• August 31, 2015

Science by Proxy

Science by Proxy

Marta Antelo for The Chronicle

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Marta Antelo for The Chronicle

Academic science is in a crisis. At a time when scientific innovation is desperately needed to solve some of the world's most pressing environmental, technological, and medical problems, how scientists get money for their research stifles, rather than spurs, creativity.

The structural defect causing this major problem can be stated simply: The failure rate for proposals submitted by academic scientists has reached such high levels that many professors must spend virtually all their time writing proposals, leaving the creative thinking to graduate students and postdoctoral associates. The result is science by proxy.

Exacerbating the problem is the increased importance academic administrators place on grant money when they consider professors' salary, tenure, and promotion. As universities become ever more like businesses, young faculty members suffer from excessive mental and physical stress, and, under such pressure, must neglect their teaching (and most everything else) in their frantic search for research funds. Not surprisingly, the exponentially increasing numbers of proposals are of declining quality.

Many people are aware of the serious abuses of the grant process and the concomitant strains placed on the academic community. But young faculty members, who are perhaps most acutely affected, are afraid to speak up and rock the boat. No one knows what to do.

The success rate in proposal submissions by university faculty members is especially troubling. It has decreased considerably over the past 30 years—an unhappy situation resulting from several factors. For well over a decade, federal funds for scientific research have decreased relative to both inflation and research costs. More Ph.D.'s are on the market, busily applying for grants; universities continue unchecked growth; and there is increased competition between university scientists and researchers at the agencies that award the grants, some of whom submit proposals to their own agencies.

Faced with diminished success in receiving funds, many professors have begun resorting to various methods to improve their odds. Not surprisingly, abuses abound. A colleague I know at another institution cited a case of someone submitting 33 proposals in a single year. A researcher who submits 33 proposals in a year is one who knows that the more proposals he submits, the more money he stands to garner­—and he'd best throw stuff against the wall and hope that something eventually sticks.

While such egregious examples are rare, I do know of a few instances where faculty members in good conscience have written eight or nine proposals before achieving a single success. Professors are not spending their time wisely if they are using most of it to write failed proposals.

The scramble for big bucks leaves the researcher with little time to attend to students and requires that faculty members trust their graduate students and postdocs to perform the actual research. Those with the most experience are relegated to doing the least amount of hands-on research.

Universities are partly to blame. Some institutions explicitly tell their faculty members that they are expected to bring in $300,000 or more in grants each year. Researchers sometimes receive awards for bringing in more funds than anyone else at their institutions. At one academic banquet, a dean requested that professors who brought in over a half-million dollars stand up and be applauded by the audience. Such displays of commercialism exemplify what has been called the "selling culture" and a "gold-digger" mentality among university administrators.

The agencies are also at fault. They are bureaucracies that promote top-down science to suit political and administrative ends. To begin with, there is the application process itself. Often, an agency's request for proposal, or RFP, reads like a legal document, constricting the applicant to stay within very narrow and conventional bounds, with no profound scientific questions posed at all. Many RFP's are so overly specific that they amount to little more than work for hire. Those who know how to play the game simply reply to RFP's with parroted responses that echo the language in the proposal, in efforts to convince the reviewers that their programs exactly fit the conditions of the RFP. Thus many RFP's inhibit good research rather than encourage it.

Program managers—who are even further removed from the forefront of their fields than overburdened principal investigators—also favor large, splashy research projects with plenty of crowd appeal, like fancy Web sites that look impressive but that no one actually uses. In other words, userless science.

What is to be done?

As a first step, university administrations must realize that a lack of funds is not the problem: If a shortage of resources promotes creativity in research, then what does that say about the efficacy of research funding? Increasing money for scientific research is not a solution and may make matters worse by stirring more greed in those gifted in the art of wheedling money out of the system. If the present situation continues, the strains on university faculty members and university finances (and university ethics) will keep increasing.

Instead, funding agencies should collaborate with academic scientists by agreeing to award qualified faculty members a nominal sum of money each year­—say, $20,000, including some overhead for the university—plus one graduate student. The award would be based upon submission of a very short proposal justifying the research and citing papers published. Proposals requesting greater funds would still be submitted in a more lengthy form (subject to the current review process), but there would be less pressure on faculty members to constantly submit them. The total amount of money handed out would be far less than at present, and the time spent fruitlessly chasing funds with contrived research proposals would be reduced considerably. Scientists' productivity and creativity would increase, and the burden placed on reviewers and journal editors would decrease. Research would be initiated by working scientists rather than the agencies. In other words, bottom-up science.

