Now that a proposed increase of funding to NIH has again been shot down, scientists have to once again face the reality of intense competition for very scarce funds.

However, the process of awarding research grants is, well, a bit crazy. Scientists work for months on a grant, drafting, revising, trying to winnow it down to fit the page limitations, finding collaborators and assembling potential research teams, obsessing about minutiae in the methods section. We then cross our fingers and send them off for review (which can take many months), and hope that they’ll be well-received. When they’re not, at least they usually come back with helpful comments and suggestions to strengthen the proposal for the next attempt at funding.

However, sometimes it’s clear that the reviewers either didn’t read the proposal carefully (somewhat understandably, as reviewing grant applications is a difficult and rather thankless job), or simply didn’t “get” what was being proposed. A problem with the latter is the time lag–again, it can take months from submission to the point where the researcher receives comments on the grant application, and by the time the grant is revised and resubmitted, another few months may go by. Therefore, quite literally years may be spent just trying to secure funding–sometimes longer than the project itself would take.

Many agree that the process is a problem. What’s more contentious is how to fix it. Michael at Only in it for the gold sends a plea to science funding agencies for a different tactic besides the traditional proposal:

I want to do what I would do in a business setting. I want to look you in the eye and explain to you why you would be foolish not to fund my proposal; i.e.;

1) that you have a problem,
2) that I know how to solve it
3) that my team has or can find the right people to solve it
4) that those objections which make any sense are already accounted for in the plan

If I can’t look you in the eye, could we at least try instant messaging?

Comments on the post range from agreeable to Michael as “another well-meaning gullible innocent to the slaughter…” What’s your take on it?

Comments

  1. #1 Janne
    November 16, 2007

    Who’s going to bring order to the year-round line – stretching around the block – of hopeful PI’s or their senior grad students waiting for their five minutes with each committee member?

    And of course, it leaves the introverted guys with a stutter and a lazy eye without a chance, never mind if they’re actually good at science or not.

  2. #2 Michael Tobis
    November 16, 2007

    Janne’s response makes little sense to me. If funding agencies are so shallow as to be distracted by a stutter how do you expect them to understand your proposal.

    Indeed, this sort of thing would take more time than what we do now, but that is the point. The more original and fundworthy the proposal, the less likely that the reviewers will fund it, because they do not have the time to understand it.

    Science as a whole will progress further if we get better at picking the right projects to invest in.

    I promise you that the private sector doesn’t minimize the time spent making multimillion dollar decisions on the grounds that their decision makers are too busy. It’s a localized answer to a global question. Please think about redesigning whole systems to account for changing circumstances. It may well be necessary to find more time for review, and if so, that extra overhead needs to be integrated into the whole pattern of how science is done.

    That said, in my experience it takes less time to listen to a presentation, ask questions, and read a paper than it does to read the paper alone. So the time argument won’t wash.

    As for the person who is so awful at presentations, I don’t see that as important enough to avoid any changes at all. The present system discriminates against people who don’t write very well.

  3. #3 Winawer
    November 16, 2007

    @Michael Tobis: “Science as a whole will progress further if we get better at picking the right projects to invest in.”

    Hate to implicitly dredge up the applied / pure research question, but how do you know what counts as “the right project”? If we knew what the right projects were, we wouldn’t have to do research to begin with. We’d be doing engineering, not science.

    Reviewer 1: “That Alexander Fleming fellow sure seems like a smart chap, but it’s a shame that his PowerPoint was so kludgy. ”

    Reviewer 2: “Yes, we’ll have to turn him down for funding. On another note, one of my family members is dying from a bacterial infection. If only we could find the right project…”

  4. #4 Jonathan Badger
    November 16, 2007

    As for the person who is so awful at presentations, I don’t see that as important enough to avoid any changes at all. The present system discriminates against people who don’t write very well.

    The difference is that people who don’t write very well (non-native English speakers, for example) can get their native speaking friends to correct the grammar and so forth in their proposals — they can’t fix their accent very easily. It’s not just about being shallow — quite often in seminars given by non-native speakers I seriously can’t understand most of what they are saying, and it’s not for lack of trying by either them or me, Written communication is just a more level playing field.

