Research funding, revisited

By | July 20, 2017

The latest issue of Science contains an article entitled “Another tenure-track scientist bites the dust”, by Adam Ruben  ( It chronicles the presumed end of the academic career of a biological scientist named “Matthew” following his failure to secure funding for his research projects from the National Institutes of Health. It’s a sad story, without much in terms of redeeming social value. And it’s certainly not an uncommon story, across all scientific fields.

I’ve seen this process in operation from all possible points of view. I spent seven years as an NSF program manager, running several research grant programs over that time. I also participated in a lot of NSF review panels for NCI and NHLBI, mostly on large-scale clinical trials of health interventions. I’ve also been a grant applicant many times, receiving funding for some projects and being declined for others. So I have a pretty good idea how everyone concerned here feels and thinks. It’s certainly not a situation that anyone thinks is optimal, even those who are funded.

The problem, of course, is that research costs money and there is simply not enough to go around. There never will or even could be, because there’s always more human imagination out there, more good ideas continuously emerging, that there are surplus societal resources to pursue them. Research is pretty much by definition not a sure bet – some ideas will work out and others won’t. Research funders make the best possible choices that they can about what priorities to allocate resources to, within their own organizational constraints, To do that, they use their own experience as well as the institutional experience bound up in the funding process, to make these choices. During the actual review, two large groups emerge quickly – those that probably will be funded and those that won’t. There are always a few proposals in between, and most of the time is invested in discussing these. Often minds are changed during these reviews. But I can’t ever recall seeing something come from the initial discard pile to the front group.

I do sympathize with “Matthew” deeply, because things are worse than he seems to acknowledge. Not only is he now largely unemployable in academia except for adjunct positions; he’s going to find it difficult to make a transition into any other line (such as banking) unless he has the personal connections to break through the screen. Even adjuncting may be difficult, because it sounds as though he’s spent most of his time in the lab rather than the classroom; they only want pliable teachers. If he has any good contacts in industrial firms in his area that are still doing research, that would be the best way to go, but it’s all going to be personal. Everyone has credentials; the problem is standing out from the crowd.

Don’t get me started on the whole tenure/funding cycle thing. Even when it’s fully explained and people enter into it fully informed, it’s rampantly unfair. Here, it sounds rather like “Matthew” knew the system, but just really didn’t believe that it was going to apply to him. Otherwise, how would you arrive ten years down the road appearing as clueless as he does in this article? Research funding is a known game, in the game-theoretical sense. It’s an organizational process of considerable formality, with both predictable and random elements. There are considerable built-in advantages to those with significant institutional power and resources, but they are advantageous to actually doing research, so they can’t be discounted. Everyone in the game has to know the rules.

While nobody’s happy with the current competition for funding, there really don’t seem to be many alternatives. It’s impossible to fund everyone’s research dreams. Dream management then becomes an essential skill for any researcher, as well as for his/her institution. The first critical step is for everyone to realistically evaluate their roles in the process, and to be honest with one another. And if anyone has a better idea how to fund research in the long run, let’s hear it.