A grant is not a contract.

June 14, 2007

I can’t leave Chembark’s opinion that poor stewardship of the public’s (grant) money verges on ethical misconduct alone. In particular this observation:

I also get upset with researchers who win grants for one set of ideas, then spend the money on projects that are not just tangential, but completely different. To me, this smacks of obtaining funding under false pretenses, and I consider it to be dishonest behavior.

What world is this guy living in? I’ll take the point when one is talking about a small funding agency with a highly focused and singular agenda. Shouldn’t take money from American Heart and work on drug abuse. Oh, well I guess MDMA causes valve problems and acute cardiac arrest and we all know about smoking and heart disease. Then there was that Len Bias thing… Hmm. Okay, well, you sure better not take money from some Autism foundation and then work on immunology, mercury toxicology or development of the temporal lobe structures….errr, right?

See, even for small funding agencies it is difficult to say what is “tangential”, “completely different” and “highly applicable” isn’t it? The more basic the science (transcriptional regulation anyone?), the more broadly applicable and therefore the harder to claim it doesn’t apply to a given problem.

Moving to NIH land we have a huge operation that funds almost every kind of biomedical science, so how can you say what might be “completely different” from the underlying motivation of the NIH to improve public health? So what if you take NIDA money and work on addictive aspects of alcoholism or obesity. or on AIDS? Or NCI money and work on nicotine dependence? Heck they fund those things already so, bad example. Heh. The point is that there are corrective mechanisms in place for this particular problem. Get too far afield and the grant won’t get renewed. Tick off one of the ICs enough and they’ll stop funding you no matter how good a score you get. I just don’t think that what you choose to work on is the problem.

The real problem is in not turning grant dollars into published scientific papers. That is what is poor stewardship. It doesn’t matter how much data you generate nor how hard you work. If it doesn’t turn into a paper, it didn’t happen. Do you subscribe to the belief that getting “scooped” means that you just trash 5 person years of work instead of hitting a lower journal? Do you publish that mere tip-of-the-iceberg Science / Nature paper and just abandon all the underlying and followup work to pursue the next big hit? Do you drop less than perfect or negative animal studies because they might alter the “impact”of your main point? Well, then you might be unethical and a bad steward of public money.

How many experiments get done over and over again because people have found they can’t get a “publishable” (read, positive) result and trash the study? How much time and money is wasted because people fudge or obsfucate methods? Saving a buck on reagents is nothing compared to these problems…

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