The Demise of Science?

The Demise of Science? Physicists and chemists in the UK protest against dismal funding by delivering a coffin to London’s Downing Street.

• Researchers fear a “Stalinist collectivisation of science” and are protesting against short sighted decisions to stop funding PhD studentships on research grants, limiting fellowships to specific subjects, banning resubmission of most rejected grant proposals and a cooling-off period for “repeatedly unsuccessful” grant applicants. New funding schemes allow allocation of grants by administrators rather than by peer review.

• These are very similar to recent decisions at the NIH relating to grant mechanisms in the US. Success rates for investigator-initiated grants in my field of biomedical research hover around a dismal 10%. This is simply not sustainable for much longer; many labs are going permanently “out of business”.

Read more:

H/T to my wonderful grad student Brandie Cross for the link.

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33 Responses to The Demise of Science?

  1. Chad Haney says:

    Part of the problem, is that the GOP thinks that industry can do research better and cheaper but that is so wrong as I discus in my post ( Nevertheless, there are fewer and fewer tenure-track positions so scientist have no choice but go to industry. Even senior research positions in the government run institutions is not sustainable.

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Exactly, Chad Haney . Industry is not the answer, for the simple reason that decisions and directions are driven by profit and answering to share holders.

  3. Chad Haney says:

    It can be very depressing. There’s a nutjob in another post saying that some of the best inventions came from high school and/or college dropouts. I’ve heard that so many times. The percentages are super low. It’s like my term for the lottery; it’s a tax for people that are bad at math. You’re far better off, statistically, to get a college education. The key is to not pick underwater basket weaving as a major and wonder why one is unemployed and swamped with debt.

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    #antiantiintellectualism 🙂

  5. Chad Haney says:

    Awww, my favorite hashtag.

  6. Chad Haney says:

    It’s the same in the USA. Instead of cutting defense spending, which has tremendous lobbying, the GOP will push to cut research funding. It’s very short sighted. Just look at the examples Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson gives for the contribution of NASA funded research to the general public vs. the amount spent (relative to defense spending).

  7. So where does this go? Stop offering science degrees? With no funding there are no jobs.

  8. Historically people have moved to the countries which provided the best opportunities for them to practice their art. It might be time to find a reasonably politically stable 3rd world country with a low cost of living to set up shop.

  9. Frank Nestel says:

    In German #antiintellectualism is persued by political parties as part of populism, i.e. large circles in population seem to share this attitude. It so bizarr, living in a word crammed of latest technology and denying the value of research.

  10. Tom Lee says:

    The way it goes there are no jobs out there. Supply> demand. In California where this governor, who had a grand plan when he got elected last year, now said with a 16 billion dollar deficit he mwy have to cut huge funding to public universities, the state and the U.C. System. That means a lot of government funding to these institutions would dry badly. Here goes most research jobs, fellowships, post-doc.etc.. I’m glad I graduated last decade (when the money was still flowing) entering the private sector. The private funding from companies to the research institution is also dried up significantly. School endownment investments also produces minimal or negative returns. Both political parties are to blame for not putting the country’s interest first. It’s really a tough situation. In the mean time China is pumping a lot of money into their educational system and research at the university and state controlled agencies.

  11. Prabat Parmal I dunno. The Republic of South Africa has unrest but to this outsider’s eye it seems to be a quiet enough place with enough modern infrastructure to do science. The Internet removes most obstacles to publishing so it’s not as if the findings would be lost in a vacuum.

  12. Rajini Rao says:

    Richard Healy has a good point. I am encouraging my students and postdocs who are from India and China to return to their home country where there is a significant push towards science and technology. The alternative is to live in poverty in the US with perennial job insecurity. That is what I would do if I was a young person starting out: go where the demand is.

    It would be interesting to discuss funding raised directly from the public. I’ve always been very grateful to foundations like the American Heart Society, that has grass roots operations to raise money and then disburse it very generously and equitably (I think) to the research community. But even they are feeling the strain and cannot support the research endeavor on their own. Crowd sourcing is big on the internet, I wonder if it can be scaled up to support big science?

  13. Rajini Rao says:

    I’m glad you brought up South Africa, Richard Healy . One of my colleagues was recently recruited to head up a TB-HIV institute there, while still maintaining a connection here in the US:

    Several new postdocs and students are heading out there now.

  14. Rajini Rao says:

    No real numbers off the top of my head, Mahesh Sreekandath . In my specific area of basic research, virtually zero. Most of my grants come from federal sources (NIH mainly), some from private patient-driven foundations like American Heart Assoc., American Cancer Society, etc. There are also Scientific Societies that provide scholarships for students (American Physiological Society, etc.).

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    Care to elaborate, J Stasko ? Not sure to what part of the Wiki page you wish to direct us?

  16. J Stasko says:

    Many say that Jack Welch led the way to the elimination or the short-sightedness of today’s industrial research laboratories. One could say they are no longer research laboratories but more of a kind of technology transfer unit.

