When I came into lab last Wednesday, my excellent bay-mate E (for the non-sciency among my readers, this is the equivalent of a cubicle friend) said, "Hey Becca, I got an article for you. It's called 'Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research'." It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside that something with such an ominous title made him think of me. The article is a perspective piece in PLoS Biology, a highly-respected journal published by the Public Library of Science, and it could very well be titled 'Why, Dr Becca, Your Life is Going to Suck'.
The article outlines some of the major problems with the current grants system and how the careers of young scientists can be negatively affected. Most junior faculty are responsible for obtaining funding to pay for the bulk (if not all) of their research (not to mention their salaries), in addition to teaching classes, training graduate students and postdocs, and actually doing the research. But the way the system is currently structured, grants only cover ~3 years of funding and can take several years to secure, which means that we're constantly applying for grants, while teaching, training, and lab work are forced to be secondary priorities. This puts us in a catch-22, because we're more likely to be awarded a grant if we've published our work. Moreover, because grant applications are so long and complicated and grants reviewers spend relatively little time actually reviewing each proposal, we're rewarded for composing tidy, tight little package proposals rather than those based on more organic, risk-taking, and free-flowing ideas (which, it could be argued, is how some of the best science happens).
None of this is news, of course. We've all been kvetching about these problems for ages (if there's one thing that scientists as a whole excel at, it's commiserating...and schadenfreude), but at the same time, seeing it all in print is sobering. That's me they're talking about in the article, my not-so-distant future if I succeed (!!) in my quest for a tenure-track job. What's also sobering was noticing on the PLoS website that despite 19,000 views of the article, there were only nine comments. Nine!! There's clearly a lot to be said here, but why aren't we engaging in real, public discussion?
I would seriously love to hear from everyone here, especially if you or someone you know is a new faculty member. How is it going? How do you balance securing funding with all of your other responsibilities? Do you think we need major reform in the grants system, and if so, how do we go about making it happen? This, I feel, is the biggest hurdle, and it will never be cleared if we don't talk about it.
The Plight of the Post-Doc