect!  The university might suddenly raise the official salary levels for all employed technicians or graduate students; since the required increase was not included in the proposed budget, this obligation must be paid by those funds awarded for research supplies.  Buying a new research instrument might require changing the electricity supplies and remodeling to create a surrounding barrier zone; the grantee must pay for all that work, meaning more rebudgeting.  How then will new supply orders be paid for?

Feasting can be followed by a famine! 

Many applications for a research grant are not funded or only partially funded.  Sooner or later, even famous university scientists fail to have their research grant renewed.  Faculty scientists losing a research grant typically try very hard to get funded again via a revised application or a new application for a different project.  All science faculty losing their single research grant are facing the kiss of death, where they can lose everything; the unlucky scientist enters a period of true famine. That university scientist then finally becomes very aware that they only have rented their laboratory space, that their research accomplishments mean little to their university, and that their employer really hired them only to get their grant money (i.e., more profits!).  Trying to alternate back and forth between the conditions of feast and famine is an  emotional situation which is quite sufficient to cause premature aging!  Unfunded, but previously funded, faculty now are labelled as being “worthless” by their academic employer; feelings of anger, tearful sorrow, and dissatisfaction certainly flourish.  Emotions with feast-or-famine undergo a roller coaster ride!

Concluding discussion! 

Problematic features of the current research grant system for supporting scientific research at universities very clearly have emotional consequences.  Both happiness, sorrow, disgust, and endless worrying commonly are produced.  Having 2 or even 3 research grants can simply magnify the same emotions.  Living and working under the condition of feast-or-famine wears academic scientists down and does not encourage the progress of science.

Science has good involvements with business and commerce, but basic research itself is not supposed to be a business!  Research grants or other financial support are necessary to pay for all the expenses of conducting experiments, but obtaining more and more of that money is not the true goal of scientists!  For modern universities, science is a business, and faculty scientists are just a terrific means to increase their profits!

There are some other ways besides grants to pay for research expenses (see: “Is More Money for Science Really Needed? Part II” , and, “Basic Versus Applied Science: Are There Alternatives to Funding Basic Research by Grants?” ).  It seems to me that new mechanisms for financing science and research at universities in the United States now are badly needed in order to stop the destructive problems caused by the current system (see:  “Could Science and Research Now be Dying?” ).

 

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IS MORE MONEY FOR SCIENCE REALLY NEEDED? PART II.

 

What research gets federal support? Many other recipients are not shown here, and slices of this pie chart do not total 100%! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
What research gets federal support? Many other recipients are not shown here, and slices of this pie chart do not total 100%! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Every year there is a storm of activity in Congress and the public media about how much money should be appropriated for federal support of science. These activities result in a never-ending upward spiral demanding more and more dollars for research grants. My opinion is that there already is plenty of money for science, and additional funding is not needed!

Since almost nobody except all the taxpayers will agree with my position, this essay examines this critical issue. Part I considered arguments about whether increased funding is, or is not, needed (see: “Part I” ). Part II now discusses several possible changes to increase the amount of dollars available for research support without needing to mandate any increased taxes. Yes, that is feasible! Throughout both parts of this essay I am referring specifically to faculty scientists researching in universities. Background can be found at “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research”, and “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities”.

Introduction!

It is a simple fact that there is not sufficient money today to fund research by all the science faculty members at universities. Taxpayers should not be asked to pay higher taxes since they already are paying too much! The only solutions considered for this annual financial problem always are centered on increasing the dollars available for research grants. No-one seems to be examining any alternative and unconventional ways to generate more dollars for scientific research! This article examines 2 direct and effective ways to do that.

The amount of money available to support research can be increased by (1) greatly reducing waste in research grants, and (2) progressively reducing the number of new scientists!

Wastage of research grant awards now is solidly built into both the current research grant system and the universities receiving grants. On the surface, all expenses for any grant-supported project are officially scored as fully justified; in practice, many expenditures either are not spent for actually doing research, or are duplicated, excessive, and unnecessary (see: “Wastage of Research Grant Money in Modern University Science” ).

Another large waste of research grant funds is found in the indirect costs. These expenses are very necessary to pay for cleaning, garbage service, painting, etc., but somehow can be more than 100% of the direct costs for buying test-tubes and running experiments.  Indirect costs are uniquely paid by science faculty with research grant awards; non-science faculty in the same universities usually are not asked to pay for the indirect costs of doing their scholarly work. Thus, my view is that payment for indirect costs by research grants to university scientists is not warranted and wastes grant funds. Nevertheless, the federal granting agencies and universities both approve of this! This peculiar arrangement arouses suspicion that its real purpose is not research support, and must be some hidden objective (see: “Research Grants: What is Going on With the Indirect Costs of Doing Research?” ).

Although everyone can see that there are too many university scientists to be supported with the funds now available,  the production of yet more new science PhD’s every year  directly increases the number of applicants for research grants! In my view, this is crazy, and there now are too many faculty scientists (see: “Does the USA Really Need so Many New Science Ph.D.’s?” )! The number of grant applications submitted is further increased by the hyper-competition for research grant awards, causing many faculty scientists to try to acquire 2 or more grants (see: “All About Today’s Hyper-competition for Research Grants” ). Both these increases make the shortage of research money worsen each year!

My position about wastage of grant money is let’s stop this nonsense so the many dollars freed from being wasted can be used to support the direct costs of worthy research. My position about producing more doctoral scientists is let’s decrease the number of new PhD’s, so the supply/demand imbalance between number of applicants and the amount of dollars available is removed; this reduction will later decrease the total number of faculty scientists.

Discussion and conclusions!  

The policies of both the research grant system and the universities create and encourage the present mess!  Instead of crying out for even more money for science, I sincerely believe it would be much better to increase support funds firstly by stopping the very large wastage of funds awarded by research grants, and secondly by decreasing the number of university scientists applying for research grants.  Both these changes can be accomplished now without disruptions! They will directly remedy the seemingly unsolvable Malthusian problem with needing more and more money for research grants every year.

Why aren’t alternative possibilities being evaluated and discussed? The answer to this unasked question is very easy: the universities and the research grant system both love all their current policies and practices, even though these are very destructive for university science. University scientists are silent and afraid to protest because they will do anything to get their research grant(s) renewed. The research grant officials at federal agencies are silent because they are afraid to challenge and try to change the status quo. This financial situation now is locked in place (see: “Three Money Cycles Support Scientific Research” ).

Two effective models to support scientific research without needing external research grants are available. The ongoing success of self-funding of industrial research works well, does not depend on external research grants, and might have some usable practices that would help the financial problems for university science. Whether further commercialization of science at universities would help improve their financial operations remains to be seen. The very successful internal funding system supporting basic and applied research projects at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research (Kansas City, MO.) provides another good alternative model for escaping from the current malaise (see: “Part II: The Stowers Institute is a Terrific New Model for Funding Scientific Research!” ). Yet other systems for funding scientific research at universities also are of interest here, but are not being actively considered.

My conclusions for Part II are that: (1) the present conditions for federal support of scientific research at universities are very destructive and not sustainable without killing science (see: “Could Science and Research Now be Dying?” ), and, (2) alternative and unconventional means for providing the large pool of dollars needed to pay for scientific research should be more closely examined and discussed.

 

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SOME UNIVERSITY RESEARCH SCIENTISTS DO INDEED HAVE GUTS!

 

Don't Laugh, since He can See the Truth very Clearly!!  (http://dr-monsrs.net}
Don’t Laugh!    He can See the Truth very, very Clearly!!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Most people have a distorted view about what scientists working at universities really are like.  There certainly is some truth in the common feeling that scientists researching in the ivory tower have it easy while living a safe and comfortable life without ever working up a sweat.  In the modern era many university scientists worry more about their research grant(s) and their lab space assignment than they do about how to get a difficult experiment to finally work, or whether alternative explanations for their recent results make more sense than a traditional interpretation. 

There are a few exceptions to such generalizations, and some university science faculty do maintain their individuality and personal standards.  These persons frequently are known as troublemakers, weirdos, hard boiled eggs, creative geniuses, misfits, or ambitious workaholics.  Some of the same characteristics desired for successful research scientists also are found prominently in these distinctive individuals; such features include curiosity, creativity, and  inventiveness, as I have explained earlier (see: “Curiosity, Creativity, Inventiveness, and Individualism in Science” ).  In addition, these same scientists often are characterized by such features as idealism, pig-headedness, not fearing to speak the truth, and, dedication to being a scientist. 

This report relates a few true stories about actual university scientists I have known.  All have the personal courage to fight the system, and are unconventional.  Their identity must remain a secret in order to protect the guilty! 

University scientist X attacks the glorified institution of tenure! 

Scientist X is a very successful cell biologist who is hard-working, creative, well-liked, and highly individualistic.  He works at a very large state university, and has had his research grants renewed throughout his career.  He was overwhelmingly qualified to be promoted and tenured.  However, because he is independently wealthy, he decided to forego all the time and scrutiny involved with this academic ritual.  All other faculty are totally enthusiastic to accept whatever is necessary to get tenured.  His Chair, the Dean, and the senior professors in his department all tried to persuade him to accept becoming tenured, but he just would not give in. 

Academic tenure traditionally gives a faculty member the right to speak their opinion without fear of being fired by the employer.  How in the world can any university faculty not want to become tenured?  Prof. X readily explained his most unusal decision with something like the following (paraphrased):  “I do not have time for tenure.  I do not need tenure, since I can easily get a new faculty position elsewhere if I am fired here.  I always say what is on my mind, so tenure means nothing to me.  I am doing a good job here, so why do I have to get it?”  No-one could remember such statements ever being offered before!  His fellow faculty frequently commented about Prof. X (paraphrased):  “What is wrong with him?  He is just unbelievable!  Tenure is so important and utterly necessary!   Poor Prof. X must be mad!  No professor can survive without tenure!” 

For university faculty members, the decision about tenure is required, meaning that faculty candidates either must be retained with the promotion or else they are discharged from employement (i.e., “up, or out”).  After much further disputation, Prof. X still would not give in!  He reportedly told his superiors that he would be pleased to just continue doing his usual very good work without having any tenured status, but that was impossible according to the University bylaws!  Finally, a special arrangement was worked out when his employer realized that they strongly wanted him to continue working at this university; Prof. X became tenured without being evaluated further or having to sign any papers. 

This real story is amazingly unusual!  Nobody else ever rejects the chance to be promoted to the tenured rank, or actually offers reasons for that rejection.  Prof. X must be admired for having the guts to be outspoken and self-directed.  He stuck to his personal beliefs and challenged a long-standing university tradition.  In retrospect today, it is totally clear that becoming tenured made no difference at all to the continued good success of Prof. X as a professional research scientist. 

University scientist Y pays for some of his own research expenses! 