    “During the early 1980s he was dubbed “Neutron Jack” (in reference to the neutron bomb) for eliminating employees while leaving buildings intact. In Jack: Straight From The Gut, Welch states that GE had 411,000 employees at the end of 1980, and 299,000 at the end of 1985. Of the 112,000 who left the payroll, 37,000 were in businesses that GE sold, and 81,000 were reduced in continuing businesses. *In return, GE had increased its market capital tremendously. Welch reduced basic research, and closed or sold off businesses that were under-performing.*”

    I believe there’s more critique elsewhere on Wikipedia, but I don’t have the time to find it right now- it may have been edited away, Wikipedia can be a fluid medium.

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    What a shame indeed, thanks for that share J Stasko .

  18. J Stasko says:

    It’s all about money, you know. The “market,” that is, the game around which investors make money, should have different rules which enhance industrial research, if we are to continue with the fantasy of market logic. Universities’ work is important, however, because it is performed in an open environment, but then, the acquisition of patents by universities is a contradiction.

  19. Rajini Rao says:

    To some point, I’m fine with that. It’s all about money everywhere. But there comes a point when greed overtakes common sense and foresight….if one does not invest in the future, then who’s going to have money to buy GE products?

  20. J Stasko says:

    I think CEOs look at it this way… “I’m only going to be in the market for 20-40 years, and then retire. I need to acquire as much as possible in the smallest amount of time. The purported 23% return on investment from research has a cost, specifically that the return is 10-40 years out. Our company is now big and strong enough to last at least that long with no innovation. We should sell the expensive research departments to save money, which will boost our bottom line, then I’ll get rich and exit stage left.”

    Research departments take a lot of resources. Small companies cannot provide these resources without having a rapid rate of return; it seems that in America the only small companies that get the funding they need for research are those funded in Silicon Valley on web-based technology which has a rapid ROI.

  21. Lots of great comments here, but as is my wont, I’ll take exception to a couple of points — if only for argument’s sake. As a veteran of 27½ years of Federal service in six agencies (18½ of those years at the NIH), I had a close-up look from “the other side” of research funding.

    Sure, as Parties rotated through the White House, one could note the relative swing in support for one side of the Potomac (the Pentagon) to the other side — where the Pentagon got a little less. (Although why the Pentagon got a foot in the door on breast cancer research was a mystery to me.) Nonetheless, the relative ratio of DOD to NSF/NIH funding has always been many orders greater than one, and that’s not going to change. Sorry. Dead animal beaten.

    I confess I chuckled a bit over Dr. Goss’s comment:

    “I’m absolutely appalled with the unscientific way in which funds are being allocated,” says bio-organic chemist Rebecca Goss of the University of East Anglia, one of around 80 scientists who attended a briefing meeting before the protest. “One of the things that worries me most is that you have to predict what the impact of your research might be — that way, you’re funding just incremental research.”

    Some might say that “incremental research” is the order of the day in NIH funding. In addition, political pressures are always being brought to bear upon the funding decisions — consider Lyme Disease, NCCAM and the SBIR program.

    But my nastiest point for those in the research community has got to be: Why didn’t you see this coming long ago, and if you did, what are you doing about it now? You’re bright people, capable of making reasonable projections from the data at hand. Yet you continued to bring in more graduate students, diminishing the likelihood of their eventual success, chiefly to — let’s be honest — advance your own science and career goals. How many actually reveal the odds of future success to their graduate applicants? With higher and higher costs to students and fewer and fewer positions for them to occupy eventually, you’ve helped create an economic crisis. After a certain point, it’s no longer “social Darwinism”, you’re simply sustaining fiscal servitude.

    In a way, then, the British have gotten a head start on what might be the draconian steps the Federal government has started but has yet to take seriously. Cutting back on the already very limited amount of NIH training support is scratching the surface. Limited NIH re-submissions is at best a partial relief. Limiting the overall support to a given investigator (duration and/or amount) is a more serious, but informally in progress. Sadly, a 10% success rate in funding may one day be looked upon as a fond memory.

    I’ll close by saying that there are at least a couple of sides or sources to this mess, and I’m afraid I don’t see an easy way out. It was sobering to me, though, to read of how much of the groundswell for the “Arab Spring” in Egypt came from over-trained graduates in technical fields who could not find suitable work. I don’t see that revolutionary risk here, I just foresee a lot of disappointed individuals.

  22. Chad Haney says:

    the relative ratio of DOD to NSF/NIH funding has always been many orders greater than one, and that’s not going to change. Sorry. Dead animal beaten.

    So what if Obama said we’ve never had an African American president, not going to change. What if Rosa Parks said we always sit in the back of the bus, not going to change. What if…

  23. Chad Haney Thanks for noting my comment, Chad. Boy, I wish it were otherwise, but years of being “in the machine” have (as is, I guess, obvious) left me pretty cynical. Best of luck getting that seat — or any seat — when the bus grinds to a stop at the Congressional maintenance yard.