Good scientific research requires dedication, patience, enthusiasm, and a high degree of passion for the chosen subject. When too many proposals are submitted, everyone loses. The cost in time, energy, and resources—not to mention intangibles like the quality of life and the drain on emotional and physical resources of academic scientists—exceeds the value of the output.

Unless and until the problems of grant awards and top-down science are resolved, abuses will continue, possibly with a mass exodus of Americans from science. Times have changed since the golden age of academic science, and if we continue on our current path, we risk a degradation in the creativity of our universities.

Toby N. Carlson is professor emeritus of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University.


1. forsdyke - October 18, 2010 at 10:32 am

Professor Carlson begins by stating that "Academic science is in a crisis," which most will interpret as meaning that "science by proxy" has somehow crept up upon us. Then he adds that "No one knows what to do." If fact the problem has been with us for many, many, decades and has been thought about very, very, deeply.
Dr. Carlson's suggestion for baseline grants is one of many solutions that have been considered. In Canada we have the CAARF (Canadian Association for Responsible Research Funding), which has been airing such suggestions for two decades. For more on this topic please see my peer-review webpages ( http://post.queensu.ca/~forsdyke/peerrev.htm ) and my text "Tomorrow's Cures Today? How to Reform the Health Research System." (Harwood Academic,2000).

Donald Forsdyke, Queen's University, Canada

2. jbortnik - October 18, 2010 at 11:22 am

I applaud Prof. Carlson for highlighting a frustrating situation that professional researchers such as myself have to confront on a daily basis. We are caught on a perpetual treadmill that requires us to submit proposals to every available opportunity, leaving us no time to do the actual work we proposed, and consequently hiring a larger number of students and postdocs, which then require further financial support, writing more proposals, lots of resubmission, increased workload, etc. I'm not sure I agree with the proposed solution though ('What is to be done?'). I think the driving force behind this madness is only partially from the university administration (e.g., fast-track promotions, high departmental profile), but to a large part it comes from the scientific community in terms of approval, citations, prominence ... in short, the implicit rewards that we are conditioned to strive for as academics. To really address this issue, we need to somehow redefine the meaning of academic success, starting with an annulment of our marriage to the corporate mindset.

3. berkeleydude - October 18, 2010 at 12:03 pm

I'm surprised that the author doesn't mention the elephant in the room: the need to make sure that one's graduate students, postdocs, and research staff members can eat and have a place to sleep --- pay them. In the sciences and engineering, the norm is to have students be supported during their graduate education, rather than having mom and dad pick up the tab. The university administrators are, in general, not coming up with that money and so faculty members must raise it by submitting proposals.

There is an easy solution to much of this: largely replace federal grants tied to faculty members to direct federal fellowships for the best graduate students and postdocs that are renewable, perhaps on a competitive basis. Federal grants tied to faculty members could still be used for really expensive lab equipment, faculty travel, summer salary, hiring lab techs, etc...

A whole lot of problems would go away if we eliminated the inherent irrationality of using 2-3 year federal grants to support students during an inherently 5-6 year PhD proces.

4. a1broom - October 18, 2010 at 02:02 pm

This issue has been becoming increasingly critical for the last two or three scientific generation. In the Health Sciences, my academic home for 40+ years, it has become the norm for tenured and tenure-track faculty to be required to provide 25% to 75 or even 100% of their annual salary. Ours is a public Research I university, but it should now be described as state minimally assisted rather than state supported. Without federal or industry grant or contract support there will be no grad students, postdocs or, for that matter, dinner for the faculty family. Perhaps amazingly, faculty cope. In a Darwinian sense, the current situation might even be considered healthy, in that only the most scientifically fit (at least in terms of high-impact publication and money acquisition) survive. However, as long as we Americans subscribe to the view that endless growth is key to national success, we are setting ourselves up for catastrophic failure when that growth cannot be maintained. We have had an inkling of this over the last couple of years, yet the mindset for expansion and growth is too firmly entrenched in our academic and business society to permit any rational restructuring of our national enterprise absent economic collapse.
Clearly, the current trajectory toward endless expansion is can not be maintained, but I hope (without much optimism) that people much smarter than I will find a way to steer us to a positive and sustainable outcome.

