Grantsmithing is “doing science”

August 14, 2011

Commenter Grumble recently grumbled:

Yes, but what is the quality of the science when scientists have to spend so much of their time writing grants? Essentially what you are saying is that any PI needs to constantly apply for grants, just get an occasional award to keep the lab afloat. I have managed to survive so far by submitting a constant stream of grants, but I have precious little time left for anything else. According to you, I’m not “failing to do my fucken job,” but according to me I am failing to do my fucken job because I don’t actually do science; I do fund-raising.


I have two responses. First, yes there will be some intervals where you do nearly nothing other than write grants. But these are not literally encompassing your entire job month in, month out. At the start of your career, sure it may take 2-3 months to prepare one grant submission. It is necessary, however, that you quickly get to the point where you can put together something credible with many fewer hours of work. This is made possible through the wonders of cut and paste, partially, but also because grantsmithing is a skill that you refine with practice. The real heavy lifting on the science part, for me, seems to occur over maybe two long and extremely focused stints of keyboard pounding.
The second response is a reminder that much of the intellectual work that is necessary for grant writing is the very essence of “doing science”. Especially when you consider the role of the Principal Investigator.


Setting a longer term strategic plan for a few years’ worth of experiments is a good idea, is it not? Thinking hard about the critical manipulations and controls in advance saves a lot of time. Otherwise, there is going to be one heck of a lot of wheelspinning going on. True for one scientist laboring alone. Even more true for groups of scientists.
Evaluating the literature in a new area of research for the critical findings, the gaps and the necessary next-steps.
Thinking hard about what the existing data, beyond the Abstract level, really mean when it comes to betting your experimental effort.
Figuring out what collaborative relationships are going to kick it up a notch or two.
Putting a fine focus on the exact preliminary experiments you’ve done or need to do.
Approvals for radiological, biological and chemical hazards. Approvals for human or animal subjects.
All of this is “doing science”. It has to be done to make science happen.
If your perspective is that these tasks are not “doing science” then you are the equivalent of an adolescent who has no appreciation for the things her parents do to make her pampered life possible.
Time to grow up, Assistant Professors.

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72 Responses to “Grantsmithing is “doing science””

  1. Dr Becca Says:

    To anyone who feels that they’re not “doing science” unless they’re standing at the bench, I’m currently looking for a tech to hire, experience preferred.

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  2. JohnV Says:

    How’s the pay compared to the NIH post-doc payscale Dr. Becca? :p

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  3. qaz Says:

    The problem isn’t that grantsmithing isn’t doing science. It’s that the stuff you’re talking about is an important contribution to the field and it NEVER GETS PUBLISHED. The problem with spending all of that thinking time on grants is that (1) 90% of the time that time is wasted (i.e. the grant is not funded [*]) (2) whether the grant gets funded or not, all of that work only goes to help the one lab that thought of it. We don’t do that with papers – the point of publishing is to move the field forward, not just your lab. Grantsmithing time would be better spent doing all of that planning and reviewing in a format that helps the overall field rather than just your lab.
    [BTW, 10% funding level = 90% chance of wasted proposals = 10 grant/thinking sessions in order to get one grant. We don’t write 10 papers for the chance of getting one published. (At least I don’t.)]
    * Yes, I know that there are ways to take that thinking and apply it to other grants but your claim is that the grantwriting itself is useful. If the thinking is the important part, let’s find a way to publish that.

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  4. HFM Says:

    Okay, strategizing is important, but what about the rest of it?
    I’ll quotemine a post from a year ago [1]: “The PIs job is to look for weird stuff in the data, ask about proper controls and validation, etc. To make the people closer to the science explain the science, if not the specific details until it is relevant. The PIs job is to be alert for when something is not adding up.”
    The more time you spend in shiny-happy Grant Land, where all loose ends are tied and failure is impossible, the less time you spend wallowing around in the real, messy data coming out of your lab in real time. This is how you end up with the “Big Talker” phenotype from the Nine Types of PI chart (makes your data sound important, doesn’t actually understand what you do). Also, you end up with semi-feral trainees and a lot of wasted effort.
    I’m a trainee, and I do expect to do the bulk of data-wallowing on my PI’s behalf (my experiments, so it’s usually my fault if they’re confusing…and I’ve got more time to think about them in any case). But isn’t part of the point to have an experienced scientist around to catch things that a noob like me wouldn’t? Not just stupid things, like not calibrating the machine, but useful things like “that’s not an artifact, it was predicted 20 years ago and nobody had the tools to see it, publish it yesterday”. (And if not, can I apply for my R01 now? I make nice PowerPoints, and am good at drinking at conferences, so I’m basically a prof…[2])
    [1] http://scienceblogs.com/drugmonkey/2010/05/assistant_professors_who_canno.php
    [2] Kidding. Don’t hurt me.

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  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    qaz, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from posting your unfunded proposals on your lab website, then more than just your lab could benefit. And dude, *priority*!
    With respect to writing 10 papers to get one published… Many grants are going to be revisions- like you never have to revise a paper? Maybe have to do considerable reformatting to submit to another journal? Reconsider how the pieces of data you have fit together, add a couple new experiments, etc? Count all those efforts and the hit rate looks different. Also, what was that productivity mean? Six papers per R01? So on average maybe 12 manuscript submissions per grant award?