Scientist Y is unusual because he, unlike all other university faculty, is willing to spend his own personal money for some of his business expenses (i.e., payment for purchases of some small research supplies and for transportation to national or international science meetings).  Other science faculty at his urban university never ever do that; they could not understand Prof. Y and condemned his judgment about using his own funds.  They would simply not go to any science meeting unless their travel and hotel expenses were paid for by external funds.  Some of the other faculty thought that Prof. Y definitely must be some kind of weirdo! 

When asked to explain his unusual willingness to spend his own personal money for travel expenses to participate in a science meeting, he said that he viewed this as an investment in himself as a professional research scientist.  He actually was buying additional knowledge (i.e., the talks and posters he witnessed), making new contacts, asking questions about research to scientists he met, and interacting with some attendees as a potential collaborator.  Putting these same funds into investments indeed might get him more money, but that did not really help his science career as much as what he gained by being at the meetings. 

This unusual use of personal money undoubtedly was an expression of Prof. Y’s very strong  commitment to science.  Many famous scientists show this same commitment as a notable feature of their professional success.  Such personal commitment unfortunately is becoming infrequent in the modern age. 

University scientist Z calls into question whether a research grant is necessary for  faculty  scientists to continue researching and publishing! 

Professor Z lost his research grant 1 year ago, and is trying either to get it back or to acquire a new award.  Traditionally, for all faculty at his university, losing their external grant support means that they will soon have to relinquish their laboratory space assignment unless they can soon acquire new research funding.  Although composing several applications takes up almost all of his time, Prof. Z continues to work actively in his research lab and has published several new research reports.  He openly maintains that: (1) he had purchased enough research supplies to last for another few years, (2) he and one graduate student continue their research work, so no additional lab personnel are needed, (3) his output of new peer-reviewed research reports in good journals continues just as it did before he lost his grant, and, (4) he wants to continue his lab research. 

Other faculty now complain to the Chair that they need more lab space for their grant-supported projects, and want Prof. Z’s space assignment to be re-assigned to them.  It is totally unheard of that any former grantee can continue to do research and to issue new publications without having a research grant award.  His Chair is very uneasy with this situation, particularly because Prof. Z is still actively researching.  Prof. Z’s intention clearly calls into question whether researching can be done without having a grant. 

This dilemma arises because all positions are seen only as being black and white, rather than as different shades of gray.  Even Prof. Z admits that he did even more when he was funded than at present.  Nevertheless, it is completely false to state that Prof. Z presently is not producing good research, because he obviously still is doing so.  As more and more university faculty members lose their external research grant awards, this entire situation now will arise more frequently; with the vicious cut-throat hyper-competition for research grants now in effect (see:  “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants” ), the former grantees almost always rapidly lose their argument and become very bitter.  The usual response to this situation indicates that modern universities are after profits from research grants more than seeking additional contributions of significant new knowledge and understanding; in other words, the inflow of money is more valuable to them than the production of new knowledge.  

Concluding remarks.  

These stories illustrate that some individual scientists at universities do have much personal integrity and a strong commitment to their work.  But, it certainly takes guts to be different!  Scientists in academia usually must restrain their individualism in order to function and succeed in their job situation.  The personal courage and strong determination of the individual scientists described above should be applauded by all the other faculty; instead, those individuals usually are ridiculed.  It never is easy to stand up and do what one believes to be right when many others have the opposite opinion.  These real stories show that some academic traditions and rules are made to be broken.  The story about Prof. X particularly shows that modern universities must be forced to do the right thing!   

 

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BASIC VERSUS APPLIED SCIENCE: ARE THERE ALTERNATIVES TO FUNDING BASIC RESEARCH BY GRANTS?

Both basic research and applied research need to be supported by grant awards!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Two high school teachers discuss basic and applied research at universities!!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Basic science uses experimental research to seek new truths and test hypotheses.  Applied science seeks to improve or invent devices, methods, or processes so they have better output (e.g., faster or slower, lighter, more efficient, less expensive, more durable, etc.).  Research in basic and applied science at universities both need to be supported by external research grants.  At present, the large federal granting agencies increasingly seem to favor making awards for projects with applied research; awards to acquire knowledge for its own sake in basic research studies now are not considered as worthwhile for funding as formerly. 

What good is pure basic research? 

The classical work of the great pioneers in science, ranging from Galileo to Linus Pauling, all was pure basic science.  Nevertheless, research studies in modern basic science typically are seen as ridiculous or worthless by ordinary adults (e.g., What happens if entire chloroplasts isolated from plant cells are inserted into living animal cells?).  This viewpoint is very short-sighted because it ignores the simple fact that all research progress is part of a continuum of investigations by many different scientists.  Almost all new devices or items of practical use follow this general pathway of development; the final output of applied research can occur several decades after the original discovery by basic research.  Thus, esoteric new knowledge from basic science studies often becomes useful and important when it generates later research in applied science and engineering.  

The basis for all later developments in applied science is the open research in basic science. The number one example of this is the transistor.  When transistors were first made by Bardeen and others, they were viewed as “lab curiosities” that had no potential for practical usage [1].  No-one foresaw their eventual revolutionary significance for the myriad electronic devices and computers in today’s  world.   

How is it decided what research actually is conducted? 

In an ideal world, professional scientists with a Ph.D. decide what to investigate and how to carry out the needed experiments.  In the present world, faculty scientists at universities investigate only what can be supported by external research grant awards.  This necessity  influences and restricts university scientists right from their first job since applicants for a new research grant always very carefully inspect published announcements stating which topics and areas are currently being targeted by the governmental funding agencies; these agencies thereby have a very large influence on which research studies can be pursued.  Governmental officials at agencies awarding research grants can silently direct research efforts into chosen directions, and ensure that certain research topics receive more attention by university research scientists.  An analogous direction of work occurs for most industrial researchers, since they must work only on those research questions having significance for their commercial employer. 

The governmental control of funding for research investigations in science is problematic since the funding agencies increasingly seem to favor funding of research projects in applied science.  This is due in part to the understandable desire to obtain progress within their area of special interest (e.g., energy, fuels, health, military, etc.), and to show the tax-paying public that their support for research studies produces useful new devices or new processes with practical benefits to many.  The funding agencies unfortunately do not understand that basic studies almost always are the precursors for later developments by applied scientists and engineers.  Thus, these funding agencies have an inherent conflict between providing funding for the basic or applied categories of research. Decreasing the awards for basic science later will cause decreases in the output of applied science.  

What are the consequences of favored funding for applied science? 

Any favoring of applied science over basic science for receiving external funding awards inevitably has negative consequences on the progress of science.  First, it decreases the amount of research funds available to support pure basic research.  Second, it conflicts with the well-known fact that almost all important advances and engineering developments originate from some earlier finding(s) by pure basic researchers; decreased funding for basic research later will cause fewer results with applied research.  Third, all the research subjects not selected for targeted funding in applied science thereby are disfavored, and these consequently become less studied.  Fourth, the origin for most new ideas, new concepts, breakthrough developments, and new directions in science is the individual research scientist (see earlier discussions on “Individual Work versus Group Efforts in Scientific Research” and “Curiosity, Creativity, Inventiveness, and Individualism in Science” ).  Applied research tends to decrease the freedom to be creative; that also encourages formation of research groups and decreases the number of grant-holding scientists functioning as individual research workers. 

Are there alternatives in funding or support mechanisms for basic science?

Very small short-term research studies often can be supported by either personal funds or crowdfunding (see earlier discussion in: “Other Jobs for Scientists, Part III.  Unconventional Approaches to Find or Create Employment Opportunities” ).  Some granting agencies have programs offering small amounts of financial support for one year of work; these special opportunities are particularly valuable for scientists seeking to conduct pilot studies.  Where larger research expenses are needed, those mechanisms for support of small research are insufficient, and it is necessary to obtain a standard research grant from the external support agencies.  For subsequent investigations, most grant-holding scientists at universities choose to apply for renewal of their current award; once on the train, it seems easier to stay on board instead of trying to jump off to transfer onto a different train! 

It is not always recognized that a few organizations offer substantial cash prizes for certain targeted competitions (e.g., design a safe human-powered aircraft, develop an efficient system for producing bulk proteins from single-celled algae at special indoor or outdoor farms, construct a practical and inexpensive all-electric gasoline-free automobile, etc.).  Such projects are strongly involved with applied research, although they do involve whatever materials and directions the scientist-inventor wishes to utilize.  These special competitive prizes are retrospective awards given after the research studies and engineering developments are finished; that is totally the opposite of standard governmental research grants which give prospective awards for planned research work before it has been conducted. 

Retrospective research grant awards also are found in ongoing support programs of some other countries, but are not usual in the USA.  Those countries support their research scientists at universities and institutes by routinely awarding them general operating funds (e.g., $30,000/year); these funds provide support for such needed expenses as the work of graduate students, purchase of research supplies, unanticipated research costs (e.g., repair of a broken lab instrument), travel to a science meeting or to the lab of a collaborator, etc.  This supportive practice is a lifesaver whenever an active scientist’s research grant is not renewed. 

Support for basic research inside the current federal research grant system

The diminishing support for basic research necessitates looking for alternative funding sources.  It is not always recognized that normal federal research grants do allow some awarded funds to be utilized for new basic science investigations, so long as these have some relationship to the main subject of interest and do not require very large amounts of money.  This usage of research grant funds usually is considered as a justified expense when the Principal Investigator approves these expenditures.  Such side-projects often are labelled as being pilot studies, since they can produce enough important data to later be included in an application for a new separate research grant.  

Concluding remarks

Support by the research grant system for basic research studies now is decreasing while  support for applied research studies increases.  Knowledge for its own sake always will be important, and is the basis for subsequent developments in applied science and engineering.  Both the basic and applied types of research studies are valuable for the science enterprise and society.  The current disfavoring of basic research studies should be stopped, because that hurts the future promise of research studies in both basic and applied science; at present, basic science needs to be encouraged more.    University scientists must develop and use additional or unconventional means to enable them to conduct the needed basic science investigations. 

[1]  Mullis, K. B., 1987.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:      http://www.karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf .

 

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ALL ABOUT TODAY’S HYPER-COMPETITION FOR RESEARCH GRANTS

 

Hyper-Competition for Research Grants Stimulates the Decay of Science!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Hyper-Competition for Research Grants Causes Science to Decay!(http://dr-monsrs.net)

            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.

Concluding remarks

            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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INDIVIDUAL WORK VERSUS GROUP EFFORTS IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH


Individual Researchers  versus Group Efforts in Science  (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Individual Researchers versus Group Efforts in Science   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Ultimately, progress in science depends upon the work of many individual scientists.  Even where important new concepts or dramatic new research advances arise over a long period of time, one individual researcher with insight, determination, and innovation usually has a central role.  The importance of individuals as investigators and inventors in modern science becomes very obvious when the career efforts of certain giants in research are examined; new readers should refer to my earlier articles briefly presenting Thomas A. Edison and Nikola Tesla (see article in the Basic Introductions category on “Inventors & Scientists”), and, Edwin H. Land (see article in the Essays category on “Curiosity, Creativity, Inventiveness, and Individualism in Science”).  All 3 of these renowned researchers were extraordinary individuals, both in science and in life.  It is interesting to note that when these 3 continued their pioneering experimental studies and commercial innovations, all formed large research groups so as to be able to carry out their many complex and extensive research activities. 

