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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

Warmth and comfort are yokes for us.
We chose thorns, shoals and starlight.
— from Mid-Journey

I came to the US in 1973, all fired up to do research. I have been doing research as my major occupation since 1980 and have run my own (tiny: average two-member) lab since 1989. So I fulfilled part of my dream and wrote about how it feels to do so in The Double Helix. Yet I may have to abandon it prematurely. Objectively, that’s not a tragedy. People die, people retire – hell, people have midlife epiphanies that make them join odd religions or take jobs in industry with salaries several-fold higher than their academic ones. But right now, I’m one of many who are disappearing. And our disappearance will have an impact far beyond what outsiders perceive (incorrectly) as cosseted academic careers.

Biomedical researchers in the US are on the selling side of a monopsony. If our research is very basic and/or we’re starting out, we can get small grants from the National Science Foundation. If it’s very directed or applied, we can get tiny grants from private foundations or the rare decent-sized grant from the Departments of Energy or Defense. But all these amount to peanuts. The engine behind US biomedical research is a single organization: the National Institute of Health (NIH). When the NIH says “Jump!” we ask “How high?” on the way up.

Grant submissions to the NIH have always been as arcane and painful as a complex religious ritual that includes flaying. Success depends not only on the quality of our science and the number and impact of our papers but also on sending the grant to the right study section for peer review, on using fashionable (“cutting edge”) gadgets and techniques, on doing science that is perceived to fit the interests of the NIH institute that hosts our grant, and on being lucky enough to get reviewers and program officers who agree on the importance of our proposed work (and in the case of reviewers, not direct competitors who are essentially handed unpublished data on a platter). All this, subsumed under the rubric “grantsmanship” or “being savvy”, is not taught at any point during our long, arduous training. In my youth, we learned by literally walking into brick walls.

However, when I started my PhD biomedical researchers could afford to have their egos and labs bashed by savage critiques and terrible grant scores because the NIH payline was 30-40%. This meant that one in three grants got funded – or that each of our grant applications (if of reasonable quality) got funded in one of the three tries the NIH allowed. Also, at that time the traditional university salary covered nine months. For most academic researchers, a grant meant they got the last three months of salary plus, of course, the wherewithal to do research.

My situation was different: I went to a poor institution (my startup package was seventeen thousand – the common minimum is a million) and except for my first two years and a six-month bridge later on I was entirely on soft money till mid-2008. So for me the equation was not “no grant, no lab”; it was “no grant, no job”. This was made a bit tougher by the fact that my research fit the “starts as heresy and ends as superstition” paradigm. For one, the part of my system that is relevant to dementia undergoes human-specific regulation. So unlike most of my colleagues I did not detour into mouse models, long deemed to be the sine qua non of equivalence (an equation that has hurt both biology and medicine, in my opinion, but that’s a different conversation).

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying I’m a neglected Nobel-caliber genius. But much of what I pursued and discovered was against very strong headwinds: I investigated a molecule that had been delegated to the back of the neurodegeneration bus for decades. To give you a sense of how some of my work was received, I once got the following comment for an unexpected observation that flew against accepted wisdom (verbatim): “If this were true, someone would have discovered it by now.” The observation has since been confirmed and other labs eventually made plenty of hay with some of my discoveries, but I’ve never managed to get funding to pursue most of them. I was either too early and got slammed for lacking proof of feasibility or direct relevance to health, or too late and got slammed for lacking cutting-edginess.

It is hard to keep producing data and papers if your lab keeps vanishing like Brigadoon and has to be rebuilt from scratch with all the loss of knowledge and momentum each dislocation brings. To prevent this as much as I could, whenever I had a grant hiatus I cut my salary in half to pay my lab people as long as possible (if you go below 50% you lose all benefits, health insurance prominently among them). I could do this because I had no children to raise and educate, though it has seriously affected my retirement and disability benefits.