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  6. anon Says:

    Yes, DM grantwriting is “doing science”. However, after you’ve done your cutting and pasting, spruced up grant proposal for the umpteenth fuckin time, it doesn’t feel like science anymore. A person gets depressed after the 15th or so grant application gets rejected.

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  7. whimple Says:

    Grantsmithing is only “doing science” if the grant is funded, the experiments are done, and the results are published.

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  8. Dr. Dad, PhD Says:

    “Grantsmithing is only “doing science” if the grant is funded, the experiments are done, and the results are published.”
    I’d argue that that is the wrong approach to take in grant writing. The best advice I ever heard was to propose experiments that you actually want to do, because funding no longer drives your science.
    Several things happen when you try this approach. 1) Writing becomes easier. 2) Your writing becomes better. 3) You’re more like to get funding (see above points). 4) Grant writing also becomes a valuable exercise, because you can immediately start doing the sh*t you propose, whether or not you get the funding. Using this approach, I now view grant writing as creating a roadmap for me to follow. Not a bad thing in my mind….

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  9. Namnezia Says:

    DM, how long does it take you to write a new proposal? How about a revision? It still takes me at least a good 6 weeks for a new one, about half that for a revision.

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  10. leigh Says:

    there are aspects to science that are not the actual standing at the bench pipetting shit from one tube into another, that do not involve 384-well plates, and have no rad badge requirement.
    clearing the way to get the science done is as fundamental as getting the bench-jockey work done. i resented the initial administrative load in my present position, but holy fuck have i learned a lot (and gained even more appreciation for my past mentors who have cleared the way for me, because these were things i couldn’t juggle in with all the epic benchwork i was getting done).

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  11. DrugMonkey Says:

    Well Namnezia, that’s hard to say. I’m not kidding that these days when I put in 2, maybe 3, days of very focused writing, I have it mostly together. But there are a lot more hours spent here and there doing little things. Probably it takes me many of these little things percolating away to bring me to the mindset where the big days can happen.
    I’ve had stretches of putting in three proposals within a month and I think my record was 4 in two months. Not advisable but sometimes you can’t control the timing, say is special RFA type deadlines are involved.

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  12. DrugMonkey Says:

    Whimple, that is total nonsense. The grant doesn’t have to get funded for ideas that you thunk up in crafting it to end up in a publication eventually.

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  13. Dr. Obvious Says:

    qaz, isn’t this where review articles come from?

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  14. Namnezia Says:

    DM, no wonder you are able to put in so many proposals. Try as I might, I can’t write that fast.

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  15. Neil Craig Says:

    Some time ago an OECD report found a negative correlation between scientific progress and government funding of science. Here’s why http://www.financialpost.com/analysis/columnists/story.html?id=0a545dbe-1ce4-467b-8220-d63f14046b83
    I believe science is so central to progress that society should be willing to pay for it beyond what the matket system (where patents are not that fully enforcable). Yhe way to do it is through X-Prizes which go to those who actually produce results rather than those who write good grant applications or who are “respected” and know where the bodies are buried.
    The worst case, of course, is when grants are available to those who, no matter how remote the subject are willing to put some reference in the application to how it will help prove global warming/climate change or some other politically chosen “result” (Lysenkoism, ecology etc). That effect alone can explain why government funding has negative rather than merely zero results.

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  16. Dr. O Says:

    I learned soooooo much about my project when preparing my K grant A1. If I had just addressed the reviewer’s critiques without considering the science, then yes, the grantsmithing process would have been a waste of time. But the grant would probably not have been scored so well the second time around. Grantwriting will likely take a considerable chunk of my time and patience for years to come, but I plan to make sure that time is very well spent thinking about the science – even if only 5-10% of my proposals ultimately get funded.

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  17. whimple Says:

    DM: Whimple, that is total nonsense. The grant doesn’t have to get funded for ideas that you thunk up in crafting it to end up in a publication eventually.
    You must have missed the part about ideas that don’t get funded, experiments that don’t get performed, and papers that don’t get written. If it winds up in a publication, it’s all good. What about all those ideas you think up and spend months (or in your case, days) writing up that just die on the vine, never getting tested? Is that still doing science, even though it’s completely in your mind?

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  18. becca Says:

    “However, after you’ve done your cutting and pasting, spruced up grant proposal for the umpteenth fuckin time, it doesn’t feel like science anymore. A person gets depressed after the 15th or so grant application gets rejected.”
    Truthfully, after you’ve done your titrations, checked and re-checked your cells for the umpteenth fuckin time, had someone else run through the protocol with you, it doesn’t feel like science anymore either. A person gets depressed after the 30th or so experiment fails to replicate properly.
    Maybe the real trouble is we go into science expecting it to be something other than an exercise in futility?

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  19. iGrrrl Says:

    becca said: “Maybe the real trouble is we go into science expecting it to be something other than an exercise in futility?”
    That reminds me of a quote from Matthew Cartmill, now at BU via Duke: As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life – so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls.
    But as for DM’s original post: That’s one thing I try to convey when I give a grantsmanship seminar. If you view the process as a way to think through your science, it changes your attitude toward the grant application, and it shows.