Any one individual scientist can only conduct and complete a few experimental studies in a given year of time.  To really be able to work to a larger extent, more than 2 hands are needed!  The simplest way to do this is to win a research grant that pays for salaries of technicians, graduate students, and Postdocs.  Another good approach is to form research groups.  Research scientists often associate with others for collaborative studies, either informally or formally.  Small successful research groups easily can grow larger.  For the complex and more extensive research work needed by projects in Big Science (i.e., the Manhattan Project during WW2 [1,2], and the projects of NASA in space research [3], are typical examples of Big Science), very large groups of research scientists are essential. 

Research groups of any size have certain general advantages over isolated individual scientists: (1) larger financial resources, (2) more lab space, (3) more brains, (4) more hands, (5) better ability to apply multiple approaches to any one project, (6) more flexibility, (7) greater efficiency of effort, and, (8) increased productivity.  This essay examines the general roles of individuals and of groups for working in scientific research. 

Individual Scientists and Small Research Groups

The early research scientists all were very strongly individualistic.  Classical science recognized that individual researchers are the primary basis for creativity, new directions, inventions, and research breakthroughs; this has not changed even in today’s science.  For research conducted in universities, one still finds many individual scientists pursuing good laboratory projects.  However, with the modern system for grant-supported research studies, an increasing number of individual scientists now are moving their experimental investigations into group efforts.  Small research groups in universities typically have around 5-20 members and staff (i.e., faculty collaborators on the same campus, faculty collaborators and visitors from other universities, graduate students, postdoctoral research associates, research technicians, etc.); small groups typically work within several laboratory rooms.  At the other end of the scale are giant research groups working under one Director, having over 100 scientists and research staff, and, occupying several floors or even an entire separate building.  Some medium- and large-sized research groups fill the interval between the small and giant associations. 

For studies in industrial research and development (R&D) laboratories, both individual scientists and various research groups are utilized.  Individual doctoral researchers often function as leaders or specialized workers in small or large groups.  Larger groups in industrial research often extend between different divisions and locations of the company.  Several or many small industrial research groups can be networked into extensive research operations in different states, nations, and continents.   Since many research efforts in industry pursue coordinated applied research and engineering studies targeted towards specific new or improved products, group activities are very appropriate for these R&D operations.

Large and Giant Research Groups

Since success breeds more success, there is a general tendency in universities for flourishing small groups to become larger.  All large research groups have greater capabilities for producing extensive results within a shorter period of time.  They also minimize the impact of the hyper-competition for research grants upon most members within the group, since one large award or several regular awards provide for the group’s experiments.  In academia, one even can find some entire science departments where almost all faculty members, other than those working exclusively with teaching, are organized to function as a single large research unit. 

In very large groups of researchers, group-think often becomes usual.  Most decisions are already made and each worker generally is concerned only with their small area of personal work.  Thus, individualism of everyone except The Director is squelched.  In many cases, the role of doctoral scientists within the large and giant groups at universities devolves into serving only as very highly educated research technicians.  The Big Boss is happy when everyone does their assigned tasks well, and thus there is little need for any individual input, creative new ideas, questions about alternatives, or self-development.  In my view, this group-think situation is very consistent with the new trend for academic science to now be just a commercialized business entity (see my earlier article in the Big Problems category on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?”).  One can even think here about an analogy of giant research groups to the assembly lines of commercial manufacturers; indeed, giant groups operating in universities commonly are referred to by other scientists as being research factories.  In those factories, it is doubtful that the Big Boss even can recall the names of all the many individual scientists working there. 

Nevertheless, giant groups can achieve notable successes in scientific research.  As described above, they also have some disadvantages for lab research studies.  It seems to me that the Chief Scientist in a research factory mostly functions for expert planning, integrating the many different experiments and diverse results into a cohesive whole, and, shielding all group members from the distractions of dealing with the research grant system and bureaucracies; these activities all are both difficult and important for research progress, and, therefore are deserving of praise. 

Small versus Large Research Groups

 Each of the differently sized environments for laboratory research at universities has both advantages and disadvantages.  The degree of positive or negative features for any given research endeavor must be evaluated in order to determine which situation is best.  It seems obvious that the different group situations will appeal to different types of personalities, and will be more productive for certain kinds of research studies.  Most of the classical and modern breakthroughs in scientific research have been brought forth by individuals or small research groups, and not by large or giant groups.  Research scientists working today as individuals in academia usually are dedicated to highly specialized niche studies, and are extremely careful to select a subject for their research which has no likelihood of competing with investigations of any large research group.  Such competition would be the instant kiss-of-death for any individual scientist, since it would be analogous to one mouse attempting to outdo a huge grizzly bear. 

 I have always researched as an individual scientist, whether all by myself or in a small group.  I also have known several other scientists in academia who were both very productive and quite happy to work within very large groups.  I view small research groups as being mostly good, but large and giant groups often seem problematic with regard to creativity and individualism; these qualities are vital for the success of scientific research (see my recent article in the Essays category on “Curiosity, Creativity, Inventiveness, and Individualism in Science”). 

The large federal agencies offering research grants now seem to favor giving awards to larger groups.  This probably is done because those groups always provide a much, much firmer likelihood that all their proposed studies will progress as planned, everything will be completed on time, and the anticipated research results will be validated by the “new” experimental data.  Interestingly, these capabilities often come about because the giant research operations actually conduct, analyze, and finish all the planned studies during the period of their last funding; thus, any of their proposed experiments and anticipated results can be almost guaranteed.  Small groups and individual researchers simply are not able to do that, and therefore their proposals always seem somewhat chancier to evaluators of grant applications. 

With the present hyper-competition for research grants at universities, very large groupshave the easy capability to completely overrun everyone else.  They can very easily pick up any new study, start researching immediately, and, complete everything in a much shorter time period than could any individual scientist or small group.  The overwhelming strength of very large research groups necessarily has an inhibiting influence on individuals and small groups; this seems to be the price that must be paid for obtaining the beneficial functional advantages and strong output of larger research groups.  Even some brilliant individual scientist inevitably will find that they are at a strong disadvantage if they directly compete with large research groups for funding of a similar experimental project.

Concluding Remarks

Small research groups often form naturally in universities.  As soon as several individual faculty scientists in one or several departments discover that they have some common research interests, new small group efforts often can arise.  Scientists love to talk and argue with other scientists, and this often encourages the formation of these smaller associations.  Small groups can retain many of the advantages of single research scientists, along with having some of the good characteristics of large research groups.  However, successful small research groups must try to avoid growing too much, such that they do not acquire the negative features of very large research groups; successful small groups should recognize that growing into a much larger research group will not necessarily make the former better. 

 Smaller research groups can be viewed ass hybrids having some of the advantageous features of both individual researchers and giant research groups.  Small groups thus seem to me to be a very good model for the organization of future university research activities in science.

[1]  Los Alamos Historical Society, 2014.  Manhattan Project.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.losalamoshistory.org/manhattan.htm .
[2]  U.S. History, 2014.  51f.  The Manhattan Project.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.ushistory.org/us/51f.asp .
[3]  NASA Science, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2014.   Science@NASA.    Available on the internet at:   http://science.nasa.gov/.

 

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THREE MONEY CYCLES SUPPORT SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

 The Research Grant Cycle at Universities   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

The Research Grant Cycle at Modern Universities   (http://dr-monsrs.net)


            Modern research with laboratory experiments is very costly for universities, research institutes, and industrial centers (see my earlier article in the Basic Introductions category on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research”).  Without financial support, research investigations are either impossible or severely limited.  Most funding for scientific research in the USA comes from commercial companies and the taxpaying public (via grants from several agencies of the national government).  If one steps back and looks at the overall processes whereby funds to support scientific research activities are generated, several different money cycles become apparent.
                    (1) The Business Profit Cycle provides funds for research and development (R&D) in industrial settings.                                                                                                                                             (2) The Soft Money Cycle supplies funds to support experimental studies at research institutes, and, some large universities and hospitals.
                    (3) The Research Grant Cycle generates funds for laboratory investigations at modern universities. 

             All 3 money cycles have the general features that a relatively small input of money starts and maintains the cycle, which later produces an output of research findings (i.e., science) and additional money (i.e., profits).  The scientists function in these cycles as a catalyst to make this conversion from input into output.  An amazing ability of these 3 cycles is that all grow with time and become self-supporting.  I now will briefly describe and explain how each of these 3 cycles operates, so that both the general public and employed scientists will have a greater understanding about how modern laboratory research is being funded.

The Business Profit Cycle

            Large industries must develop new and improved products through research and engineering efforts, so as to increase their financial profits.  A portion of their total annual profits is designated for R&D work by scientists and engineers, and is used to pay for the needed personnel, instrumentation, and supplies.  Marketing of the new or improved commercial products then generates increased sales and additional profits; this output enables both rewards for the private or public owners, and an enlarged pool of money to pay for an increased amount of future R&D.  Thus, for a successful company, the profits and the number of investigations both grow bigger with time, and their Business Profit Cycle becomes self-supporting.  History clearly shows that money from this ongoing cyclic operation is very successful for enabling industrial R&D activities. 

 The Soft-Money Cycle

            Research institutes, large universities, and some hospital centers have full-time staff scientists who receive a salary exclusively from their research grant(s).  This is termed a soft-money salary, and differs from the hard-money salary of most university science faculty (i.e., their salary is guaranteed by some source, such as a state government).  Typically, staff scientists with soft-money positions are not eligible to receive academic tenure, and do not have teaching obligations.  In general, these scientists work in a circumscribed research area (i.e., as part of a focused group effort), have very specific job duties (e.g., operation of a complex special research instrument that provides data used by other researchers), or are successfully investigating some very hot topic.  The input for The Soft Money Cycle is research grant money, and the main output is science (i.e., published research results).  Scientists function to convert the input into the output via their research activities.  This soft-money cycle works quite well for supporting scientific research activities at some prominent research institutions. 

            In all cases, scientists with soft-money salaries enter their job with full knowledge that their continued employment directly depends upon their success in obtaining research grant renewals.  Due to the present hyper-competition for research grant awards (see my earlier article in the Scientists category on “Why Would any Scientist ever Cheat?”), a certain number of soft-money researchers each year must terminate their employment as a scientist.  Not everything in this situation is bad, since soft-money salaries more frequently are not so restricted as hard-money salaries, and even can include some bonuses.  The soft-money scientists that continue to produce good research results and high quality publications actually do have some job security without needing to be tenured. 