Prthur D. Broom
Professor Emeritus

5. a1broom - October 18, 2010 at 02:03 pm

Oops. Can't even spell my own name.


6. abcde1234 - October 19, 2010 at 10:43 am

berkeleydude, great points.
What you say is explored in depth here:
a report from the NRC that came out in 1997. Among other things, the report called for a mortorium on growth of PhD programs in the life sciences-no new programs and limited expansion of existing programs with an eye toward reaching a steady state. This was promptly ignored.

The interesting thing is that, as feredal funding dollars have increased, fewer and fewer PhD students have been suported by training grants, and more and more have been supported by research grants. Keep in mind that PhD student's tuition and fees are paid by research grants, as well as their stipends.

7. scientistmom - October 19, 2010 at 05:58 pm

One idea that was floated around was to require all institutions to pay the majority of the faculty member's salary. At medical schools, faculty need at least one NIH grant to pay their salaries and another to run their labs efficiently. If grants weren't being obtained to pay salaries, then there would be more money to actually do science. That would require the faculty members to teach, but I think that can only be a good thing.

In this climate I have seen very good colleagues have to close their labs and leave research science because they failed to get another grant before time ran out (after applying and applying and applying.)

I am amazed at how little time I have to think and do science and how much of it is spent trying to craft my grants into something "bullet-proof" that will be original and innovative enough to inspire enthusiasm, but yet solid and doable enough not to raise criticism. All in 12 pages and with only one chance to answer the reviewers.

I'm tired and defeated.

8. upallnight - October 19, 2010 at 06:32 pm

The grant-getting game is a game. My first grant came after I took a seminar (a very good one) that explained how to write the proposal so that the very tired, overworked, cranky grant reviewers would understand it and be excited about it only after skimming it (along with 100s of others). Many faculty never get the advantage of one of these seminars and are cranking out proposals with no hopes of funding merely because they are not written in the "formulaic" style that is "fundable." At the same time, there are those who receive grants who later are found to be guilty of misconduct and the like. NIH publishes the names of individuals in their monthly newsletter. For those found guilty, they might be ban from receiving funding for a few years.

It is a game. The name of the game is learn the formula and play to it. Are some funded projects worthwhile? Sure. Are worthy scientific endeavors left out in the cold? Definitely.

9. mike_in_nm - October 20, 2010 at 01:55 pm

This is a better article than the more recent one by a graduate student complaining about having to write dissertation grants. However, I still see a lack of research on the topic on the part of the author. Certainly, there have been studies of these issues. Why are they not cited? Where are the hard stats on the numbers of proposals submitted and funded?

In any case, the solution to the crisis proposed here is unlikely to fix anything. The idea that professors be all but guaranteed a small amount of funding is essentially what used to be done in the USA and its still being done in Canada and some parts of Europe. (If the author had done any research at all, he would have known that.) That system effectively creates a club of faculty that keep themselves funded. It also rewards mediocrity and laziness. What science-field research group can get by with $20K and one graduate student? Not mine.

Agencies such as the NSF regularly report that 1/3 of submitted proposals to a specific program are recommended for funding. However, they only fund about 1/10 of them. Getting the funding rate up to 1/5 would decrease submission rates (less need to write many proposals) while still funding the best research. More funding, not less, is needed.

10. outsourced - October 21, 2010 at 07:50 am

If I understand this correctly, the plea here is "Stop me before I submit again ... by giving me a grant!"

I think this is being approached from the wrong end. A good part of the glut, imho, is caused by folks who submit stacks of poorly conceived and attrociously written proposals. No serious player views these as competition, but they cause real problems because they're not weeded out early enough in the process to save the reviewers' sanity.

Second, the great virtue of the American system of grant-giving is that it's a level playing field, open to all, and _without_ set-asides for any particular class of academics. Both review criteria and results are generally open to inspection, and good ideas can succeed on their own merits -- not on the basis of who (or where) has submitted them. Yes, there are flaws; but try seeking a grant in another country before you throw out the baby with the bath water.