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  20. Alex K Says:

    I understand what people mean by grantwriting is doing science but I feel more and more like the original commenter when funding rates are so close to the noise in the system. Too much of one thing is the issue here, not having to write grants per se.
    Also, growing up is overrated 😉

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  21. Grumble Says:

    As the Grumble who grumbled the original grumble, thank you, DM, for re-grumbling me. But I don’t quite agree with your responses.
    Your first response was basically, “just wait; grant writing goes faster when you have experience.” By now I’ve submitted literally dozens of grants (I think; I’ve lost count – certainly more than one dozen and probably more than two dozen). It could be that after the next dozen or two I’ll be even faster, but somehow I sense that my learning curve has reached an asymptote. I may still have some more learning to do to get a higher funding rate, but with paylines at 10% the process begins to seem awfully random. So, I find it hard to believe that the grantwriting load is going to ease up significantly.
    Your second response was that grantwriting is part of science, that it even helps one to do good science. I actually agree with this; I learned even before college that “writing is thinking.” On the other hand, you also extoll the merits of cutting and pasting from one application to the next. There isn’t much original (or useful) thinking in that, is there?
    What I’m saying here is that although I have zero objection to being asked to write grants to support my science, and I agree that writing grants helps the writer to do better science, having to write more grants than a certain minimum is of no use whatsoever. In fact, it gets in the way of real productivity. There is data sitting around the lab that I want to analyze and think about, there are reviews I want to research and write. These, too, are an important part of science. But I simply do not have the time for them, and that is not because I’m lazy (or because I spend too much time posting grumbles on DM’s blog). It’s because only every 10th grant gets funded, so if I don’t keep at it constantly, I’ll quite literally lose my job.
    The best solution to this problem of course is that science funding increases. Assuming that this won’t happen (given the current crowd of tea party yahoos and balls-lacking Democrats who control Congress and sit in the Oval Office), here is an alternative solution the NIH could implement. Instead of every award having to originate with an application full of proposed experiments, set aside a certain amount of money that is awarded based on track record. This could be done on a trial basis to see if it actually enhances productivity. I’m willing to bet that it would.

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  22. whimple Says:

    set aside a certain amount of money that is awarded based on track record.
    Track record of what? Being well-funded? 🙂

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  23. DrugMonkey Says:

    Track record of what? Being well-funded? 🙂
    Exactly whimple, exactly. What makes these people assume that *they* would get the nod based on “track record” anyway? It is Noonan all over again- “I’m in the club and so therefore I get to stay in the club at the expense of anyone who isn’t in the club yet….no matter how deserving they may be”.
    Much as this approach would serve my interests now….I am apparently not capable of conveniently forgetting how things were when I started out and what I thought was fair then.

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  24. Grumble Says:

    I meant track record of publications. And you can’t accuse me of “conveniently forgetting how things were when I started out” because I am in the middle of the starting out phase myself. Your comment makes the assumption that a track record-based grant system would necessarily disadvantage new/newish investigators, but it wouldn’t necessarily. There could be two tracks for getting grants: one based on record and the other similar to the current system, where most of the decision is based on the proposed experiments.
    Such a two tier system wouldn’t necessarily help people at my stage, but at least it would facilitate productivity: those with good-enough track records wouldn’t have to waste quite so much of their time writing and re-writing and cutting and pasting their grants. And it would also contribute some sense of stability. The funding situation is volatile even for senior faculty now, after all.

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  25. whimple Says:

    I meant track record of publications.
    Oh. That’s not connected to being well-funded?

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  26. DrugMonkey Says:

    Yeeaahh…
    The thing is, we already have exactly that system Grumble. It’s called the Good Old Boys/Girls system. A lot of people find that to be an unfair way of doing review, letting established folks get funded on crap proposals as a reward for their “track record”. This latter, btw, is a notoriously subjective and capricious concept.

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  27. becca Says:

    Actually, it seems to me that there is plenty of recognition that both types of ‘promise’ (past publication success and good ideas) matter, and that the degree to which one is weighed vs. the other can and should be different according to the grant mechanism.
    There is some dispute over whether one should say, weigh past publication more heavily for a greybeard when evaluating an R01. And there is more dispute as to whether it is possible to consider good ideas objectively enough that it has any meaning to say, for example, that R21s require no preliminary data.
    A LOT of the conflict about grants seems to boil down to ‘which should matter more’, but it seems to me either can be unfair in the specifics.
    What’s important is recognizing
    1) there should be an honest consensus about how much each is weighed, and it should be reasonably consistent 2) in this funding climate, you can have a good track record and good ideas and still not get funding.
    There is some luck involved. But at least it’s poker against the other players, not roulette against the house.

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  28. DeugMonkey Says:

    Very well put, becca.
    Of course, there is not supposed to be program type review. Track record should enhance an excellent project, but not compensate for a crap proposal. Prediction of future success rather than reward for past success is how I frame it.