The Research Grant Cycle

            Modern universities mostly now have become just another business (see my earlier article in the Big Problems category on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?”).  University profits are cold hard cash, and traditionally are obtained from several quite different sources: donations by alumni and corporations, income from endowments, ever-increasing tuition fees obtained from enrolled undergraduate and graduate students, and, portions of research grant money brought in by their science faculty.  For The Research Grant Cycle, the input is research grant money, and the output is science (i.e., published research reports) plus university profits (i.e., awarded grant money that has not been spent).  The Research Grant Cycle is successful because it both supports research by the science faculty and provides universities with profits. 

             The greater the number and size of research grant awards acquired, the larger are a university’s profits.  To fully understand this statement, it is necessary that readers comprehend what is meant here by “profits”.  University profits include the total funds entering a university,  which are not fully needed and used to pay for salaries and expenses of some designated group of employees (e.g., administrators, housekeeping staff, librarians, police department, secretaries, teachers, etc.), or for some specific activities (e.g., advertising and publicity, bookkeeping, painting, receiving deliveries of new purchases, safety office, etc.).  In other words, if total income exceeds actual expenses, then there is a net positive profit. 

            University profits in any single year include the following typical examples. 
                        (1) The sum of all tuition fees minus the actual expenditures for classroom maintenance, course handouts, faculty instructors, heating and air-conditioning, printing of course examinations, teaching assistants, etc.  Any net positive balance here is a profit. 
                        (2) Income from investments of endowed resources, minus all the costs for administration, bookkeeping, brokerage services, financial consultants, money transfers, etc.  Any net positive balance here is a profit. 
                       (3) Total research grant awards, minus actual payments for approved expenses with direct and indirect costs, financial bookkeeping, grant administration, purchases, salaries, travel, etc.  Any net positive balance here is a profit. 
All these profits initially are transferred into some special institutional budgets (e.g., Dean’s slush fund, fund for new building construction, fund for special programs, institutional emergency fund, reserve fund for future usage, unencumbered funds, etc.).  

 Can the Profit Level of The Research Grant Cycle be Increased? 

             Operation of the Research Grant Cycle at universities is diagrammed in the figure shown just under the title of this article.  This now has been expanded by the incorporation of certain features described above for The Soft Money Cycle.  By hiring some science faculty as soft-money appointments instead of into the usual hard-money positions, universities save very much money because they no longer need to provide salaries.   The reduced expenses readily enable the generation of greater net profits by The Research Grant Cycle. 

             I suspect that another new source of additional profits involves that portion of research grants awarded to pay for indirect costs (i.e., expenses for cleaning, heating and air conditioning, painting, safety, etc.).  For the necessary background, please see my recent article in the Money & Grants category on “What is Going on With the Indirect Costs of Doing Research?”.  Any profits coming from unused indirect cost awards can be used to enlarge the standard operation of The Research Grant Cycle, and/or diverted to pay for other university activities.  If I am correct about the use and misuse of indirect cost awards, the amount of extra profits could be quite large.  Universities undoubtedly have several responses always ready to counter any inquiries or allegations about whether their actual expenses are much less than the costs in their approved budget: (1) black and white documents giving work schedules and listing the activities performed, (2) entries in official accounting documents showing that all indirect cost funds were spent completely and exactly as planned, and (3) a signed agreement with the funding agencies about approved costs, coming from the earlier negotiations establishing a university’s indirect cost rate.  However, a paper document does not necessarily mean that listed work actually was done, or that the actual service activities described really do cost as much as their stated values.  Based upon my personal experiences, I simply say “bunk” to such “proofs” for their stated indirect expenses! 

How do the Money Cycles Actually Function? 

             All 3 different money cycles produce profits that support scientific research activities.  The 2 money cycles at research institutes and universities can be initiated as soon as the available institutional funds become sufficient to permit hiring only one new scientist on a soft-money salary.  This faculty member then wins a new research grant and also gains his or her new salary.  After initial success, this faculty researcher then is encouraged to obtain a second grant, publish many research reports, and submit strong applications for competitive renewals.  The total profits generated from this initial employee will enlarge the pool of unrestricted university funds, thereby ultimately permitting the hiring of some additional soft-money faculty scientists.  With time, this cadre grows further and the Research Grant Cycle becomes self-supporting (i.e., research grants of the employed scientists provide enough income to give a net profit level that more than pays for all the costs of operating this cycle).  The use of soft-money salaries also means that the universities never have any worries about what to do if a research grant unexpectedly is not renewed; any time that an annual soft-money contract is completed, the employing university simply can discharge the now unfunded scientist, and then hire a replacement. 

             Once any of the 3 money cycles starts operating, they then simply go around and around while generating more and more profits.  With good administrative management, the number of people generating profits grows each and every year, and the cycle gets bigger and better!  In some cases, the speed of cyclic rotation even gets faster!  For all 3 money cycles, profits and the size of the cycle become larger and stronger with time! 

            For modern universities, a self-sustaining and growing new source of money profits has been discovered!  Once functioning, only minimal further expenses are needed to maintain this ongoing cycle!  The universities surely are overjoyed!  Since universities have become just another business, the financially productive Research Grant Cycle now is strongly embedded within modern university operations.  The success of The Research Grant Cycle in generating profits explains why medical schools often are the very largest unit at modern large universities; this condition has little directly to do with diseases, new therapeutic treatments, public health, or clinical research, and everything to do with obtaining larger profits. 

Does The Research Grant Cycle Actually Operate at Modern Universities? 

             What is the evidence that this cyclic profit-generating system really exists in universities?  Although there are several pieces of suggestive evidence, definitive proof remains lacking because so much is kept hidden and/or is off the record.  Recent conditions suggesting this operation at universities include: (1) the number of soft-money science faculty holding positions as non-tenure-track employees in universities is increasing, (2) at any time, there now are quite a few individual doctoral scientists available for hire in the USA as soft-money employees, (3) new very large programs (e.g., clinical genomics research initiatives, participation in extra-terrestrial space science studies, nanoscience research institutes, etc.) now have been developed in universities, and many have received substantial funding support with very large research grant awards, and, (4) even though every year there always seems to be only limited funds available for federal support of science, new government-mandated projects and mission-based research efforts continue to be announced along with special funding programs to support them.  Any new initiatives and funding programs all engage The Research Grant Cycle fully, and actually stimulate its functioning. 

 Concluding Remarks

            All 3 of the money cycles do provide the financial support needed for modern scientific investigations in the different employing institutions.  The Research Grant Cycle certainly is considered to be totally good by the many parties benefitting from it.  After the recent period with declining income due to economic downturns, universities must be especially delighted to have found a new very fruitful profit-generating mechanism to fund their many activities and services.  

             With all those positive features of The Research Grant Cycle, why then do I have a negative opinion about it?  There are 3 main reasons for my viewpoint.
                    (1)  First, my biggest reason is that this type of profit-driven money cycle subverts scientific research by making getting research grant money the chief goal of the science faculty, rather than producing new knowledge and new concepts from their experimental investigations.  The money is made to be more important than the science.  This shift in values directly stimulates the current abominable hyper-competition for research grant awards. 
                    (2)  Second, it forces scientists to become business entities, rather than professional researchers and scholars trying to better the world through their investigations.  Basic research especially is affected negatively, since it initially has no obvious commercial importance. 
                    (3)  Third, it amplifies the increasing commercialization of university science (see my earlier article in the Big Problems category on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?”).  The Research Grant Cycle reinforces the new identity of universities as businesses, rather than as centers for academic scholarship, scientific research, teaching, innovation, and public service.  That new identity in turn encourages corruption and downgrades the traditional role of universities in society. 

 

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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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RESEARCH GRANTS: WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THE INDIRECT COSTS OF DOING RESEARCH?

Costs for University Science Research (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Costs for University Science Research    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Money is of key importance for conducting scientific research (see my earlier post in the Basic Introductions category on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research”).  The tax-paying public is familiar with the use of research grant money to pay for the acquisition of chemicals, conduction of assays and measurements, procurement of research samples, purchase and repair of laboratory instruments, purchase of test-tubes and other research supplies, publication of research reports in journals, etc.  All these expenses are for the direct costs of doing research.  Most people are completely unaware that there is a second and very different type of expense in conducting a research study.

            Research grants to universities, technology institutes, and medical schools also pay for the indirect costs of doing research.  These include all the adjunctive expenses necessary to support using an active research laboratory to perform experiments (e.g., daily maintenance, distribution of regulated electricity, garbage collection and disposal, heating and cooling, painting, routine administration, safety activities and facilities, water provision and drainage, etc.).  There can be no question that these indirect expenses are totally needed for the conduct of experiments in university research laboratories; corresponding expenses also occur for scientists working at industrial research and development labs.

Indirect vs. Direct Costs in Typical Research Grants

            The amount of support used for indirect expenses is determined by periodic negotiations between each institution receiving research grant awards and the granting agencies.  These negotiations are held behind closed doors, and the Principal Investigators composing and submitting applications for a research grant have no input into this process.  The total indirect costs awarded by federal granting agencies are calculated as some agreed percentage of the total direct costs awarded by a research grant (e.g., 35-75%).

            The public also is not very aware that the direct costs awarded in support of any research project can be  less than half of the total dollars provided by a research grant.  For some large very well-respected educational institutions in the USA, the official indirect cost rate is over 100%.  In such cases, the total funds awarded to those institutions by any research grant actually is over double the commonly stated figure for the total direct costs.  For example, with an approved indirect cost rate of 125%, a grant awarding $500,000 for total direct costs also gives another $625,000 for indirect costs, meaning the total award is $1,125,000.  Hence, indirect cost awards can be a very substantial amount of money!

How do Science Faculty View Indirect Costs in Research Grant Awards?

             I personally know that many funded faculty research scientists at universities have large doubts about realities in the current system for paying the indirect expenses of their lab research.  One area of doubt is the official percentage figure for their institution, which often seems to be much too high.  A second common doubt concerns the actual provision of the specified important activities listed in justifications for the approved percentage figure for indirect costs.  Usually, funded faculty scientists choose to keep quiet about their misgivings, since these “involve something beyond my influence and control”.  A few individual faculty members do occasionally complain about deficiencies in routine services provided by their employing institution (e.g., “My trash has not been picked up for 3 days now!”), but they never go on to ponder the various probable causes and possible misuses of their research grant funds designated for indirect expenses  (e.g., diversion into other university accounts)

            These common doubt
s lead to suspicions amongst university science faculty that the provision of research grant funds for indirect expenses is peculiar and really must have some additional unspoken function(s) beyond paying for the adjunct costs of doing laboratory research.  This suspicion almost never is openly discussed, since most faculty scientists are much more personally concerned with their own research projects, and not with what their employer might be “receiving on the side”.  In forthcoming posts, I will discuss some theoretical possibilities which could explain what might be happening.

            The approved rates for indirect cost awards vary considerably between different institutions, as a function of their location, size, labor costs, number of faculty and other employees,  type of construction, etc.  As a blatant example of the very large variations in indirect expenses between different academic institutions, I once went to work with a faculty collaborator at a large academic institution in Philadelphia on 2 consecutive days.  I saw with my own eyes that his laboratory rooms had a daily damp-mopping of the floors.  I was totally astounded to see that happening because at my own institution the lab floors were never damp-mopped, and were wet-mopped only a few times each year.  The indirect cost rates at these 2 universities certainly differed, but not by such a huge amount!

