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Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

Kate Clancy s Short Grant Rant: On Broken Promises

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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.

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

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