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  29. Grumble Says:

    OK, so we have a good old boys system that “takes care” of established scientists who happen to be among the “in crowd.” Those scientists still have to go through the song and dance of writing and re-writing grants. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to just give them the money, as long as they keep producing good quality publications?
    Suppose scientists had a choice: they could ask for money through the record-based system or through the proposal-based system, but would not be allowed to have both kinds of grants at once. That would reduce the number of established PIs that newbies would have to compete with.
    Even though this would also reduce the pot of money available for the proposal-based system, I think this would increase the quality of funded science because the criteria for what makes a good proposal might change when most of the applications are from newbies and few are from the grizzled elite. With some pushing from NIH, creativity, promise and risk-taking could be rewarded rather than experiments that “have a high chance of success” (i.e., the lab has already done them, has shown pages of preliminary data, and the PI is buddies with everyone on the study section). Because the old boy/girl system would be less in force, there would be less pushback from reviewers told to favor risky/creative projects over established ways of doing things.

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  30. there should be an honest consensus about how much each is weighed, and it should be reasonably consistent

    This is fucken ridiculous. It is wholly appropriate that the weighing of the various criteria in NIH grant review is left to to the outcome of the deliberative process of the review panel taking as inputs the individual consciences of the reviewers. The reason for this should be obvious to anyone who’s written and/or reviewed more than a handful of grant applications

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  31. becca Says:

    CPP- It’s a simple observation that a lot of whiny mcwhinerson n00blet PIs would have one less thing to gnash their chompers over if they knew which study sections were going to have enough “excellent projects” that only the ones that also have the “enhancement” of superb track records are going to have a snowballs chance in newark.
    Seriously, why would it be that insane to codify this somewhat? Have some study sections that are designed to be good entry-points?
    Of course, when one has already concluded whiny mcwhinersons are endemic to science (and humanity) and there is no point in trying to appease them, even if it would result in a superior system, one is probably happiest relying on “individual consciences of the reviewers”.

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  32. AcademicLurker Says:

    On the other hand maybe not all complaining about bias is based on conspiracy theories:
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6045/925.full

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  33. DrugMonkey Says:

    PIs would have one less thing to gnash their chompers over if they knew which study sections were going to have enough “excellent projects” that only the ones that also have the “enhancement” of superb track records are going to have a snowballs chance in newark.
    And which ones were going to “like” my proposals and not so much the ones that weren’t going to like them.
    How does this work, exactly, becca?
    Look, in my experiences the exact same panel on the exact same round can give good scores both to Aged P Smith who wrote a confused, jampacked crap proposal on the basis of “but she’s got such a stellar record that we know good science will result” and to Assistant Prof Newbin based on “yeah the record may not be there yet but dazzzaym this proposal knocks our socks off!”.

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  34. becca Says:

    DM- the exact same people on the same panel?

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  35. DrugMonkey Says:

    To the best of my recollection, yes, becca. Partially overlapping sets

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  36. whimple Says:

    DM- the exact same people on the same panel?
    That makes perfect sense. First I take care of my and my pals, then I’m attracted to sexy new thing (who happens to be a protege of me and my pals)! That’s why it’s the people in the early-middle career stage that get killed.

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  37. becca Says:

    Ah the ignorance of the hopelessly naive. Assuming people to be internally coherent (not even consistent. Just coherent). No wonder you have such gnashing of teeth about arbitrary unwinnable games. You are playing arbitrary unwinnable games. Unless you actually called them out on the inconsistency? But I’m guessing that is Not Done.

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  38. DrugMonkey Says:

    Oh, it is Done alright, becca.

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  39. Since, unfortunately, it is apparently not obvious, I guess I have to lay it all out. Different applications *should* be judged with different emphases on the various mandated NIH review criteria, since the ultimate goal is to allocate limited financial resources to projects that are going to be productive.
    For example: If a proposal is chock full of massive amounts of preliminary data that make it very clear that the project is going to bear fruit, then the investigator criterion (i.e., “track record”) can be given less weight. On the other hand, if a proposal is extremely “pie in the sky”, then the investigator criterion–to the extent that it provides information about whether the PI has been successful at pursuing pie-in-the-sky projects in the past–should be given more weight.
    This is just one scenario among many in which some sort of deterministic formula for weighing Innovation, Significance, Approach, Investigator, and Environment criteria is inappropriate. And NIH instructions to reviewers are very, very explicit that a deterministic formula must not be applied. And we are all clear that the Investigator criterion is specifically intended to capture “track record”, right?

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  40. becca Says:

    CPP- I see what you’re saying, and you are perfectly right. I just think that if we could give people a bit better of a feel for how *their* proposal was likely to be evaluated, it would be more efficient. I think people with good skills at smoozing probably don’t have trouble with it after they are established, but I can see why it’s an issue for people trying to break in.
    I know someone who firmly believes the only way you’re getting a grant funded is if you know the people on study section. Given the recent NIH Diversity Fail, it seems like there are some serious consequences if the system really is “you have to know people on study section to know how they will evaluate your grant, which are all evaluated by different standards (oh and by the way, they’ll keep in mind if you are black)”. Because whether intended or not “Investigator” does not mean only “track record” in the real world.