Who Pays and Who Does Not Pay for the Indirect Costs of Scholarship and Research at Universities?

            Usually. only faculty scientists having a research laboratory are required to pay for indirect expenses via their research grants.  Faculty members researching in other areas of scholarly endeavor mostly are not required to pay for the indirect costs of their investigations.  Those others include nearly all faculty working in art and music, classics, computer science, history, library science, linguistics, literature, and statistics.  This also can include some scholars working in astronomy, economics, engineering, environmental science, mathematics, psychology, or social science.  In all such cases, their indirect expenses must be paid by some other institutional funds, and presumably are seen as simply representing the routine costs of university business.  One should note here that smaller non-federal granting agencies often do not provide any payments for indirect expenses, yet most universities still are happy to receive those awards; the indirect costs for these smaller grant-supported investigations certainly still exist, but are being paid by some other budget.

            Indirect expenses for faculty offices, teaching activities in lecture and laboratory classrooms, and small conferences held in a campus room, normally are paid by the university as a normal operating expense.  It is only faculty scientists conducting research in laboratories who are required to pay for the indirect costs of their experimental investigations.  Senior science faculty members studying  education in their science courses are not charged for the indirect costs of these investigations.

Concluding Remarks

          Several conclusions now can be drawn: (1) research grants are used to pay for indirect expenses by all science faculty researching in a laboratory, (2) many scholarly investigations by faculty not needing to work in a research laboratory have their indirect expenses paid by some internal budget at the same institutions, (3) research grant awards for indirect expenses at some institutions exceed the amount given for direct expenses, and, (4) direct experience with paying for indirect expenses leads many Principal Investigators to have questions and suspicions that some type of hidden purpose or scam might be going on with the current system for using research grant funds to pay for indirect expenses.

            With this brief background, we now must ask several very important questions!   Why are only faculty scientists doing laboratory research being asked to obtain external funding to pay for their indirect expemses?  Is this done simply because grants are available for scientific research, but funding programs supporting scholarly studies in many other disciplines are smaller and less available?   Why are the indirect expenses for scholarly studies by many non-science faculty paid by institutional funds?  Why are the indirect costs of faculty scientists doing laboratory research investigations not also being paid by the employing institutions?  Where 2 different funded faculty scientists share a large laboratory room, does each grant provide support for only 50% of the indirect costs that would be awarded if there was only one occupant, or does each award pay for 100%?  Quite frankly, the more questions one asks about this topic, the more new queries arise; true answers to these never-asked questions probably would be both very interesting and very distressing.

            I will close by stating my own sincere conviction that something just does not make sense here!  In several later essays, I will try to provide further insights and discussions about indirect costs, especially  in the context of the current shortage of funding for research grants.  These will include controversial proposals for useful changes in the present policies and practices for the payment of indirect costs.

 

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CURIOSITY, CREATIVITY, INVENTIVENESS, AND INDIVIDUALISM IN SCIENCE

 

Edwin H. Land inspects an oversized Polaroid BLACK AND WHITE image of himself taken with one of his Polaroid cameras; recorded by an unknown photographer in the late 1940's.
Edwin H. Land inspects an oversized Polaroid black and white image of himself taken with one of his Polaroid cameras; recorded by an unknown photographer in the late 1940’s.

 

            Curiosity is the desire in some individuals to wonder about the whys and wherefores of something (e.g., how does a clock work, what causes headaches, why do humans get old and die, when will cars drive themselves, is a mouse just a little rat, where was copper mined for making the first ancient copper pots, etc.?).  Creativity is an inborn ability to think and act in new directions, and to make unrestrained or unconventional associations.  Inventiveness is an inborn ability to devise and develop new or better objects, and new ways of doing something;  inventions are new devices or processes, made and developed by an inventor (see my earlier post on “Inventors & Scientists” in the Basic Introductions category).  Individualism is found in people who readily assert their own personal characteristics of thought, interests, and demeanor, and, who are not afraid to have some of their own viewpoints be quite different from those of the general public.   Any one person, whether a scientist or a non-scientists, can potentionally excel with any of these characteristics.  Some of these features, but rarely all 4 of them, frequently are found in research scientists; when several are well-developed in one individual researcher, the results often are quite spectacular.  

 

Most scientists started out as youngsters with the natural curiosity and creativity found in almost all children.  Sometime later, during the course of their education and advanced training, they become molded into adult scientists who are more ready to think along certain channels, accept participation in group projects, and perform research with standardized experimental approaches; this process often results in very restrained individualism, diminished curiosity, near absence of  research creativity, and, redirection of activities into only tried and true pathways.  Although everyone has a distinct personality with individual likes and dislikes, most research scientists now are inhibited from thinking creatively, trying to prove that some established belief is wrong, questioning interpretations or conclusions coming from very famous other scientists, and expressing their individual  curiosity.  In the modern world, most of us, whether we are scientists or non-scientists, are expected to conform, not be very curious, and not ask too many questions (i.e., “do not rock the boat!”).  It really takes guts for any artist, musician, poet, or scientist to be a creative individual in today’s world. 

 

            In modern science, the current research grant system unforunately opposes creativity in scientists.  This is largely because a big push is given to being able to actually produce the anticipated results with the proposed experiments; grant applications proposing to conduct experiments and attack research questions with well-established experimental designs generally are favored by the grant system over those more exploratory studies seeking to use new approaches, ask unconventional questions, or, use innovative designs and new tools for analysis.  For truly creative scientists, results of their experiments often either cannot be anticipated at all or are likely to be very different from traditional expectations; this condition generally is not viewed with favor by the modern research grant system. Inventions are widely sought in modern science and research because they can produce financial gain and help provide touchable evidence that new practical devices are generated by publically-supported research grants; in other words, the granting agencies like to show the tax-paying public that research grant funds are indeed helping make daily life better or easier.  Although today’s scientists are very appreciative that the research grant system does provide considerable support for experimental science, they also are at least vaguely aware that it also tends to suppress expression of the several attributes found prominently in dedicated and innovative research scientists. 

 

            Exceptions to the above generalizations about repression of curiosity, creativity, inventiveness, and individualism in modern science are among the most fascinating of all people.   One particularly well-known example is Edwin H. Land (1909-1991), who had vigorous expression of all 4 of these characteristics.  He is most widely known as the inventor, developer, and manufacturer of the Polaroid Camera and Polaroid films [1-4].  These comprised the amazing invention of “instant photography”,  and occurred decades before the now-commonplace digital imaging cameras were born.  Land dropped out of Harvard College in order to conduct research studies, but later went on to obtain his bachelor’s degree; he succeeded in educating himself largely through self-study, similarly to what Thomas Edison did.  It now is obvious to all that Land didn’t need academic degrees in order to achieve renown, because he was supremely individualistic and a remarkably self-driven worker.  His open curiosity, creative ideas, energetic drive, and engineering insights led this researcher and inventor to develop new means to polarize photonic light, and also a new theory of color vision.  His special cameras and unique films both had multiple models and diverse varieties [3].  The Polaroid Corporation had multiple buidings and laboratories with over 10,000 employees; the research and development labs housed several talented co-researchers and engineers toiling to make very new technological advances in photography [4].  Land was a very self-motivated creator throughout his entire life.  He felt that everyone should havre direct experience in conducting experimental research as a very valuable part of getting a college education, so he established new programs for laboratory research by undergraduate students at several universities.  By the time he died, Land the physical scientist, inventor, and manufacturer had obtained over 500 patents [1,2]; this giant number stands as an objective testimonial to the inventiveness of this very creative human [3,4]. 

 

            Creativity is not essential for science, but is very useful and helpful in speeding up research progress by enabling breakthroughs and large jumps over the usual step-by-step progress in laboratory activities.  Quite often scientists have become famous largely because they invented some key device or process that enabled them to examine and study something that was unseen or unrecognized by other eager researchers.  Today, it is often believed that younger individuals are the major source for new concepts and new ideas in science.  All of these basic recognitions force the conclusion that both the agencies awarding research grants, and the academic institutions employing faculty researchers, should do more to encourage creativity, individualism, and inventiveness in scientists, instead of repressing these capabilities.  Any funding program that intentionally or unintentionally suppresses creativity and curiosity by demanding that a proposed project be almost guaranteed success, proceed only with some currently hot methodology, or follow strictly along well-known pathways of logic and analysis, is thereby retarding the progress of scientific research.  Society, schools and universities, and, granting agencies, all need to recognize the fact that the unknowns in research make good experimental studies always risky, not easily guaranteed, and very challenging; but, at the same time these conditions also make science investigations quite wonderful.  Encouraging curiosity, creativity, inventiveness, and individualism in scientists will promote better results in scientific research, and that will benefit everyone. 

    

[1]  McElheny, V. K. The National Academy Press, 2013.  Biographical Memoirs: Edwin Herbert Land, May 7, 1909 – March 1, 1991.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nap.edu/html/biomems/eland.html

[2]   Linderman, M., 2010.  The story of Polaroid inventor Edwin Land, one of Steve Jobs’ biggest heroes.  Available on the internet at:  http://signalvnoise.com/posts/2666-the-story-of-polaroid-inventor-edwin-land-one-of-steve-jobs-biggest-heroes .

[3]  BBC News Magazine, 2013.  The Polaroid genius who re-imagined the way we take photos.  Video is available online at:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21115581 .  

[4]  Polaroid Corporation, 1970.  Edwin H. Land in “The Long Walk” (directed by Bill Warriner).  Video is available online at:  http://film.linke.rs/domaci-filmovi/edwin-h-land-in-the-long-walk-1970-directed-by-bill-warriner-for-polaroid-corporation/ .

 

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WHY IS IT SO VERY HARD TO ELIMINATE FRAUD AND CORRUPTION IN SCIENTISTS?

 

Ordinary Career Goals Easily Have Room for Cheating!   (dr-monsrs.net)
Ordinary Science Faculty Goals Easily Can Encourage Corruption!                               (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

             Today in 2014, nobody knows exactly how much dishonesty is occurring in science (see my recent post on “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science” in the Basic Introductions category).  Clear examples of cheating by research scientists continue to be discovered every year [e.g., 1,2].  This ethical problem always is potentially present, can be very destructive, and has several known causes (see my recent post of “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?” in the Big Problems category).  The problem of cheating and corruption in science is particularly hard to solve because the great majority of lapses in professional ethics remain unrecognizable and undetected. 

 

            Unethical behavior in modern scientific research at universities is encouraged by 4 changes from previous conditions that impact all faculty scientists. 

                        1.  Within universities, science has changed its goals from the discovery of new and true knowledge into the acquisition of commercial developments, obtaining more and more external research grant money, and achieving as many published research reports as possible.  In such an atmosphere, cheating and deceit are simply the result of the large pressures generated by these new goals (see my posts on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” in the Basic Introductions category, and “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?” in the Big Problems category). 