While I was marching to my malnourished but stubborn inner drummer, the NIH payline was steadily falling. It now stands at around 7% which means one in fifteen grants gets funded – or that we must send in fifteen grants to get one. Academic institutions, grown accustomed to the NIH largesse, have put more and more of their faculty on largely or entirely soft salaries. At the same time, grants are essentially the sole determinant for promotion and tenure – for those universities that still have tenure. Additionally, universities have decided to run themselves like corporations and use the indirect funds (money the NIH pays to institutions for administrative and infrastructure support) to build new buildings named after their board members, hire ever more assistant vice presidents and launch pet projects while labs get charged for everything from telephone bills to postdoc visas. Essentially, at this point most US biomedical researchers are employed by the NIH and their universities rent them lab space at markup prices comparable to Pentagon toilet seat tarifs.

Meanwhile, the NIH has been changing grant formats for the sake of streamlining (an odd objective, given its mission). We used to have three pages to respond to reviewers. Now we have one. We were able to send last-minute discoveries or paper acceptances that would make the difference between success and failure. Now we cannot. We used to get detailed critiques. Now we get bullet points. We were allowed three tries. Now we’re allowed two. If our two-strikes-and-we’re-out submission fails, we must change our work “substantially” (nebulously defined, and up to the interpretation of individual NIH officers) and to ensure compliance, the NIH has invested in software that combs past grants to uncover overlap. And of course there is essentially no appeal except for resubmission: the NIH appeal process, such as it is, has been copied from Kafka’s Trial.

All these changes are essentially guaranteeing several outcomes: young people will have fewer and fewer chances (or reasons) to become researchers or independent investigators; new and small labs will disappear; and despite lip service to innovation, research will seek refuge into increasingly safer topics and/or become “big ticket” science, doing large-scale politically dictated projects in huge labs that employ lots of robots and low-level technicians — a danger foreseen by Eisenhower in his famous “military industrial complex” address which today would label him as fringe hard left. A recent analysis by MIT’s Tech Review showed that biomedical work still timidly clusters around the few areas that have already been trampled into flatness, ignoring the far vaster unknown territories opened up by the human genome sequencing project and its successors.

Of course, we biomedical researchers have played a significant role in our own slaughter. Because of the unavoidable necessity of peer review, we have acted as judges, jury and executioners for each other. Like all academic faculty, we’re proud we are “as herdable as cats” and like all white-collar workers we have considered it beneath our dignity to be members of a union. Our only (weak and vanishing) protection has been tenure. Many of us are proud to demonstrate how much hazing we can take, how little we need to still produce publishable, fundable science while still carrying the burdens of mentoring, committee work, teaching… The early rounds of cuts were called “pruning dead wood” or “trimming fat”. Except that for the last two decades we haven’t been cutting into fat but into muscle – and now, into bone. Too, keeping ahead of the never-abating storm swells presupposes not only a lot of luck and/or the ability to tack with the winds of scientific fashion but also personal relationships with granite foundations and cast-iron health.

In my case, after my second hiatus I succeeded into landing two small grants that last two years. The day I found out one of them would be funded was the day I was interviewing at the NIH for a branch administrator position. I turned down that offer, with its excellent terms. My heart is irrevocably tied to research. I had not abandoned my home, my country, my culture to become an administrator — even though the position I was offered can make or break other people’s research. One month after the second of these small grants got activated, I got my cancer diagnosis. Being on soft money meant I could not suspend the grant during my surgery and recovery: my health bills would have driven me to penury. So the productivity suffered accordingly. But such factors are not considered during grant review.

Biology is an intrinsically artisan discipline: unlike physics, it cannot be easily reduced to a few large truths reached by use of increasingly larger instruments. Instead, it looks like a crazy quilt of intricately interwoven threads (take a look at the diagram of any biological pathway and you get the picture, let alone how things translate across scales). Some argue that larger labs are likelier to be innovative, because they have the money to pursue risky work and the gadgets to do so. However, it has been my personal experience that large labs are often large because they pursue fashionable topics with whatever techniques are hot-du-jour, regardless of the noise and artifacts they generate (plus their heads have time for politicking at all kinds of venues). They also have enormous burnout rates and tend to train young scientists by rote and distant proxy.

Granted, we need big-science approaches; but we need the other kind, too – the kind that is now going extinct. And it’s the latter kind that has given us most of the unexpected insights that have translated into real knowledge advances, often from neglected, poorly lit corners of the discipline.

