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Kate Clancy’s Short Grant Rant: On Broken Promises

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Here is my grant rant. It is very, very simple.

Last night I was talking to a colleague who just heard he missed the funding cutoff for his NIH grant by a single point – a score of 19 and under was funded, and his grant was a 20 (Edited 1/27 8pm CST to fix incorrect wording – numbers weren’t percentiles but the actual NIH scores). He had applied to one of the many institutes that is trying to keep the R01 afloat by reducing funding to all the other funding mechanisms – which happen to be the mechanisms used more by early career faculty because they don’t have enough preliminary data for an R01 for several years. It was a proposal to one of those non-R01 mechanisms that just lost out. It was his last resubmission. Because it takes so long to actually get NIH money, even if he submitted a successful grant in the next round – March 2013 – he wouldn’t get approval for the funds until December 2014, and access to that money some time in 2015. In the meantime, that means he has no money to fund the personnel in his lab, let alone the supplies to do his research.

This colleague had just had a long talk with his program officer, and shared with that person that he thought it was unfortunate that the R01 is being privileged over other mechanisms, and that the NIH seems determined to sacrifice an entire generation of young scientists. This colleague does novel work, intentionally took a nontraditional approach to his doctorate and postdoc in order to try and so something awesome with his science. He’s encouraged by his senior colleagues all over the country who also think he’s awesome – it’s clear he is widely respected. But the few junior folks who get funded in his discipline are the ones who are doing something derivative of their postdoc or grad advisor, and they’re all out of the same three to five labs.

Here is what I had to say in that conversation (and the ensuing Twitter conversation): the NIH, and American science funding in general, is not just sacrificing a generation of scientists. They are sacrificing American science, period.

I don’t know who thinks things are going to get better, that somehow we’re just the one generation that is screwed. Funding lines are going to keep getting worse. Even in NIH grantwriting seminars, I’m getting told by people who sit on review panels that there is an increasingly high degree in subjectivity in who gets funded because once a grant is in the top 20%, how do you tell the difference between the top 10% and 20%? Poor reading, pettiness, cronyism – this is not what I’m hearing from sour grapes junior faculty, this is what I’m hearing from R01-funded faculty who sit on NIH review panels. And then they tell me my specific aims for my mock review are due a few days later. Wow, I’m so motivated to write now, thanks!

We need to fundamentally change the way science is funded. We need to change the way politicians and the public view science. We need to quadruple the federal budget’s allocation to science (right now if you add up NASA, NIH and NSF it’s 1.8% of the budget). We need to stop making it so freaking hard for great scientists to do science, stay in science, discover science in the first place.

Unless you guys really don’t want us doing world-changing research. I don’t want to say what my colleague would have done with his grant because I want to protect his anonymity. But let me tell you what I would be able to do with federal funding:

  • I would be able to understand why it is that some women have an easier time getting pregnant than others.
  • I would be able to determine what factors seem to prevent breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer.
  • I would start to disentangle all the psychosocial factors that seem to lead to infertility even though we haven’t been able to figure out the mechanism.
  • I would be able to understand the way in which the mother and fetus negotiate with each other can sometimes contribute to miscarriage.
  • I would be able to provide resources and teach resilience to a whole generation of local girls who don’t have science in their schools, while doing research that helps me, and them, understand their bodies.
  • I would be able to lay the foundation for hormonal contraceptives that are safe and effective for adolescents.
  • I would be able to set up the undergraduate mentoring program I’ve been trying to implement for the last year.

Science captures the imagination of children, it helps us understand our world, it saves lives and protects the planet. We need to stop deluding ourselves that doing the same thing in academic science, but just tightening our belts a bit more, is going to solve the problem. We’ve done worse than sacrificed a generation of scientists, we’ve disgusted the generation below them and reduced our chances of renewal, growth and innovation.

Let me share a tiny bit of life history theory. There is this principle of trade-offs: time and energy used for one purpose cannot be used for another. So if you somatically allocate to growth, for instance, you have less to allocate towards maintenance and reproduction. If a body is very constrained, resource allocation goes haywire: there isn’t enough to support any particular function well, and even critical processes may shut down.

This is how people starve to death.

The cool thing about many aspects of human physiology, however, is that if you flood that system with resources, it’s flexible enough that it can recover. Shutting down does not have to be inevitable. Like the girls I want to study, we are all resilient.

But only if we get resources before we go far enough along the starvation path.

Please check out the storify that Scicurious wrote, and also follow the scientists who were participating, because the conversation continued overnight, into the morning, and is still happening now. And check out Michael Eisen’s blog, as he has some very specific ideas that he will be putting into a post shortly that he has shared about how to force the NIH into a place that creates opportunities for science, rather than contributing to the broken promises of a generation of eager, innovative, smart people.

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. truittjs 5:58 pm 01/27/2013

    The worse part is in this economy our political leaders don’t equate science with jobs. They don’t seem to be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together that engineers invent things, these things have to be made, businesses are formed, manufacturing takes place and many people are employed all rooted from the idea of a scientist.
    The act like scientist all have their hand out looking for money with no return on the investment. Incredibly dimwitted and short sighted view of what has always made us the greatest country in the world our ability to discover and invent.

    Link to this
  2. 2. sjn 6:52 pm 01/27/2013

    I continue in complete amazement how every single SA article on scientific funding manages to render invisible the elephant in the room

    Rant rant rant, and then the key ignorant statement “We need to quadruple the federal budget’s allocation to science (right now if you add up NASA, NIH and NSF it’s 1.8% of the budget).”

    We have a huge federal R&D budget. THe only problem is that after you take into account the NIH budget, DOD, Homeland Security and DOE’s nuclear weapons programs consume 70-80% of the remaining funds. So all the expensive space exploration & particle accelerators compete with everything the author wants for the remaining scraps of funding.