                        2.  Today’s doctoral researcher employed in academia is so overwhelmed by the numerous demands for their time and effort that it is natural to search for easy ways to save precious time and speed up research progress (see my recent post on “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists so Very Hectic?” in the Scientists category). 

                        3.  Science and research always function immersed within the surrounding environment.  In the modern USA, research scientists are working today within a society where deception, fraud, insincerity, and even outright lying are too often considered useful and clever in advertising, all levels of education, business and commerce, court and legal activities, entertainment, federal and state governments, law enforcement, manufacturing, and, sports.  Thus, it would be nothing short of a miracle if some few scientists do not also follow these widespread unethical practices. 

                        4.  Money now is over-emphasized in scientific research (see my earlier post on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” in the Big Problems category).  The hyper-competition for research grants pervades all aspects of being a busy faculty scientist  (see my recent posts on “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” in the Essays category, and “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?” in the Scientists category).  The large pressures created by this condition easily can overwhelm any superficial adherence to honesty by some faculty researchers who are not sufficiently tied to the need of science professionals for total integrity. 

 

            Why is dishonesty so very bad for science that it must be eliminated?  Corruption in science breaks down trust by the public, by fellow researchers and other scholars, and by commercial interests.  Any breakdown of trust can be very destructive and usually spreads.  The whole enterprise of experimental science is based upon the trust that research results published by scientists are real, and that reported experiments will work as described when they later are repeated by other investigators.  Any falsification of research data and conclusions in journals or books can have devastating later consequences (e.g., doctoral research scientists working at some large pharmaceutical firm do not object when they recognize that their results with testing of a new drug have been manipulated by company executive administrators to remove the experimental evidence for some side effects).  Scientific and legal controversies originating or supported by fraudulent results and biased conclusions not only are a huge waste of time, but also waste large amounts of money. 

           

            Why can’t some “minor dishonesty” in research be tolerated?  This would have unfortunate practical consequences.  For all future research work, the “slightly dishonest researcher” must be expected to be willing to cheat again; this expectation follows from basic human nature.  Any and all research results from that person cannot ever again be taken at face value, but have to be independently verified by further experiments and tests.  Once trust by fellow research scientists is broken, it cannot be readily reassembled, barring development of some effective efforts with rehabilitation (see my recent post on “Important Article by Daniel Cressey in 2013 Nature” in the Big Problems category). 

           

            Are current efforts to try to control dishonesty in scientific research having good effects?  The penalties for dishonesty in research and the resultant breakdown in trust usually are not very severe.  In the past, most instances with detection of cheating and dishonesty have not produced very strong effects upon the perpetrator.  The recent federal laws designed to protect whistleblowers from retribution are well-intentioned, but do not attain their supposed aims.  Continuing to ignore this problem certainly will not make it go away.  History already proves that wishful thinking will not change the ongoing presence of corruption in science.  Although all research scientists will profess to have very strong standards of honesty, most will not ever take action if some corruption is observed or alleged.  The appointment of officials in charge of research integrity in universities is increasing and might help improve this problem in the future, but without strengthening all the other measures needed, this is likely to have only a nominal effect. Thus, I must conclude that current efforts to deal with dishonesty in science are not effective!

 

            Fraud and corruption in scientific research are especially hard to eliminate because: (1) their ultimate basis is normal human nature (i.e., working to increase fame and fortune), (2) they often are extremely hard to detect and very difficult to prove (i.e., allegations of dishonesty are meaningless without explicit authenticated documentation), (3) they are strongly stimulated by the enormous job pressures coming from granting agencies and universities (i.e., the time problem, and the money problem), and, (4) the penalties for being caught at corruption in science presently are too limited and not harsh enough.  Clearly, one cannot change the first condition (human nature), but the other 3 conditions can and must be changed in order to achieve much more extensive progress in dealing with this difficult ongoing problem.  Although it previously has been very difficult to eliminate dishonesty in science, I believe that this major problem for modern scientific research can be greatly improved by addressing these 3 areas.

 

            If cheating and fraud in science are so very hard to detect and prove, what can de done to stop dishonesty and corruption by scientists from becoming more frequent?  The biggest chance for success in eliminating the issue of dishonesty for modern science is to institute 3 large changes: (1) much more intense education about the need for research scientists to always be 100% honest, (2) much more effective and vigorous efforts to detect dishonesty in scientific research, and (3) much harsher penalties must be handed out for admitted or proven  unethical behavior by research scientists.  Making these 3 changes will help tip the balance when some weaker individual scientists are faced with any temptation to take the easy way out rather than maintain their professional integrity.  

 

          [1]  Mail Online, 2014.  Rogue scientist faked AIDS research funded with $19M in taxpayer funded money by spiking rabbit blood.  Daily Mail (U.K.), 26 December 2013.  Available online at:
http://dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2529541/Rogue-scientist-FAKED-federally-funded-AIDS-
research-spiking-rabbit-blood.html .

         [2]  Callaway, E., 2011.  Report finds massive fraud at Dutch universities.  Nature, 479:15.  Also available on the internet at::  http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111101/full/479015a.html .

 

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WHY WOULD ANY SCIENTIST EVER CHEAT?

 

 Cheating in Science  (dr-monsrs.net)

Why do Children Cheat?    Who do Some Scientists Cheat?         (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

           I myself do sincerely believe that most scientists are totally honest, just as they should be.  Why would any scientist ever elect to ignore professional ethics and cheat or be dishonest?  I think it likely that most unethical scientists do not really decide to be dishonest, but rather feel pushed into it.  There are many different factors and circumstances that cause and push some weaker individual scientists to cross the boundary between honesty and dishonesty.  These include: personal attributes and character defects, being surrounded by others who engage in dishonesty, employment in an institution that has only a superficial commitment to scientific research, working under an atmosphere where money rules all, not being internally strong enough to deal with all the external pressures involved with the research grant system, etc.  Such problematic situations can readily generate a very large pressure where some few individuals try to deal with their difficulties by taking the easy way out.  Fortunately, most research scientists are able to remain strictly honest in these same situations, and are determined to avoid corruption at all times. Nevertheless, history shows that some scientists do cheat (see my recent post on “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science” within the Basic Introductions category). 

 

            For scientists, vexing difficulties with time management and handling research grants are major generators raising the pressure to cheat.  I have already described the overly busy life of scientists working as university faculty (see my recent post on “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists So Very Hectic?” in the Scientists category).  There are only about 18 hours per day for research scientists working in universities to handle laboratory work, teaching activities, supervision of graduate students and lab employees, writing and reading, preparation of abstracts for annual science meetings, family life, outside interests, etc., etc. (see my earlier post on “What Do University Scientists Really Do in their Daily Work?” in the Basic Introductions category).  This condition with its many deadlines frequently creates job difficulties in time management (= “the time problem”) that can become very problematic.


            Failure of an academic scientist to get a research grant renewed means loss of laboratory space assignment, loss of graduate students, additional teaching duties, and decay of professional reputation.  Yes, this does actually happen!  Anything at all that will aid in getting a new grant, assist in having a research grant renewed,  or produce more research publications might for certain individuals seem like a gift from heaven, but the use of dishonesty really is the opposite.  Some universities push their faculty scientists to  obtain several research grants, thereby greatly increasing the pressure of job difficulties with the research grant system (= “the money problem”).  For universities, additional grant awards mean more business profits, greater productivity from more publications means more status, and, improvements in their research reputation and renown mean more students and more opportunities.  The granting agencies themselves further increase these pressures by some of their present policies, particularly those that provide funding for only 1-5 years of laboratory work, thereby necessitating more frequent applications by research scientists. The total struggle to get and maintain research grant funding often is so intense and takes up so much time and effort by so many faculty scientists, that I term it a hyper-competition.  Modern scientists in academia are subject to pressure from both the time and money problems, but only some less dedicated individuals succumb and engage in unethical behavior as they try to deal with these job situations.  


            Unlike the widespread dishonesty and corruption currently seen in business and politics, very fewscientists engage in corrupt practices as a means to add dollars to their bank account.  Nevertheless, personal greed still is involved with any intent to obtain more grant money and more professional advantages through dishonest means.  Greed is involved with those who dishonestly obtain the award of a research grant, because that means that there then is less money available to fund other scientists who are deserving and honest.  Personal greed, along with excesses of such perfectly normal and good human characteristics as ambition, desire for improved status, eagerness in seeking increased prestige, and, striving to improve one’s lot in life, all can play important roles in determining whether any individual scientist will cross the line separating honesty from dishonesty. 

         

            All scientists performing laboratory studies within universities have to acquire a research grant award in order to pay for their research expenses.  This recently has created a new dimension for dihonesty in science: cheating on applications for research grants.  University scientists frequently ask one or more experienced faculty colleagues who are very successful with acquiring research grant awards to criticize their prospective applications.  Others go beyond this very useful practice and seek assistance by submitting the draft text with their ideas and plans for new experiments to professional editors or commercial advisors, in order to improve their presentation; so long as those experts only rework and polish what is furnished by theapplying scientist, that is honest (i.e., this seems analogous to a professional baker who makes a very large multilayered cake and then hires some specialist to put frosting and elaborate decorations onto it).  A typical example is when foreign-born scientists either ask a university colleague or pay an editor to find and correct errors in their English language expression within grant applications they have composed.  All of the above practices are widespread and seem to be perfectly honest.  On the other hand, using external experts to design and organize new experiments, create the research proposal and schedule, compose the bulk of the application, etc., then crosses the line between rught vs. wrong and must be considered to be dishonest, unprofessional, and condemnable.  Readers should note that after any applicant signs their own name onto an application that actually was authored by someone else, it is nearly impossible to detect this fraud just by inspecting the submitted documents.  Cheating and dishonesty on grant applications are directly encouraged by the enormous pressures to get more grant awards put onto the very busy faculty scientists working in universities (see my earlier post on “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” in the Money & Grants  category).

           

            To answer the question posed in the title, some few scientists do cheat because they believe that tactic will help to get them a personal reward or provide relief from difficult job pressures.  The specific causes for corruption in science involve certain situations: (1) defects in the personal character and professional dedication of  individual scientists, (2) the particular job environment, and (3) the current federal research grant system.  The large job pressures of being a modern faculty scientist trying to deal with the money problem and the time problem directly push some weaker researchers to become corrupt in their efforts to achieve job success. 

 

 

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INTRODUCTION TO CHEATING AND CORRUPTION IN SCIENCE

 

Dishonesty in Science (http://dr-monsrs)
Dishonesty and Corruption in Science (http://dr-monsrs)

  

             How much cheating and corruption is there in science?  The best answer is that nobody knows!  Even today in 2014, there continue to be much-publicized instances where some professional research scientist is revealed to have published research results in peer-reviewed journal articles where the reported experimental data were either fabricated (faked) or were grossly changed (i.e., to construct a surprising pseudo-result) [e.g., 1,2].  While money is almost always involved in some way, for corruption in science money only rarely goes directly into the pocket of the dishonest scientists, unlike the usual situation for widespread corruption within politics and the business world.  Instead, it often goes into their professional purse and is used for such personally rewarding expenses as the purchase of additional research equipment not paid for by their grants, salaries for additional research coworkers, extra business travel, a new computer with special software, etc.). 