Now I’m not all I thought I’d be,
I always stayed around:
I’ve been as far as Mercy and Grand,
Frozen to the ground.
I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave;
Just kiss me once and then
I’ll go to hell —
I might as well
Be whistlin’ down the wind.
— Tom Waits, Whistle down the Wind

Images: 1st, Sand Lily Shadow (Tudio, Falassarna, Crete); 2nd, I Stand Alone (Michellerena, Burnie, Tasmania); 3rd, The Gate (Peter Cassidy, Heron Island, Australia)

13 Responses to “Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears”

  1. Caliban says:

    This is of course pervasive throughout other disciplines (not that you were suggesting otherwise). Just on Friday over a beer with some colleagues we were likewise bemoaning the push for large groups and the lack of support for individual investigators or small groups.

    My dean, being a biologist, unfortunately thinks all us scientists should be getting large NIH grants, especially those that pay PI (principal investigator) salaries–something which NSF and DOE are very reluctant to do.

    You’re not quite fair to physics; while it’s true that the subfield with the best PR, particle physics, is indeed being done with half-billion-US$ facilities by groups of a couple hundred, there is still plenty of interesting physics that is being done by small labs. Look at condensed matter. Look at cold atoms and Bose-Einstein condensates and their progeny. And ironically, our dean is unhappy with physics for being an artisan major; biology has large classes full of hopeful pre-meds*, while our physics major courses struggle with a dozen or so students. He thinks we should compress 3 courses into one.

    But I completely agree that research is being driven towards stuff that is both fashionable and safe, and at industrial strength. There is very little room for truly ingenious work. I think in smaller fields there is some room, when the right people are on the review panels. But the state of research here is something to grieve about.

    *A side note–I was particularly irritated by an op-ed piece in the NY Times this morning by Helen Caldicott, who cast physicsts as ignoramuses who sell out their fellow citizens when it comes to nuclear energy, and who–get this–proclaims doctors as the ones who will set us all right as regards the science. I almost spat out my coffee. Even radiation oncologists don’t know the first thing about physics–I know this from personal experience–which is why they hire medical physicists, trained by my department and others.

    My apologies for this sidelong rant.

  2. Athena says:

    You’re right that universities like NIH grants precisely because they pay PI salaries, unlike the NSF and the DOE. I know I generalized a notch too much about physics (although the one lab I know that does Bose-Einstein condensates is a large one at BNL) but the larger point about the intrinsic structure of the two disciplines still stands. Pre-meds and MDs in research are problematic for several reasons, from attitude to focus. I wish the NSF were the size of the NIH.

  3. intrigued_scribe says:

    It’s too often the latter kinds of approaches that are the first to go. Incisive, as always.

  4. So what’s it all about, Athena? This ought to be a golden age for science: the world’s getting richer, biomedical science in particular has made immense strides over the last 50 years in understanding of the genome and evolution. This ought to be an age of intellectual liberation, excitement and optimism. What’s really going wrong?

    Sorry to hear you had cancer. Have you recovered now?

  5. Athena says:

    Heather, exactly: the adventurous approaches die out first under this kind of stress.

    Stephen, I wrote briefly about my encounter with cancer in The Hunter. I was lucky — they caught it very early — but I’m still living with the aftereffects.

    Regarding your larger question: the world is not getting richer; it’s going back to becoming stratified again, fundamentalist religions are increasingly dictating politics and there’s a very distinct whiff of “end of empire” in the US. Additionally, the US is currently involved in essentially three wars. When it costs a million per month to support each soldier in Iraq and military contracts are not subject to competitive bidding, you can see why there is little left for “frills” such as art and basic science. The strides you mention were made when the budgets for scientific research were still on the generous side (and many of the towering achievements were small-scale in terms of money investment). People in the West like to think there has been/will be linear progress after WWII, but it looks like progress is cyclic, after all.

  6. You have my utmost sympathies, Athena. Unfortunately, the scientific landscape is not too dissimilar in Asia as well, where the emphasis is on research that will make the national government “look good” (whichever national govt that may be) and attract more foreign investment. The more gadgets, and the more bleeding-edge they sound, the better, and Science itself can sod off.

    I agree about the devolution of the world. I’ve been calling it the Neo Dark Ages for some time now and, for the first time, my husband and I (multiple degrees) are even wondering whether we should encourage our children to go to university at all. What kind of life can they look forward to should they decide to enter research or stick with lecturing? It’s nothing beyond hand-to-mouth at the moment, which is not the kind of environment I want for my children. (And the corporate IT world, which is where we come from, is a shambles of vapourware and buzzword obfuscation.) Better for them to be plumbers. At least that way, they will provide a service that will always be needed and which can provide for a future family with a degree of comfort and stability.

