Wednesday, July 20, 2016


One of the most painful parts of being a scientist is searching for money.    Funding is a necessary evil, but finding it is getting harder and harder.   More and more scientists are chasing a relatively constant pool of money, so the success rates for proposals are dropping.

This is probably most pronounced for the National Institutes of Health, which funds most U. S. health care related research.  A  blog post by Dr. Michael Lauer, NIH's Deputy Director for Extramural Research, gives some recent, and very sobering numbers.  For Fiscal Year 2015, the most recent available, the success rate for new proposals is down to 16.3%, or one proposal in six.   For renewals, the success rate is 37.3%, or a bit better than one in three.The new proposal rate has declined precipitously over the past decade or so.

The National Science Foundation, which funds IceCube, and much other basic research in the U.S., the overall success rate is, per  a blog post by Jeremy Fox, per principle investigator (not per proposal; some PIs submit multiple proposals) is 35%, or comparable to the NIH renewal rate.  These rates are not healthy. 

On average, scientists have to write three proposals for each one funded.  That's a lot of writing, not to mention work for the reviewers and program managers.    Furthermore, it can't be any fun being a program officer at a funding agency and having to tell so many people 'No.'  

 The low renewal rate makes it very hard to do long-term planning; this may put an unwonted emphasis on short-term results.  It also makes it much harder to hire people.  Particularly for long-term experiments like IceCube, continuity is important, and it would make no sense to fund one group one year, and a different group the next year.  Fortunately, most funding agencies do recognize this, and renewals seem easier than new proposals; at the least, the success rates are higher.  On the other hand, it is very difficult for young faculty trying to break into the system.

This discourages "the best and the brightest" (whoever they are) from going into academia.   When I was in grad school, academia was the preferred career.  We all knew it would be tough, but it seemed viable.  Now, many of the best students prefer jobs in Silicon Valley, or the financial industry, or working with "big data."    There are multiple reasons, but funding expectations are high on the list.    Graduating students should certainly pursue their dreams, but, long term, this is not good for the health of U.S. (or international) science.  Beyond this, discouragement trickles down, and the funding situation can discourage bright undergraduates from further science education, steering them toward something with better returns, like finance, law or engineering.

Normally, this would be the point where I would provide some snappy suggestions about how to solve this problem.  I don't have any brilliant ideas, but I will share a few thoughts

Contrary to what some science critics say (sometimes loudly), peer review for proposals is generally pretty successful, and I don't see a lot of wasted money in the system.

It is not easy to see how one could asks the scientists with grants to get by with significantly less money.  Most of the money goes for graduate students and postdocs.  Less money means less science, and, frequently, groups sizes are already smaller than is optimal.  By optimal, I mean most efficient.  There may be some small gains in getting faculty to work together, using a single grant, but not enough to make major improvements.  This will also reduce the breadth of coverage at each university.

One could also try to shift some funding from large facilities (particle accelerators, neutron sources, etc.) toward smaller grants.  This makes some sense, in that there is no point in building a large facility if there is no money to operate it, but the large facilities are there for very good reasons.  To give one example, many areas of science rely ultra-intense X-ray beams to atomically image all sorts of stuff; producing sufficiently intense X-ray beams requires >$100M facilities.    That said, a case could be made that some areas of science would benefit from a little shifting.

Of course, the best solution to the acceptance rate problem is additional funding.  Unfortunately, this solution can only come from Congress.  Right now, given the current political deadlocks, significant additional funding seem unlikely.  But, it can't hurt to contact your senators and representatives.  

From the standpoint of individual scientists, the only even partially bright point is that funding may be reaching the point where it is self-limiting.  Success rates are so low that universities are forced to acknowledge this when assessing faculty.  With less money flowing in, they may be more reluctant to hire new science faculty, and will certainly be forced to limit the number of graduate students, to match the available funding.     Long-term, this does not seem healthy for the U. S. STEM (science technology engineering math) enterprise, but it is a natural reaction.

I wish this were more upbeat, but it's not.  Next time, I'll focus on something cheerful, like science.

1 comment:

  1. 'Love your blog! I just read an old article in Scientific American by Halzen, and it's nice to have this blog providing updates.