    As with the “budget cliff”, “deficit crises” etc. all these discussions are based on one fundamental point – keep the extent to which the U.S. “discretionary” budget is overwhelmingly a military spending budget off the table. Keep the military budget untouchable & sacred above all else and let everything else fight for whatever remains.

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  3. 3. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 6:56 pm 01/27/2013

    Sjn, I wasn’t ignoring the elephant in the room, I was assuming my readers could see it on their own, and then they could talk about it in the comments :) . I was trying to keep the post short, as I can be long winded when not careful.

    In my opinion, good blog posts don’t do all the work for the reader, they initiate a conversation.

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  4. 4. Becky Wragg Sykes 10:52 am 01/28/2013

    Hi Kate,
    Thanks for this piece. As a new postdoc, the apparent ever-steeping cliff of accessing funding is pretty intimidating. Obviously, I’m in Europe so the specifics differ, but your comment “Funding lines are going to keep getting worse” resonates here too.
    I really hope that I can keep finding new handholds and slowly creep up the cliff, but equally it’s heartening to hear from people at your career stage who are trying to change things.
    Thanks for writing.

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  5. 5. Letubeu 2:31 pm 01/28/2013

    (This response is friendly, as you’ll learn about me when we meet at #Scio13)

    Nice message Kate. First of all, I admire your ambition to be able to accomplish all those things if only you had federal funding.

    2nd, your rant is noted. So what’s next? What do we do? Frankly IMO, it’s time we worked together, formed a coalition, and organized a formal plan to take on the politicians and businessman of the world who are blocking the advancement of science. And we need to leave out the anger from this plan.

    3rd, asking for more money is not always the issue. I know MANY scientists/labs who have no idea how to efficiently manage and spend money.

    See you later this week,

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  6. 6. ssm1959 3:50 pm 01/28/2013

    I am perplexed. So many in research do not seem to have a problem with the current fiscal policies coming out of DC yet they are surprised when there does not seem to be adequate research money in the pool. If you do not start demanding radical changes to these policies you can kiss the days of fat research budgets goodbye forever. That is not to say things will not be difficult in th short run. It is a question of suffering some now versus a whole lot later.

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  7. 7. djstates 8:35 am 01/29/2013

    Too few scientist pay attention to bringing the public along. When you write for a mass media outlet, does your chair say, great work, that is what a public university is all about, or do they say that is nice, but how will that help you get your next grant funded? The cratering of public support for science and public universities is a result.

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  8. 8. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 2:35 pm 01/29/2013

    ssm1959, I’d love to know where you’re getting the idea — or evidence — that those of us in research don’t have a problem with current fiscal policies coming out of DC. If you’ll click through to Eisen’s post though, he’ll also show that a large part of the problem is not the total budget, but mismanagement, of NIH dollars.

    Also, I think we kissed the days of fat research budgets goodbye 20 years ago.

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  9. 9. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 2:42 pm 01/29/2013

    Hi djstates – I’ve written on this in past blog posts, so feel free to look in the archive. But my short answer would be that many faculty are perplexed by what I do, and many more think it’s a great service to our discipline and to the public. My department head is supportive of my goals and interests.

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  10. 10. verreauxi 11:44 am 01/30/2013

    Hi Kate,

    Interesting post. I agree with everything you say regarding science budgets–they are ridiculously limited. That said, having sat on a number of granting agency panels I’ve actually found that all the panelists take the job quite seriously and put in a heck of a lot of work into reviewing the merits of each proposal. I haven’t found much evidence of cronyism, pettiness, or poor-reading in any of the panels I’ve been on in the past. Instead, generally what I’ve found is a conscientious group of scientists who have to make very difficult decisions about funding only 7 to 10% of the submitted proposals. If anything, my sense is that the scientific quality of proposals is getting better, but in the absence of an increasing budget, the decisions of which one to fund become harder. Funded versus unfunded becomes razor thin, and certainly could be viewed as subjective in the sense that some topical areas get funded over others. And pettiness can also creep in here; if you can only fund 7 out of 100 proposal (and say 30 of them are superb) then the panelists are forced into scrutinizing the small differences among the top proposals, which can certainly be seen as niggling. In this regard, it’s possible to get high scores, glowing reviews, and also have the proposal go unfunded because of what appears to be some small statistical issue that could easily be corrected (e.g., failing to specify one- versus two-tailed significance). And it is massively demoralizing and potentially career-killing.

    Similar to peer-review (which also gets cast in a negative and subjective light) I find that often the reviewers/panelists involved are, for the most part, fair-minded folks trying to make the best decision possible under the worst possible circumstances. I’m not naive; no doubt there is cronyism, pettiness, arrogance, condescension, etc., but in my experience I’ve found these things to be thankfully minimal on the individual level; rather these things emerge as a consequence of panelists being forced to fault-find a proposal as a means to eliminate it from the very limited funding pool. As you say, it’s a crappy system and it needs to be changed on a way-high-up level. But I think it’s worth separating the individuals who comprise panels from this other level, which is far more problematic.

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  11. 11. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 12:39 pm 01/30/2013

    Thanks so much for writing, verreauxi. I think we actually agree on all fronts. My issues are structural, and I appreciate that you laid out what I glossed over in the post in terms of the general goodwill and hard work of panelists (I too have served many times and admire my colleagues). What I tried to be careful to say in the post is that the pettiness etc were reports I got from three different NIH funded and panel-serving scientists. Since my experience is all NSF so far I have been taking their word on it. But again, yes, these issues are deriving from too much great science to fund, and panels tasked with the near impossible job of determining the top 5-6%.

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