    A sad state of affairs but it’s our current reality.

  7. Athena says:

    Thank you, Kaz! I completely agree about the “bleeding edge” faux achievements and also about the acute dilemma of sending kids to college in this environment. A pitiful state of affairs indeed.

  8. Sue Lange says:

    Why does this sound like Earl Butz in the 70s telling the farmers to “get big or get out?” Why does it sound like a blog post I read today about how literary writing is no longer important because publishers are only looking for Walmartable books?

    This is the culture of our times. There is little room for individuality, small business, or peculiar ideas.

    Unfortunately in the realm of research, money is extremely important. Not just for salaries, but for equipment. I can’t imagine doing wildcat brain research. You’d probably land in jail.

    Sad.

  9. Anil Menon says:

    Hi Athena,

    I suspect you’ve laid down sword and shield only for the day, so I’ll spare you the hoarse exhortations. It’s also possible there are other more interesting battles you’ll shortly wage, so sadness is moot anyway.

    To my mind, the problem lies in science’s success. The scale of science, even basic science, has grown so enormously, it can no longer by solely financed by governments. It’s also a zero-sum game. Some bureaucrat somewhere may indeed have the needed courage, but a decision in your favor is also a decision against some other Athena. Indeed, many Athenas. Such a scheme can only lead to much heartbreak.

    Microfunding/Crowdfunding models such as those of Kiva offer an alternative where people like me, thousands surely, can fund projects and people they believe in and absorb the mild expense of such beliefs at tax-time. A mere 8,000 people, for example, donating a mere $25 each could generate $200K annually. Were I to invest just $500 a year in such projects, all tax-deductible, I’d have the thrill of knowing I’d helped fund some 20 scientific projects. In my mind, I’d be the sole funder. Imagine the pleasure. Such-and-such molecule has been shown to have a drinking problem. “That’s my money put to good use,” I’d say, quietly modest, just loud enough to be overheard.

    Of course, such talk is easy. I hope I’m not exhibiting the curious blindspot Menninger refers to in his famous quote:

    “…the human being struggles with his environment and with the hooks that catch him. Sometimes he masters his difficulties; sometimes they are too much for him. His struggles are all that the world sees and it naturally misunderstands them. It is hard for a free fish to understand what is happening to a hooked one.”

  10. Athena says:

    Sue, you’re quite right: you can’t do wildcat research without serious infusion of funds (leaving regulatory restrictions aside). The low-hanging fruit was harvested long ago.

    Anil, micro/crowdfunding is an interesting idea that might well be viable (though it requires considerable outreach). To some extent, that’s what donations do, although they usually pass through some kind of PR/admin filter. Also, I do appreciate the vote of confidence. All I can say is that I’ll stand to the bitter end — and if/when that comes to pass, I’ll segue into writing full time.

  11. Anil, the micro/crowdfunding idea is a great one! I would certainly contribute to such initiatives. What saddens me however is that it looks like we’re indeed moving back to the era of private patronage of science and the arts. You’d think that, under such circumstances, our slices of income tax would decrease commensurately but, alas!, that appears to be a futile hope. LOL

  12. Pablo mundo says:

    Very well said.

    I would only add that institutional growth for its own sake also drives this. More and more grant applications from more and more faculty who are trained in ever-expanding graduate programs often fed by reckless training grants – and who are then thrown out on their own to fight tooth-and-nail for stagnant resources. Some will flourish, some will perish. The phenotypes selected for include some outstanding scientists, but also include many who are politically astute in how the system can best be worked to their advantage with the lowest allowable threshold for the quality, originality, or consequence of the science.

  13. Athena says:

    Kaz, you make an excellent point about reversion of patronage. This will be problematic, because the process is very prone to decisions by clique.

    Paul, I agree. The current model (soft salaries and university income primarily from grants) can only be sustained by a continuous expansion. The latter condition clearly no longer holds — and the consequences are immediate: faculty is being tossed out while administrators build castles (in the sand and on university lots, fated to stand mostly empty since hiring has gone stagnant).