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  41. DrugMonkey Says:

    I just think that if we could give people a bit better of a feel for how *their* proposal was likely to be evaluated, it would be more efficient.
    I think you are not working hard enough to figure out how this is supposed to work. becca, *everyone* would like to get their proposal reviewed more favorably. Yet there is a fixed budgetary pool. You would be chasing your tail trying to get everyone reviewed “efficiently”, i.e., more favorably. Otherwise, all you are doing is saying you want the bias shifted from one set of applicants to another set of applicants.
    I know someone who firmly believes the only way you’re getting a grant funded is if you know the people on study section.
    This is demonstrably incorrect. OTOH, I believe firmly that it *helps* to know people on the study section.

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  42. I know someone who firmly believes the only way you’re getting a grant funded is if you know the people on study section.

    Just because someone firmly believes this doesn’t make it so. One of the grants I have had funded recently was reviewed by a study section whose membership did not include a single person I had ever met, corresponded with, or even heard of in my life. I targeted this study section because I looked at the grants that had been funded after review there, and was comfortable that mine would receive a knowledgeable hearing.

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  43. I think you are not working hard enough to figure out how this is supposed to work.

    I’m sure it’s difficult to understand when one has never written, read, or reviewed an NIH grant, nor served on study section.

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  44. Grumble Says:

    “I think you are not working hard enough to figure out how this is supposed to work.”
    Right. It’s very true that it’s your job as a grant applicant to figure out how the study section will evaluate your grant, what criteria they are likely to weight more or less in your specific case, how the fact that you do or don’t know anyone on the study section will impact your score, and all the other little details that make a huge difference.
    But I’m sorry, DM, NONE of that is “doing science.”
    It’s doing politics, it’s gaming the system, it’s doing what you have to do to succeed, it’s just the way it is.
    But it’s NOT doing science.

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  45. DrugMonkey Says:

    But I’m sorry, DM, NONE of that is “doing science.”
    When did I suggest that those particular aspects of shepherding your grant application through the process was “doing science”?

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  46. Is ordering shitte from Sigma “doing science”? Is mixing salts and buffers into Ringer’s solution “doing science”? Is pouring Ringer’s in a dish “doing science”? Is putting an animal in the dish of Ringer’s and cutting the motherfucker open “doing science”? Is sitting in your office and thinking up shitte “doing science”? Is writing a fucken manuscript “doing science”? Is writing a fucken grant “doing science”? Is inputting data into a motherfucken Excel spreadsheet “doing science”? Is taking normal rat chow away from your rats and replacing it with high-fat chow “doing science”? Is writing a Matlab script to analyze data “doing science”? Is using Matlab to make a figure illustrating your data “doing science”? Is showing a technician how to perform a ligation “doing science”? Is doing a ligation “doing science”? Is puling an electrode “doing science”? Is firepolishing the electrode “doing science”? Is chlorideing your electrode wire “doing science”? Is patching onto a cell “doing science”? Is failing to get a decent seal “doing science”? Is talking to your colleagues at a conference “doing science”? Is talking to your Chair “doing science”? Is talking to your Dean “doing science”? Is giving a seminar at UCSF “doing science”? Is giving a seminar at your local high-school “doing science”? Is talking to your Program Officer about your grant aims “doing science”? Is talking to your lab members about your grant aims “doing science”? Is talking to your mother about your grant aims “doing science”?
    The fact of the matter is that what clueless self-absorbed dumshittes consider to be “doing science” are the aspects of science that they like doing and are good at. Everything else they consider “not doing science”. It is juvenile and pathetic, and a sign of real immaturity and inability to understand the larger context in which things occur. Science is a complex human enterprise with a vast number of interlocking elements, some technical, some social, some economic, and some rhetorical. It is not a task that someone either is or isn’t performing.

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  47. Spiny Norman Says:

    “I’d argue that that is the wrong approach to take in grant writing. The best advice I ever heard was to propose experiments that you actually want to do, because funding no longer drives your science.”
    Fuckin’ A! That is EXACTLY how my funded grants were all written.

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  48. Spiny Norman Says:

    Neil Craig @ 15: I noticed that you linked to a rather intensely FoxNewsish op-ed about that OECD report, rather than to the report itself. I found that a bit curious, since I was at least passingly familiar with the OECD report, since both the op-ed and your summary thereof didn’t mesh with my memory of it.
    And whaddya know. My suspicion was correct.

    Not surprisingly, it is found that the pace of accumulation of physical and human capital plays a major role in the growth process. Most notably, the estimated impact of increases in human capital (as measured by average years in education) on output suggests high returns to investment in education. The results also point to a marked positive effect of business-sector R&D, while the analysis could find no clear-cut relationship between public R&D activities and growth, at least in the short term.

    In other words, they didn’t ask the relevant question at all. In the future, you might consider sticking to primary sources.

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  49. Spiny Norman Says:

    The OECD report continues:

    The significance of this latter result should not however be overplayed as there are important interactions between public and private R&D activities as well as difficult-to-measure benefits from public R&D (e.g. defence, energy, health and university research) from the generation of basic knowledge that provides technology spillovers in the long run.

