Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Realistic Mentors Say 'Chances of Funding Are Slim, Check Magic 8 Ball' (1)

Or: How Science Funding (Doesn't) Really Work (What Your Mentor Should Tell You But Probably Hasn't)

Part 1: Funding
Part 2: Publishing and Grant Writing
Part 3: Realism

A friend set me off by sending me this. The current Scientiae's theme is mentoring, so let's talk how to mentor honestly and effectively on careers and money.

The NSF gets about $4.5b for research funding, currently. A good chunk of this goes to permanent and/or large initiatives: telescopes, education projects, grad student training grant. The NSF 'receives approximately 40,000 proposals each year for research, education and training projects, of which approximately 11,000 are funded'.

The NIH gets about $30 billion total, half of which goes to research. Approximately 20% of all grants are funded, including 'competetive' renewals. Only 17% of new grants are funded, but 37% of renewals and 30% of supplements are.* You will note that established labs have a two-fold advantage. Applications are sometimes semi-blinded, but everyone in the field will know who wrote it anyways. This ensures that some labs may coast on their reputations.

'Average grant sizes have grown by 40% since the doubling began, from $275,000 in 1998 to $400,000 today', which is part of why- ironically- success rates are lower now that the NIH has more money.

Equally ironically, more money doesn't correspond to more productivity, in part because papers now have six figures and ten pages of supplemental, and in part because of... inefficiency? Expensive clinical trials? 60% overhead?

At Snooty U, we get over $300 million from the NIH alone, and 90% if it goes to the med school. Internal med all by its little lonesome gets 25%, and Psych gets 15%. Biology gets the remaining 10%, and another $180 million goes straight into the university's pockets. Per year. (By the way, this handy little tool will show you your tax dollars at work.)

When Leo Szilard was asked how to slow science, he said:
"You could set up a foundation with an annual endowment of thirty million dollars. Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants, if they could make a convincing case. Have ten committees, each composed of twelve scientists, appointed to pass on these applications. Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees. …First of all, the best scientists would be removed from their laboratories and kept busy on committees passing on applications for funds. Secondly the scientific workers in need of funds would concentrate on problems which were considered promising and were pretty certain to lead to publishable results. …By going after the obvious, pretty soon science would dry out. Science would become something like a parlor game. …There would be fashions. Those who followed the fashions would get grants. Those who wouldn't would not."
You know the old joke: 'What's a camel?' 'A horse designed by a committee.'

*My skepticism about the competetiveness derives in part from the supplement my lab got last year. We wrote a two-page thing about how we wanted a super-fancy electronically controlled brick baking oven with automatic feedback and bells on. We got $200,000. Noncompetetive.

**Or: why many groundbreaking papers appeared in PNAS rather than the Unholy Trinity; it publishes any solid work, and with more words; there's even a non-reviewed track, though that's cheating. The Unholies also have enormously high retraction rates, for obvious reasons. (Edited: Whoops, this one belongs with the next part...)