 

  Dishonesty in science includes several different types of unethical activity.  At a simple level, this corruption can involve such disgraceful events as (1) adding some imagined numbers to a chart of experimental results, so as to get better statistics, (2) changing or removing some numbers in a chart of collected results, so as to shift the conclusions being supported by these data, (3) misrepresenting the design of experiments, so as to support certain conclusions or deny others, or (4) not giving appropriate credit to internal or external collaborators and coauthors.  Thus, these simpler types of dishonesty involve research fraud by data fabrication and manipulation, drawing false conclusions, theft of intellectual property, etc.  At a more complex level, dishonesty in science can involve such activities as (1) stealing experimental research data from other labs, (2) stealing ideas or even research projects from other scientists, (3) fabrication of entire experimental datasets, or (4) constructing an application for a research grant using imaginary results or falsified statements.  These larger types of dishonesty thus involve theft of data, lying about the experimental results gathered, stealing of ideas, misrepresentation with the intent to deceive, etc.  Some or even many readers will wonder how in the world could any of these examples actually happen?  I assure them that I have heard rumors, seen and listened to stories, and, read reports about all of these!  Moreover, I have conversed with two separate doctoral workers who unsuccessfully pursued lawsuits for their claims of data theft.

   

  I personally believe that almost all faculty scientists are completely honest.  Any unethical behavior by professional scientists betrays the enormous trust given to them by the general public [3], and the necessary trust given by their fellow researchers.  Any dishonesty thus destroys both the integrity of science and the practical ability of other researchers to proceed forward from what they believe is the truth when designing new research experiments.  When dishonesty occurs in successfully acquiring a research grant, that event directly decreases the chance that some other scientist who is totally honest is able to acquire funding for their worthy project; this type of robbery is not often recognized as being a very important part of modern corruption in science.  A shocking and disgraceful example of successful cheating in order to get a large research grant award was uncovered very recently [1]. 

 

In addition to outright dishonesty and deception by scientists, where research integrity is discarded, there also is a gray area where some very limited portion of collected data (e.g., a very few outliers in a data plot) is eliminated from the total pool of experimental results displayed.  The opposite condition for this same kind of situation also occurs, where one or two pieces of individual data that are much better, clearer, or prettier than the average case, are selected to be shown in publications and in oral presentations.  These practices are not at all unusual and are known generically as “fudging the data”; both can simply serve to make the quality of the collected data look better and be seen more easily.  They commonly are not considered to be dishonest. 

 

 What happens when outright dishonesty by a faculty scientist is either proven or admitted?  In many cases, there has been almost no penalty given beyond having a published article withdrawn or being discharged from a laboratory group.  Part of this apparent lack of serious concern is due to the fact that in cases where some very celebrated scientist has been accused of being involved in corruption, long battles and countercharges in the courts have ensued [e.g., 4,5].  If famous research leaders are directing some very large laboratory in which the cheating allegedly occured, it usually is totally difficult to prove either that they were involved in the dishonest act(s) carried out by some individual lab worker, or that the leader even knew about the wrongful event(s) [4,5]; separation of the supervisor from actual technical workers is very widespread within giant laboratory groups (research factories), where the chief scientist really is only an administrative manager and does not even know the names of all the people who work there. 

 

Most corruption in science almost certainly remains undetected.  Unless there is some witness who is upset enough and courageous enough to report the dishonesty, and unless hard and fast documentation can be acquired, the loss of research integrity will never become known or proven. A good example of this is given by the very recent case cited earlier [1], where the dishonesty was discovered only when some other research laboratories found that they could not duplicate some of the experimental results published by the unethical scientist.  Despite new rules intended to protect whistleblowers and the recently increasing appointment of officials in charge of research integrity at academic institutions, it continues to remain very difficult to investigate and prosecute alleged dishonesty in science.  There is a natural reluctance for anyone working in academia, whether faculty or students or lab technicians, to make accusations that necessarily will involve official investigations, prolonged legal activities, and possible retribution.   

                      

Clearly, the present measures being taken to prevent, detect, and punish dishonesty in scientific research are inadequate.  There is too much lip service in dealing with cheating and corruption in science, and it seems likely that this problem will increase.  I suspect that the amount of dishonesty in applications for research grants particularly is increasing now, and soon will become the most frequent form of corruption in science.  The chief driver for my prediction is that it is very, very hard to detect, and nearly impossible to prove, any dishonesty in grant applications; moreover, there presently is only scanty attention and little concern being given to this problem by the different granting agencies.

           

Although all academic sicentists are quite aware of the problem of dishonesty and corruption in science, there generally are few casual or formal discussions about this issue.  Exactly why do some few scientists become dishonest?  What motivates cheating and dishonesty in science?  How can dishonesty and corruption in scientific research be decreased and eliminated?  What new penalties should be instituted for cheating in research?  Can an unethical researcher be made honest by some curative process?  I will discuss these complex questions and related issues within future postings. 

 

[1]  Mail Online, 2014.  Rogue scientist faked AIDS research funded with $19M in taxpayer funded money by spiking rabbit blood.  Daily Mail (U.K.), 26 December 2013.  Available online at:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2529541/Rogue-scientist-FAKED-federally-funded-AIDS-research-spiking-rabbit-blood.html

[2]  Callaway, E., 2011.  Report finds massive fraud at Dutch universities.  Nature, 479:15.  Also available on the internet at::  http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111101/full/479015a.html .

[3]  Pew Research, 2009.  Public praises science; Scientists fault public, media; Scientific achievements less prominent than a decade ago.  Available online at:                                       http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/public-praises-science-scientists-fault-public-media/ .

[4]  Wright, P., 2003.  Robert Alan Good.  The Lancet362:1161.  Also available on the internet at:                                                                                                          http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2803%2914489-3/fulltext .

[5]  Bombardieri, M., & Cook, G., 2005.  More doubts raised on fired MIT professor.  In: The Boston Globe, October 29, 2005.  Available online at:  https://secure.pqarchiver.com/boston/doc/404985132.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Oct+29%2C+2005&author=Marcella+Bombardieri+and+Gareth+Cook%2C+Globe+Staff&pub=Boston+Globe&edition=&startpage=&desc=MORE+DOUBTS+RAISED+ON+FIRED+MIT+PROFESSOR .

. 

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MONEY NOW IS EVERYTHING IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AT UNIVERSITIES

All Is Money in University Science  (dr-monsrs.net)
All  Is  Money  in  University  Science     (dr-monsrs.net)

            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 [1]. 

            

            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. 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 ). 

 

[1]   National Science Foundation, 2013.  About funding.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.nsf.gov/funding/aboutfunding.jsp . 

[2]   Mullis, K.B., 1987.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf/ .

[3]  Universal Genetics DNA Testing Laboratory, 2013.  Paternity DNA test.  Available on the

internet at: http://www.dnatestingforpaternity.com/paternity-test.html .

[4]   Ingenetix, 2013.  Paternity testing.  Available on the internet at: 

http://www.ingenetix.com/en/paternaty-testing

 

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WHAT IS THE VERY BIGGEST PROBLEM FOR SCIENCE TODAY?

 Top Secret FINAL     What is the very biggest problem for science/scientists at universities ?                                                (http://dr-monsrs.net)


           Quite frankly, I believe that science and research now have several very difficult large problems.  The thousands of doctoral scientists around the world who are working in universities generally either are not very aware of these serious issues, or feel helpless to challenge the status quo.  Do I believe that the widespread estrangement of the public from science and research is the biggest problem?  No I don’t!  Is the fact that there never seems to be enough money to support research the biggest problem?  Not in my opinion!  Do I consider that the biggest problem is the disastrous consequences that good scientific research has had for Fukushima, recombinant agricultural crops, modern weapons systems, etc.?  No I don’t!  My personal opinion is that the number one biggest problem for science today is the commercialization of research within universities.  This change in the direction of scientific investigations produces bad consequences for the public, including you and me.  What has caused this large change to develop?  What are its effects for scientific research?

           

            The many research scientists and engineers working in industrial laboratories always have worked knowingly within the context of trying to increase the commercial profits of their employer.  Any given study in industrial labs can be stopped abruptly for business reasons, as well as because the research experiments are not progressing in a satisfactory manner.  This industrial system seems to have worked out quite well in most cases.  However, until recently, basic research by scientists working in academia has not been directly involved with business profits.  The new commercialization of scientific research in universities markedly changes this traditional situation.

            

           Basic scientists formerly obtained money from government research support programs in order to be able to pay the costs of conducting experimental studies within universities.  Via commercialization, things now have switched around so that university science faculty seek research grant awards to enable  their employer to gather increased income and profits; scientific research is only the means to this mercenary end.  In other words, the current aim is simply to get as much money as possible, thereby raising profits for the employing university.  Many science faculty become quite dismayed when they come to realize that the real goal is the money, not the research itself.

            

           Different universities and specialty schools now commonly are compared and ranked on the basis of their annual total research grant awards.  This vigorous lust for research grants has become the major reason why doctoral scientists are hired as faculty in academia.  The professional reputation of a faculty researcher conducting experimental studies in any branch of science now is mainly determined by the total amount of dollars in their research grant awards; such features as innovation, significance, difficulty, and quality in their research findings is of distant importance.  Similarly, the quality of their teaching activities now is strictly of secondary concern.  The entire nature of being a faculty scientist has changed.

            

           Scientific research in academia thus has been turned into just another business activity.  Faculty scientists now are fully part of this new commercialized system where universities openly grasp for increased profits.  Many universities try to explain their shift into seeking profits from research grant awards as a necessary response to declining alumni donations, shrinking endowments, decreasing enrollments, increasing regulations and administrative expenditures, and, the inflating costs for everything.  They can no longer utilize their traditional practice of simply charging students more and more for tuition each year, but it is easy to hide the new commercialization of  their science faculty.  The accompanying negative consequences of this situation are either denied or ignored by these same universities.

            

           Commercialization affects all aspects of being a faculty researcher.  Any academic research scientist working to find the cause or a cure for some disease now almost always is looking around simultaneously to identify which commercial companies will be interested in developing and marketing this wonderful new knowledge.  Those faculty researchers in materials science who are investigating a new type of coating that can reduce friction by several hundred-fold now almost always are simultaneously wondering if it would be better to first contact an established firm selling coatings, or to form a new start-up firm, before they publish anything.  Academic institutions generally have dedicated offices for aiding their faculty scientists to acquire patents and participate in commercial ventures jointly with industrial partners.  In all these cases, the possibilities for later profit have become the chief driver, if not the actual purpose, for the investigational efforts by faculty scientists. 

