As scientists, we know better than to measure something simply because it is easy to measure, especially if it doesn’t tell us what we really want to know.
Yet that is exactly how the scientific community is judging the value of our own work.
We have come to measure success by the number of grant dollars we secure, not by the knowledge that is created. This focus on grant dollars instead of research quality has skewed the behavior of scientists toward raising money rather than seeking truth.
Using grant dollars as an indicator of quality has become so ubiquitous that introductions often include an individual’s grant dollar total. The implication is that someone with $10 million in grants is ten times as smart as someone with $1 million. This habit persists, even though studies have shown that the productivity of a lab, as measured by scientific journal publications, does not correlate with increased grant funding.
This attitude of focusing on big dollar numbers is especially dangerous in the current political climate. Society is rebelling against big institutions like the federal government and Wall Street. By putting our primary focus on dollars, we risk allowing science to come across as just another big-money interest. Talking about funding levels instead of knowledge gained does nothing to counter the disturbing trend of segments of society disregarding facts. Allowing this trend to go unchallenged strikes at the very heart of the scientific enterprise.
We risk a second, equally insidious danger of losing society’s support when we neglect to communicate the benefit our work and instead trumpet how great we are because we attracted large sums of money. Under such circumstances, it’s easy for people to think that science has enough money. It is troubling to think that if scientists neglect to honestly communicate the essential uncertainty involved in research, the public can grow disillusioned or even scornful when an expensive project doesn’t pan out, and some will begin to question why this big-money science hasn’t produced immediate results. This would accentuate the risk aversion that is already eroding the ability to make unexpected discoveries. Hence, if we continue to focus on the wrong measure of our worth, we risk undermining public trust.
The grant dollar metric can be traced to the 1990s, when research universities began to embrace the idea that federal funding is a good surrogate for quality. Getting a grant from the National Institutes of Health requires convincing a panel of your competitors that your project is so good it deserves a portion of a fixed pot of resources.
Institutional leaders quickly bought into this new yardstick. The NIH began to publish quantitative rankings of which institutions and departments received the most funding. This led to scores of press releases from institutions competing for prestige based on their dollar rankings. The NIH stopped this practice in 2005, once it realized the results were not meaningful and could fluctuate drastically, depending on how institutions were organized.
Yet the obsession over such a simple evaluation is so great that publicly available data on NIH funding are used to generate unofficial rankings, and the press releases continue apace.
This surrogate for assessing the value of science has gone too far. It subverts the way institutional leaders view their mission and skews the behavior of individual scientists and some of those in leadership positions.
If you seek a promotion to department head or dean at a university, the first thing the hiring committee will look at is what happened to NIH funding on your current watch. If you can’t demonstrate that you drove up the dollar total, you are unlikely to be chosen. Job postings that used to describe scientific achievements of a department or college now tout the war chest instead. A scientist with a small grant of $100,000 per year for 10 years may well be on track to cure a specific form of cancer, but would be punished by his or her institution for not contributing sufficiently to their grant total, even if the quality of the science is spectacular.
This fervor to bump up the numbers becomes a vicious cycle and there is never enough. Principal investigators are encouraged to cover their salaries in their grants, and institutions then use the money freed up from salaries to hire more people to get more grants to climb further in the rankings. Faculty members feel unremitting pressure to bring in funding, much like Wells Fargo bankers felt pressure to produce big sales numbers.
Science leads to unexpected innovations that help people and drive the economy, yet our mindset has flipped. Scientists who know they are judged on dollars tend to assume a cautious and defensive approach, instead of being animated by a desire to make a real difference by doing something that will return benefit to the society that supports them. This is a terrible message for young scientists starting their careers.
This is a problem that we in the scientific community must solve ourselves. If we fail to speak honestly to people about how we work and what we are learning, we deserve to lose their trust.
I’m not arguing that scientists have to be altruistic. Human nature is such that we each need attention and promotions that acknowledge our accomplishments. But we need a balance between personal ambition and the broader mission. Indeed, many scientists talk about the importance of doing meaningful work as one of the reasons they pursued a career in science.
Institutional change is tough, but there are steps we can take.
As a start, the NIH should make it official policy that if it participates in announcements about grants awarded, the communications must focus on the background and scientific objectives of the projects. The dollar amount should not be prominent.
The top universities should lead by example. Bastions like Stanford and Harvard have enough of a reputation for quality work that they don’t have to place grant dollars at the heart of their conversation with society. It would be refreshing to see other institutions act similarly.
We should call out and praise institutions that are doing it right. One idea: invite biomedical research professional societies to each appoint one senior scientist to an ad-hoc committee to review all grant announcements—not to demonize, but to highlight those institutions who best communicate the substance of their research and illustrate how science works. The Morgridge Institute for Research would be happy to coordinate and host such an annual effort.
Most importantly, we need a new metric. We must bring together top leaders of funding and research agencies to come up with more robust ways to value research than grant dollars and challenge institutions to use them. At the Morgridge Institute, after two years of discussion with our board, we have enacted an approach to evaluate our principal investigators that employs review committees of expert peers. Even if an initial hypothesis turns out to be wrong, if the research was done well we learn how things really work, and that knowledge will always be valuable. We are happy to share our review framework and to work with other leaders to coordinate the process of devising workable metrics.
As any Nobel prize winner would confirm, they couldn’t have fathomed the ultimate impact of their work when they started out. What mattered at the time was that good science was allowed to go forward.
Only by ditching our small-minded focus on grant dollars can we incubate the kind of fearless science our world needs.