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.
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!
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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