  24. Rajini Rao says:

    William McGarvey , promise to respond when I have a decent stretch of time. In the meantime, here is a graph that stunned me re. the lack of logic in funding priorities:

    I agree with Chad Haney , why can’t we raise awareness and revive that dead animal? Perhaps, scientists like Chad and I are perennial optimists (or even idealists). We have to be, if we choose to do what we do 🙂

  25. Rajini Rao I look forward, as always, to whatever thoughts your limited time permits. On the “resurrection”: these London researchers had at least one good idea: public relations. It connects with what you, Jerry Nguyen and I have been posting, namely, that our scientists have got to make a grassroots effort (not just a contribution to FASEB) to get the public behind that funding. On the chart: assuming the chart and scale are accurate, it is indeed a stunning summary. Unfortunately, one of the things I draw from that is the implicit success that al Qua’da has had in its efforts against us — we spend enormous quantities on the minimally probable threats, and relatively little on the highly probable threats. We may have sufficient treasure to sustain us for a while, but it is relatively finite. That’s truly a shame.

    Catch ya later.

  26. Jerry Nguyen says:

    Great conversation here, Rajini Rao!

    Some points:

    1) Regarding the disparity between DOD and NSF/NIH funding: I see this pop up a lot and I want to clarify that this is an incorrect comparison to make if you want to talk about the funding of science and research by the federal government. The DOD is a huge funder of research. From the AAAS R&D Report for 2012 ( The Department of Defense (DOD) is by far the largest supporter of R&D in the federal government, accounting for 52.2 percent of the total federal R&D portfolio.

    This isn’t taking into account the large amount of research dollars that the DOE has allocated either. In general, this comparison isn’t helpful in determining the changing priorities for scientific research. The AAAS report does an excellent job of breaking down scientific R&D dollars across governmental agencies so that you can get a clearer idea of funding priorities.

    2) Regarding the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (ESPSRC) decision to stop funding PhD studentships on research grants: I don’t think this is a bad thing. While I do think having more people trained in critical and scientific thinking is a great thing, the current glut of PhDs is staggering. Potentially channeling grad student training money to postdocs could be a great thing. To be sure, I don’t know if that’s what they’re doing. Probably not, but that doesn’t invalidate the idea that we already have a lot of PhDs without research careers. Is it necessary to have more? (I think more PhDs in the world would be a great thing, btw. It’s just a matter of channeling them to other careers. #leavingacademia 😉 )

    3) Regarding the selection of grants: What William McGarvey said. 🙂 I’d argue that the selection of grants has always been a mix of pseudoscience, art, and politics. Study groups are full of intrigue, back room deals, and guesswork. Noone really knows where scientific breakthroughs occur and so funding tends to be highly conservative. Big, established labs get bigger while brand new PIs have a difficult time getting funding. How many times have I heard/experienced the grant review that asks for evidence for a scientific hypothesis? If I knew the answer already, why would I be asking for funding?

    4) Regarding who selects which grants get funded: Having a smaller group of people select grants isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A group that is well-informed but also independent of the field could have great luck identifying new, promising research. They wouldn’t necessarily be beholden to the stalwarts of the field and could take bigger chances on funding. If we can choose where we are to be optimistic, let’s pick this one. There are a lot of things wrong with how grants are funded and if a new structure could bring in higher levels of innovation and risk, let’s run with it!

  27. Jerry Nguyen says:

    Mahesh Sreekandath – In short, no. There have been some attempts to measure the impact of scientists by number of successful grants, number of papers, number of citations, but those metrics don’t necessarily bear any real correlation to scientific success. On a micro level, the worst “failures” of experiments can lead to a tremendous amount of knowledge. How does one measure that?

    I’m not saying it can’t be done. It’s just that there hasn’t been a good metric identified yet.

  28. Jerry Nguyen Great post, again. First, thanks for agreeing with me in part, and even greater thanks for supplanting the “off-the-top-of-my-cuff” (an actual Federal expression) guess-timates about DOD research funding with, golly, actual data. ( “Mehr licht”, to quote Goethe’s apocryphal dying words.) I agree also with your response to Mahesh Sreekandath — priority scores, percentile ranks, paylines, Institute success rates and actual award receipt at the NIH are a complex, not always highly-correlated, and rarely transparent series of decision points. Oh, and depending upon yearly budget changes, well,… forget about it.

  29. Indian academic jobs are certainly very attractive (I am in one) – strong support, decent salaries, moderate teaching, students and postdocs supported by the institute or government agencies (so no need to raise money for this). And this is true for natural sciences too (e.g. IISc, IISERs, also IITs, many smaller first-rate institutes like NCBS).

  30. Siddhartha Gadgil Good to hear, sir.

  31. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks for the information, Siddhartha Gadgil !

  32. Ravi Teja says:

    A subtle gesture.

    ‘This’ is an excellent example of a protest.

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