           

            Although the traditional aim of basic scientific research was to find new knowledge and discover what is true, the search for truth now seems idealistic and is disappearing from view.  For pure basic science, which seeks new knowledge for its own sake, there usually had been very little of looking to acquire profits from a research discovery; if the new basic knowledge later helps the public, then so much the better, but this was not the aim of the experimentation.  Increased commercialization now has spread everywhere throughout basic research.  In turn, this modern re-direction of research efforts strongly encourages applied research and equally strongly de-emphasizes basic research. 

            

           What are the main consequences of this ongoing commercialism in academic science?  The chief effect is that the ever-increasing importance of profits causes the down-sizing of basic research.  Indeed, to a growing extent, both research investigations in universities and the enthusiasm of the granting agencies now are directed towards applied research and engineering rather than to basic studies.  Why is it considered horrible if basic investigations are disfavored and diminishing?  The reason is that almost all of the wonderful new high technology devices and other features that characterize modern life have arisen by the work of applied scientists and engineers upon the preceding discoveries by basic researchers.  Basic science is the necessary precursor to later studies and developments by applied scientists and engineers.  If basic research decreases its production of new findings, there will inevitably follow a slowing of new and improved products and processes; that will have negative effects upon everyone.  

            

           Yet other bad effects of the commercialization of university science include: (1) creativity, formation of new concepts, and curiosity are decreased inside the research endeavor; (2) the conduct of experimental studies are made more mechanical, and more studies are channeled towards large groups where each individual scientist necessarily becomes a doctoral technician, rather than an independent thinker and creative doer; and, (3) as individual activities and creativity in basic science are increasingly smothered, so is the traditional main source being lessened for new thoughts, unconventional ideas, new concepts, and perception of unexpected interrelationships.  The new chief aim of acquiring financial profits (i.e., as research grants) further subverts the traditional conduct of scientific research in academia by exposing it to all the greed, cheating, and underhanded actions that are sadly characteristic of the dynamics of money in too many modern businesses.  All these effects from pervasive commercialization are having a very negative influence on the progress of science in the modern world.

           

            There are many other important aspects of this subject, and all of these are very infrequently discussed.  I will deal much further with commercialization and other modern problems for science and for research by university faculty within future postings. 

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INTRODUCTION TO MONEY IN MODERN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

Dollars for Research.signedIt’s all money !  Is the purpose of research really just to acquire money ??                                                        (http://dr-monsrs.net)

           

            Money for experimental research plays a very large role in modern science.  The key importance of money is due to: (1) research studies are very expensive, (2) without money, almost no experimental studies can be conducted, (3) not all good ideas are able to be funded by the granting agencies, and, (4) large portions of research grant awards are not being spent for actual research expenses. 

 

            Most research support in the USA comes either from federal grants to universities and small businesses, or from internal budgets for research and development in industrial companies.  The sum of all this dedicated support for experimental research studies is many billions of dollars each year; this huge figure clearly demonstrates the great importance of scientific research for the good of all people.   In Fiscal Year 2011, the grand total of all grants awarded for support of research by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) was $5,103,500,000 [1].  The total research and development outlays for all nondefense studies from any sources in this same period were over 65 billion dollars [2].  These billion dollar sums prove that modern research indeed is very expensive.  Special fundung programs, often requiring establishment of a multi-user facility, have been set-up for applications to purchase very large and particularly expensive special research instruments. 

 

            Research grant funds are spent by scientists for the purchase of supplies (e.g., chemicals, blank DVDs, specimen holders, test tubes), acquisition or usage of some special research equipment (e.g., regulated very high temperature ovens, chromatography columns and systems, personal computers), and, purchase of business travel (e.g., to collect specimens or data in the field, to attend annual science meetings).  They also are used to pay for telephone usage and copying costs, employment of laboratory personnel, support of graduate students working in the laboratory, provision of partial  salary for the grant-holder (i.e., Principal Investigator), adjunctive costs of performing experiments (e.g., utilization of an institutional or regional research facilities, the costs of monitoring radiation exposure, care and housing for research animals), etc.  Unless someone pays, all these activities would stop. 

 

            Although there are federal and institutional oversight controls to verify which expenses are bonafide and necessary, the inherent nature of the present research grant system means that  large amounts of money are not being spent for direct support of the actual research experiments (i.e.,  therefore, my view is that they are being wasted!).  Some of these wated funds are spent on redundant or unnecessary expenses.  Other wastage comes from the frequent absence of organized mechanisms for re-assignment and re-use of expensive research equipment that is no longer needed (i.e., why pass along a 5-10 year old working research instrument belonging to the late Professor Jones, when the new faculty member, Assistant Professor Smith, can buy the very latest model with his newly awarded research grant?).  It is well-known amongst grant-holders that all awarded funds must be spent; there is no official capability to bank any unspent research grant funds, nor is there any encouragement to ever try to save money and then return unspent portions of the awarded funds. 

 

            The very largest inappropriate expenditure of research grant funds in my view is for payments of indirect costs.  Direct costs for scientific research are those necessarily spent to conduct experiments (see the many examples given above).  Indirect costs are those needed for such purposes as cleaning, heating, cooling, painting, and maintenance of the lab room(s), safety inspections, administrative activities, disposal of garbage and chemical waste, provision and drainage of water, etc.).  All of these expenditures for indirect costs are very necessary for the research conducted by faculty scientists, and certainly must be paid; however, I do question exactly who should pay for them.  At universities, many faculty in mathematics and computer science, the non-science faculty, and scholars working in library science, music, and art all need the same type of services listed above; however, the indirect costs of these faculty mostly are paid by some institutional entity.  Only faculty scientists holding a research grant and using a laboratory are required to pay for their indirect costs; senior doctoral scientists working at teaching and writing books, but no longer doing any laboratory studies, are not asked to pay for their indirect costs.  This selective targeting seems very peculiar to me. 

 

            At some academic institutions research grant payments for indirect costs are even larger than those for the direct costs.  Hence, big portions of research grant awards are being diverted away from their nominal purpose.  I must conclude that the payment of indirect costs by grants awarded to support scientific research constitutes a large waste of research grant funds and is not necessary.  My conclusion is very unusual since both the granting agencies and the universities agree to this peculiar policy.  I suspect, but cannot prove, that many working scientists holding research grants agree with me; I do know from talking with numerous university faculty scientists that most believe that current indirect cost rates are unrealistic and must be way too high. 


            All of the research grant awards now being misdirected to pay for indirect costs would be much better spent if they were used to permit more awards for direct costs to be made that (1) provide full, rather than only partial, funding, (2) give funding to a larger number of worthy applicants than is presently possible, and (3) enable some funding programs to extend for at least 10 years, instead of the 1-5 year period of support that is typical at present.  I will discuss all these issues and ideas for their solutions much further in later posts.

 

[1]   American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2013.  Research funding at the National Science Foundation, FY 2011.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/DiscNSF.png .

[2]   American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2013.  Trends in nondefense R&D (research and devlopment) by function (FY 2011).  Available on the internet at:

http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/FunctionNON.jpg .

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WHAT’S THE NEW MAIN JOB OF FACULTY SCIENTISTS TODAY?

What Is The Real Main Job Of  University Scientists ?
     What Is the new main job of university scientists ?     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Scientific research in modern times certainly is a quite expensive activity.  Scientists researching in  universities must obtain external funding from research grants in order to be able to conduct their experimental investigations in laboratories, in the field, or in hospital clinics.  Doctoral scientists with research laboratories in academia traditionally are thought to spend most of their time with performing experiments and teaching in the classroom.  Today, all of that is ancient history!!  The chief job of academic scientists now is to make money (via research grants) for their university or hospital employer.  The very best scientist now is being defined as that faculty member obtaining the largest total pile of money from research grant awards.  All other faculty activities now are strictly of secondary importance.  

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            Those of us who have seen and smelled this modern change recognize that the search for more new and true knowledge cannot possibly be equated to obtaining lots of money from research grant awards.  Success at gaining more and more new knowledge, proving a controversial hypothesis, or disproving some theory that was formerly regarded as being true, cannot be directly equated to dollars, yen, euro’s, etc.  Similarly, the quality level of research endeavors cannot be measured in units of currency; counting the number of dollars simply is not the same as measuring research quality and significance.

 

          Some readers will not understand exactly what I am describing here.  Of course, everyone understands that they must get external money in order to be able to conduct experimental research in science.  This is reality, and it must be accepted.  But, if one scientist obtains twice the funds acquired by a second scientist, does that by itself mean that the first is twice as good a researcher as the second?  Not necessarily!   Is the scientist with the most money the same as that scientist doing research of the highest quality?  I think not!  And in addition, we all have seen many examples of younger scientists with limited awarded funds perform some really terrific research studies, whereas some senior scientists with a big pot of gold just keep cranking out publications without much significance.   One can also refer to the well-known and very illustrious research scientist, Prof. Linus Pauling, who was a double Nobel prizewinner in science,  Pauling was notorious for being unable to force his creative mind into the rigid format for grant applications demanded by the National Institutes of Health; despite many efforts, that condition precluding him from getting much-needed research funds from that federal agaency; nevertheless, it is widely agreed that Pauling was a brilliant scientific researcher.  .

           

          This modern goal for faculty scientists differs greatly from former times when basic research aimed to find new knowledge for its own sake, develop new concepts, prove a disputed theorem, or establish a new direction in research.  This modern situation is accompanied by the current general spread of  commercialization into science.  Basic research now is largely being de-emphasized in favor of applied research and engineering developments.  The financial targeting of research has always been accepted as being part of industrial research and engineering work, but this was not accepted for basic scientific research in academia.  It now is an important theoretical question of whether grant money is being acquired for its own sake, or for the conduct of research.

 

            When all of this is put together, current university research must be seen to have become just another business activity.  The aim is simply to increase profits of the employer, just as is the case in all small and large businesses.  This change in direction is accompanied by many of the same problems prominently facing all competitive businesses, including (1) cheating, corruption, and dishonesty, (2) waste, (3) counterproductive competitive conflicts between different product developments,  and, (4) personal greed and professional gluttony.  In addition, too many scholarly research publications now are becomming analogous to commercial advertisements.  These negative features are accompanied by the unavoidable cut-throat competition between all scientific researchers in university labs (i.e., since their research grants all come from the same pools of money), and also between all employing institutions (i.e., since each of these seeks to attract research grant awards only to themselves, as contrasted to being used for geographically diverse investigations of a given research problem). 

 

            These modern developments clearly have resulted in large changes in today’s academic science and research.  The entire direction of experimental investigations in universities has shifted away from its classical goals.  Some small portion of science could masquerade as a commercial business without becomming problematic, but the other larger parts (i.e., basic research, theoretical research) lose their identity as science and are incompatible with such a change.  Some even now believe that science has decayed and degenerated so much that it could be dying; this controversial conclusion will be dealt with much further in later dispatches.  

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