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  50. Grumble Says:

    OK, CPP, you took the time to pound out such a long response that even this clueless self-absorbed dumshitte thinks you deserve an answer.
    Call me naive, but what’s most important about science is theories, hypotheses, and the evidence for and against them. It’s true that a scientist can’t test hypotheses and form theories without doing much of the sort of peripheral activity you describe in your long list (talk to UCSF, talk to the dean, even talk to mom). But there needs to be some degree of balance, or productivity on the things that matter – testing hypotheses – suffers.
    What if scientists were required to spend 75% of their time giving seminars at their local high school, before they got a penny of grant money? Would complaints about the requirement be “juvenile and pathetic, and a sign of real immaturity and inability to understand the larger context in which things occur”? No? Then why does that apply to the complaint that scientists today are forced to spend FAR too much time writing grants instead of… doing science?
    Whatever. The crusty old farts are happy with the system, so what more can I expect from them than an accusation of self-absorption and immaturity for daring to complain about the grant work load? We young uns just have to put in our time, learn the system, and if we survive, we can then sit around telling our younger colleagues to grow up. Meanwhile, I guess we should all just sit back and shrug our shoulders while so many scientists waste their time (and the government’s money) writing grants instead of… doing science.
    We might not all be juvenile, but it sure seems pathetic.

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  51. DrugMonkey Says:

    Grumble, sometimes I wish I didn’t have to shop for food, make meals, paint my house, clean out the litter box, drive through rush hour traffic, do laundry…..the list goes on and on. Gee wouldn’t it be awesome if all I has to do was hang with the spouse, play with my kids, do only the work that entertained me right at the moment and eat bon bons.

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  52. Grumble’s “reasoning” is just like that of the selfish pigge delusional teabaggers who are blind to the fact that *someone* has to pay for and do all the shitte that enables their comfortable existence “free of government interference”: roads, sewers, water, electricity, police, fire dept, air traffic control, military, food and drug safety, medical licensing, building safety and habitability, etc.

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  53. whimple Says:

    DM/PP, so, the cafeteria guy that puts my lunch on the tray is also “doing science”?
    Grumble’s point seems to be that spending 80% of his time writing grants is an inefficient use of the resources supporting him. He could argue that he used to be able to test more hypotheses per unit time than he is able to now, and that this observation applies more broadly across academic biomedical science today such that each dollar invested in science returns less tested hypotheses than it used to, because the increased burden of obtaining those dollars takes away from the ability to effectively use those dollars.
    Are you (DM/PP) taking the position that writing 5 grants to return the funding that could formerly be returned writing 2 grants makes no difference, because it’s all just “science”?

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  54. Are you (DM/PP) taking the position that writing 5 grants to return the funding that could formerly be returned writing 2 grants makes no difference, because it’s all just “science”?

    Of course not. But the fact of the matter is that grant writing is one of the most important responsibilities of a Principal Investigator in the NIH/NSF-funded scientific enterprise. Sniveling about how it “isn’t doing science” is pointless gibberish.
    Incidentally, it seem to be the same people caterwauling about how grant writing is a total waste of their time, but also want the return of the A2 resubmission. They fail to see the contradiction, because they choose to remain willfully ignorant of the broader view of how the system functions. They insist on only viewing things from the perspective of their own desire to obtain the funding they “deserve” with the least possible personal effort and risk of failure.

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  55. Grumble Says:

    Whimple captures my point precisely. I think we all agree that the grantwriting load reduces efficiency. Which is why I don’t understand CPP’s attitude: if one comes anywhere close to saying that all the extra grantwriting that’s required these days just to keep one’s nose above water isn’t doing science, one is accused of talking gibberish (and of sniveling, to boot).
    I’ve yet to be convinced by CPP’s colorful retorts that all the extra grantwriting crap is not doing science. Like I said waaaaay back in the beginning, it’s fundraising. Like I also said, I have no objection to writing grants. Writing a *reasonable* number of grants *is* doing science, and arguably enhances (sometimes greatly) the experiments a scientist does – just like writing a review, chloriding your electrode, and everything else on CPP’s list. But when the burden is as onerous as it is for me and many others, it begins to get in the way of that which is most important in science – actually testing hypotheses. So it is not doing science.

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  56. DrugMonkey Says:

    I don’t *like* the balance at present either, Grumble. But the fact is that budgets are shrinking. You don’t seem to have any way forward that recognizes this reality. Other than to tilt at “shitty review” demons that don’t exist in meaningful numbers.
    Who are you going to push out of the system? What method are you going to use that is not arbitrary and entirely based on your science, your circumstances and your preferences?

