How Competing For Grants Kills Science – and Scientists’ Motivation

By Shlomo   Maital  

Science lab

   This is the sad story about how a shortage of resources, and the system of competitive funding of research grants through peer-review, is ruining U.S. science and killing scientists’ motivation.   I heard it today on America’s National Public Radio News, in a report by Richard Harris.

   Ian Glomski thought he was going to make a difference in the fight to protect people from deadly anthrax germs. He had done everything right – attended one top university, landed an assistant professorship at another.  But Glomski ran head-on into an unpleasant reality: These days, the scramble for money to conduct research has become stultifying.  So, he’s giving up on science.  Ian Glomski outside his home in Charlottesville, Va. He quit an academic career in microbiology to start a liquor distillery.

Why is he giving up????  

Because to get grants, you need to ‘tweak’ safe existing ideas, so your peers will approve it; because if you have radical ideas, your peers who judge the grants competition will shoot them down, because if you succeed, those ideas will endanger the judges’ own safe, conventional, non-risky research.

“You’re focusing basically on one idea you already have and making it as presentable as possible,” he says. “You’re not spending time making new ideas. And it’s making new ideas, for me personally, that I found rewarding. That’s what my passion was about.”

    Glomski wanted to study anthrax ‘in vitro’, in live animals, using scanning techniques.  Today it’s done by analyzing tissues of dead animals. His idea might have failed. But if it succeeded, it could have utterly changed our understanding of anthrax and other such diseases. 

    In theory, peer-review of grants is fair.  But it fosters extreme mediocrity.  And as government funding of research declines, (20% cut in recent years),   competition gets fierce (1 of 8 grant proposals is successful, and it takes long stretches of time to prepare one – so young scientists spend their time writing proposals rather than doing effective research). 

    Harris reports that “…. payoffs in science come from out of the blue – oddball ideas or unexpected byways. Glomski says that’s what research was like for him as he was getting his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. His lab leader there got funding to probe the frontiers. But Glomski sees that far-sighted approach disappearing today.”   Playing it safe will never generate the creative breakthroughs we need.

     As with many things in America, scientific research is utterly screwed up.  And it is unlike to change in the near future.