  5. #5 Stephen
    November 16, 2007

    I have no experience of the academic funding process, but have sat on both sides of the bidding process in the private sector. In my experience, if one is bidding for projects with any significant element of novelty – and with scientific research that should be pretty much always the case – then one is much more likely to get good results if face-to-face (or at least telephone) discussions take place early on. It seems to me that academia could usefully borrow two practices from the private sector:

    1) Prequalification. If the number of interested parties is likely to vastly exceed the funds available (say 100 applicants for 10 grants – yes, I know it usually works in dollars/euros, but lets keep things simple) then invite people to submit a brief outline first. The most promising 30 or 40 are then invited to submit a full proposal. Saves time on both sides.

    2) Shortlisting. Having done that, choose a shortlist of the 20 most promising proposals and invite them to give a presentation/Q&A session. Or perhaps the 15 most promising plus 5 wildcards.

    Not that I would for a moment suggest that this is a panacea (business often screws up right royally), but surely a significant improvement on the process that you and Michael describe.

  6. #6 lylebot
    November 16, 2007

    The difference is that people who don’t write very well (non-native English speakers, for example) can get their native speaking friends to correct the grammar and so forth in their proposals

    There’s a lot more to writing well than good grammar. Many scientists can’t write well—it’s not a skill that’s typically taught in Ph.D. programs—and their colleagues that can simply don’t have time to do the substantial rewriting necessary to turn a poorly-written proposal into a good one. The writing barrier is much larger than you might think. Sure, there is an accent barrier as well, but personally I think a presentation + a paper is almost always more enlightening than a paper alone, even one with good grammar.

  7. #7 Drugmonkey
    November 16, 2007

    as a btw, the “bigger” NIH mechanisms like Centers and Program Projects often get a face-to-face (the SiteVisit or Reverse SiteVisit) in addition to the review of the application tome. so the NIH system has some experiences to draw upon. From my minimal experience, heck yeah those people who have difficulty communicating in spoken English (as a second language or first!) are at a disadvantage…

  8. #8 John Givens
    November 16, 2007

    This is the only good thing George Bush has done in 7 years. In fact, he should cut NIH funding $5 or 6 Billion. That would eliminate a big chunk of meaningless makework by middling, ineffectual scientists.

    Did Alexander Fleming need a bunch of taxpayer $$ to discover Penicillan?

  9. #9 pat
    November 20, 2007

    “scientists have to once again face the reality of intense competition for very scarce funds.”

    The funds have never before been this plenty.

  10. #10 jen_m
    November 20, 2007

    Mr. Givens, that’s a terrible example – Dr. Fleming was a shipping clerk until he inherited a sum of money sufficient to support his education and work, and he was certainly employed at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School (then affiliated with the Royally-chartered University of London) when he discovered penicillin.

    The funds aren’t keeping up with the biomedical research and development price index increases, Pat. See here:
    (PDF) http://officeofbudget.od.nih.gov/PDF/BRDPI_letter_2_5_07.pdf

    And the bulk of the increase goes straight into the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a worthy cause indeed, but not biomedical research.

  11. #11 Suz
    November 20, 2007

    Heh, but where would we be without grant proposal misunderstandings?

    My friend had one rejected because she wanted to use zebra fish, and the results of the studies wouldn’t be relevant because “zebra fish are not vertebrates.”

    Yeah. I don’t do lab work, but it must be very frustrating to have your future in the hands of someone who thinks zebra fish are bugs.

  12. #12 pat
    November 20, 2007

    “The funds aren’t keeping up with the biomedical research and development price index increases, Pat. See here:
    (PDF) http://officeofbudget.od.nih.gov/PDF/BRDPI_letter_2_5_07.pdf

    I am certain of it too.

  13. #13 jspreen
    November 20, 2007

    And the bulk of the increase goes straight into the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS

    Right you are. It’s funny though, this is a perfect example of a fight that will continue to be fought exactly as long as the money comes streaming in. Maybe it’s not true that money is the only thing that makes HIV cause Aids, but it certainly is a big part of the story. Well, funny may not really be the best word to use here, I guess. It’s more kind of weird. Even, it’s crazy. The funds come from the same people who were let by the nose in the first place when they accepted to be scared shitless by a bunch of “scientific” crooks, some 25 years ago. Today they’re still scared shitless and ready to pay whatever they are told to pay. And don’t dare to try to tell them it’s a scam. You’ll get stoned.

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