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  57. Spiny Norman Says:

    The idea that spending a lot of time grantwriting is something new is also horseshit. My grad advisor was writing grants all the fucking time, and that was in the early 1990s. My postdoc advisor spent less time grantwriting, but he had an excuse: he had a big-assed NIH MERIT award so he was good for ten years. You know how he got the MERIT? By spending a shitload of time writing good grants in the years before the MERIT award, that’s how. And when I was there he was also writing a training grant.
    Honestly, Grumble, you give every appearance of someone who didn’t notice how much grantwriting your mentors were actually doing while you were in training. Either they weren’t doing much grantwriting (i.e. they were poorly funded or had a private endowment or were HHMI or had MERIT awards), or they were doing it all at home at night and it never occurred to you that they were working late into the night, or, alternatively you were just fucking clueless.
    In any case, you apparently never got the message: being a PI is not the same as being a grad student. You have different responsibilities and along multiple axes you have to step up your game. Getting money? Part of the job. Networking on the phone and online and at meetings? Part of the fucking job. You don’t have to have a vast carbon footprint like CPP’s but you *do* have to communicate with your colleagues (“politics”), and it IS part of doing the job. AND IT ALWAYS HAS BEEN, as long as there’s been something resembling a scientific profession. You think that Galileo and DaVinci and Aristotle didn’t have to hustle and hobnob for funds to do their work? If you do think that, you’re not only a dipshit, you’re historically illiterate.
    If you’re not growing peas in a monastery (Mendel) or independently wealthy (Peter Mitchell), you have to scrub for money. And even Mitchell spent a LOT of his time on politics and networking, because he knew that the ONLY way his chemiosmotic coupling hypothesis would ever be accepted was to convince all of the colleagues that mattered, one by one.
    This stuff is not peripheral to the game. It IS the game.

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  58. Spiny Norman Says:

    …and Mendel didn’t get his work out to the scientific community — in other words, he didn’t network — so what happened? His work was lost for decades and only discovered by the broader community after well after he was *dead*. But, you know, “politics” is not part of science, right?

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  59. whimple Says:

    Spiny, since “you have different responsibilities and along multiple axes…,” what happens when the grantwriting axis eats into time and effort for the other axes? Entertainingly enough it is illegal to be a professional NIH-funded grantwriter because you are not allowed to use government dollars (that pay your salary) to solicit the government for more dollars. If you spend 80% of your time writing grants (really) then you are only allowed to write grants to cover the remaining 20% of your effort. Obviously therefore, the NIH explicitly does not consider grantwriting “doing science”. Of course, the NIH has always looked the other way on this.

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  60. Grumble Says:

    DM, I did propose one way forward, which was that NIH could realize that the current “write 10 grants to get 1” situation severely limits productivity, and therefore it should shift from an emphasis on proposals to an emphasis on track record, at least for some portion of their budget.
    That may or may not be tenable, it may or may not contribute to a solution, and of course we don’t control the NIH anyway. However, to me it is clear that *something* has to change – or at least it ought to, if taxpayers are to get what they are paying for. I think NIH-funded scientists should at least agree on this. The best change would be for taxpayers to agree to provide more funding. Second-best would be some institutional changes at NIH that make allowances for the current supply and demand for grant dollars, rather than continuing to let the existing system lumber inefficiently along.
    Whatever the solution, it’s important that scientists be vocal about the fact that there is a problem to begin with. That flat-out statement that “we’re not doing science anymore; we’re doing fundraising” succinctly conveys a powerful and truthful message. People who care about science will take notice if enough scientists repeat it loudly enough. And yet, instead of some semblance of a unified front of concern to present to the public, we sit on our asses arguing about whether there’s even a problem.
    CPP and SpinyNorman, you’re too quick to accuse. Yes, I know exactly how much grant-writing my PIs did. One of them even told me “it’s a business like any other.” Like I’ve been saying, I’ve learned all these lessons. I know very well that getting money is part of the fucking job; I knew that way before I signed up. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. And it doesn’t render untrue the statement that an excessive need for fundraising is counterproductive, and that in fact excessive fundraising isn’t really doing science at all.
    To you it may seem that the situation is no different now than 10 or 20 years ago. I’m fairly certain that there wasn’t a period during that timeframe when grant funding rates were as low as they are today. So what can I say, the numbers say you’re wrong.
    I’m interested in knowing others’ thoughts on how the system ought to change – and perhaps more importantly, how the message that something is wrong should best be conveyed, and to whom, and with what suggestions for how to fix it. Or, we could just keep on arguing about how juvenile, self-absorbed, etc people with my take on the issue are.

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  61. In the early 1990s, success rates were about as low as they are now.
    The bottom line is that there needs to be a contraction of the denominator, with substantial numbers of PIs sloughed off from the system. The only question is who is gonna be sloughed off.

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  62. DrugMonkey Says:

    OK Grumble, true. You proposed pushing out the noobs who have not yet had a chance to enter the system. Disadvantaging new folks with their new ideas in favor of established people who are productive, yet churn out incremental advance. I say this would be a bad thing because we need a balance. All approaches need an equal chance- Good ideas, promise of a 30 year career ahead *and* incremental, but still significant, advance from proven quantities. All of it. From investigators across the broadest sweep of existing and potential science careers.

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  63. If you spend 80% of your time writing grants (really) then you are only allowed to write grants to cover the remaining 20% of your effort.

    You spend 80% of your effort writing grants? Are you writing 40 grants a year??

    Whatever the solution, it’s important that scientists be vocal about the fact that there is a problem to begin with. That flat-out statement that “we’re not doing science anymore; we’re doing fundraising” succinctly conveys a powerful and truthful message. People who care about science will take notice if enough scientists repeat it loudly enough. And yet, instead of some semblance of a unified front of concern to present to the public, we sit on our asses arguing about whether there’s even a problem.

    True, the payline doth sucketh and that limits the number of grants that can be funded. That’s a problem worth taking to the public. But, even if the payline were doubled and twice as many submitted grants were funded, do you know what I would do? Write even more grants to do even more science!!!!! Why? Because I got enough science in my brain to last a lifetime already. And because it is awesome as fuck when your grant gets funded and you realize that you have even more resources to do all the wackaloon shit you want to do!!!!!!
    Plus, I have aspirations to take over the world.

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  64. whimple Says:

    Isis: But, even if the payline were doubled and twice as many submitted grants were funded, do you know what I would do? Write even more grants to do even more science!!!!!
    This is exactly what happened during the NIH doubling which directly led to the resulting payline crash. More money is not the answer. I think one way would be for the NIH to pay indirects on a per-institution basis, rather than on a per-grant basis. Tying indirects to directs has caused a frenzy of greed from extramural administrators to overwhelm the system with too many mouths to feed.

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  65. Spiny Norman Says:

    “To you it may seem that the situation is no different now than 10 or 20 years ago. I’m fairly certain that there wasn’t a period during that timeframe when grant funding rates were as low as they are today.”
    CCP beat me to the punch: you’re wrong.
    “The best change would be for taxpayers to agree to provide more funding.”
    Hahahahahahaaaaa. Have you looked at the national news at ANY point in the last six months? The ONLY questions are: (1) how much worse will it get? And (2) how fast? I suppose it’s forgivable that you haven’t noticed this since you’ve probably been too busy doing “real science.”

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  66. Grumble Says:

    No, DM, I did not propose “pushing out the noobs who have not yet had a chance to enter the system.” I proposed a two-tier system in which SOME portion of NIH funds goes towards awards based on track record rather than proposed experiments. I think it would be possible for such a system to have the kind of balance you talk about while still reducing the grant writing load for established investigators.
    CPP and SN: OK, so funding levels were as bad as today in the early 1990s, then the doubling happened. But it didn’t just “happen” by itself. Could it be that scientists’ attempts to make the public/congress/President Clinton aware of the funding crisis had something, even a small part, to do with the decision to double to budget?
    SN also offers a silly retort to my statement that the best solution is more government funding for science. Yes, I know all about the tea party dumbfucks who seem to have Congress and the president by the balls (wait, what balls?), but I also know the public is getting fed up with them. Things can change; little is permanent in politics, and with some luck the pendulum will swing back eventually. Seems to me like one of the things CPP should have put on his list of “doing science” activities is lobbying for better government science funding policies, including making the public aware as best as we can of the benefits of a strong federally funded research program. Cynics might find it hard to be enthusiastic about such endeavors, but I don’t really see how a cynical attitude is helpful.
    More considered is Isis’ response that more money actually isn’t going to help because all it does is inspire more demand. Well, that’s true, but there are also solutions to this – the indirect cost limit you suggest is one of them.

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  67. Grumble Says:

    (I referred to Isis but meant whimple’s response to Isis; sorry ’bout that.)

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  68. AcademicLurker Says:

    It seems to me that any discussion along these lines needs to address the soft money issue. As long as institutions (chiefly medical schools) can expand by creating positions they know they can’t support, any “more money for science” solution is doomed to fail. Double the NIH budget again and med. schools will just double their size again in response.

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  69. DrugMonkey Says:

    As long as smaller state Universities with minimal prior NIH funded research see a novel source of revenue than any expansion is doomed to fail AL. Oh, yes, that happened too. It isn’t just soft money, though I agree this contributes greatly.

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  70. Spiny Norman Says:

    “SN also offers a silly retort to my statement that the best solution is more government funding for science. Yes, I know all about the tea party dumbfucks who seem to have Congress and the president by the balls (wait, what balls?), but I also know the public is getting fed up with them. Things can change; little is permanent in politics, and with some luck the pendulum will swing back eventually.”
    The GOP and the Democratic Party have, if you didn’t notice it, just enacted legislation that virtually guarantees deep and savage cuts to discretionary spending, starting in 2013. Discretionary spending includes scientific research.
    “Seems to me like one of the things CPP should have put on his list of “doing science” activities is lobbying for better government science funding policies, including making the public aware as best as we can of the benefits of a strong federally funded research program. Cynics might find it hard to be enthusiastic about such endeavors, but I don’t really see how a cynical attitude is helpful.”
    I agree about the need for activism and I can assure you that my elected representatives know my views on these subjects. But my attitude is not cynical: it is realistic. I am assuming that what BOTH political parties have stated* is the agenda is, in fact, the agenda.
    * Where “stated” means “stated in legislation” which was just passed and signed into federal law by Obama. Now, tell me how my interpretation is “cynical” again?

    Like

  71. Spiny Norman Says:

    Whimple @59. I probabably spend 30% or less of my time on “grant writing.”
    Seriously: I spent most of today reading & taking notes on papers that I needed to read for a grant that I’m putting together for 5 October. But that time and effort also benefitted my existing, funded scientific efforts.
    How shall I “allocate” that time?

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  72. whimple Says:

    Spiny @71. Dunno. Glad it’s working for you.

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