The real problem I see is the burden placed on grant seekers and reviewers alike by requiring -- or allowing -- overly long and detailed proposals (and appendices and CVs. And did I mention appendices?).

Let's consider going to a two-pass system, with very short page limits and a high rejection rate on the first review, and fewer authors and reviewers suffering through full-length applications on the second. And would it be too crazy to have a wild-card system that lets some of the first-round rejects through just to make sure the plan is working as intended?

11. rmaldve - October 21, 2010 at 10:47 am

I also would like to see the data or studies which support Prof. Carlson's commentary. Yes, faculty do need to write grants in order to support their research and it is getting harder to find that support, but to believe that faculty are allowing graduate students to craft their own research projects or interpret the findings is silly. The problem is that faculty have an incessant need to micromanage-everything. That includes grant writing. My job is to facilitate the grants application process in my college. In the 3 years that I have been in this position, roughly 10 of the 50 research faculty routinely seek my assistance in preparing, proofing, or submitting their research proposals. Add to the fact that NIH, NSF and other federal funding institutions have made significant changes in the application process. Is the RFP complicated? Not really, but does the faculty member actually read the thing? No, but I do. Sure most faculty are aware that the page limit has been reduced from 25 to 12 pages, but do they know that the section headings have changed? Or do they ask? No. Does their grant get slammed, yes. We all know the administrative burden on faculty is substantial but when they are provided with competent, experienced staff charged to assist with this or that task, time and time again, they will do it themselves, and continue to bitch about how much time they spend pushing this paper through that hoop, preparing their lectures (yeah, right), mentoring students (sure) or what not instead of giving up that control.

12. cwinton - October 21, 2010 at 04:15 pm

I endorse rmaldve's comment. I had my share of grants, the proposals for a number of which were actually fairly painless to put together because of the help our office of sponsored research was willing to provide.

13. archman - October 21, 2010 at 04:22 pm

There is an increasing reliance on universities to fund themselves from faculty grants, and there is an increasing number of universities trying to "upgrade" themselves (and their faculty) into research institutions.

This is not a sustainable growth model. Research funding is simply not keeping up.

14. raymond_j_ritchie - October 21, 2010 at 10:35 pm

There is more than one elephant in the living room on this subject. I will name another: ghost written grant applications. A lot of grant applications are not only thought of by graduate students and post-docs but are actually written by them as well. Prof Insectivous Rana Bullfrog submits them under his name with nothing on the application that it was all Dr Jane Newt's work.

The undocumented agreement is that Prof Bullfrog will employ Jane if he gets the grant. No-one need to be overly concerned provided the stuff does not hit the fan, but of course it sometimes does.

In Australia I know of one case where it did. Bullfrog & Newt happily lived together. Newt wrote an ARC (Australian for NSF) which Bullfrog put in without any evidence of Newt's authorship, otherwise she would not qualify for the salary component. Bullfrog got the money; Bullfrog and Newt then fell out and she left the pond; Bullfrog employed someone else on the grant. Newt was upset but there was no recourse.

15. physicsprof - October 22, 2010 at 12:23 pm

I have to side with #10. The high rate of rejection is largely due to poorly written (and poorly thought through) proposals that get recycled numerous times with cosmetic changes. Spending a quality month of your time every 3 years to write a good proposal will go a long way towards securing funding for your research. Besides, time writing is not completely lost, I can attest that ideas occur and clarity often emerges when you are trying to put your tentative thoughts on paper. While the current system is far from ideal the other side of the story is that there are too many investigators who cannot think, write, and on whom the concept of striving for improvement is simply lost.

16. mchakravarty - October 23, 2010 at 10:01 am

It is unfortunate that with all of this money-raising in the name of academic productivity is still being considered as the epitome of scientific inquiry and that too at the cost of educating the future generations. It will be interesting to watch how long this trend will continue. The utopian obsession with research and publishing as the yardstick of measurement of academic excellence must not be allowed to continue at the detriment of educating at the university level. We are already witnessing a consistent fall in quality teaching amidst the prevailing teacher unions excesses in schools and now over several decades the pestilence of research by all disciplines in university academia that is thwarting education itself and creating more and more hurdles and stresses on faculty to keep away from their primary preoccupation that is teaching. Unless there is a revolutionary awakening to challenge and oppose this predicament of abstinence from educating by faculty and spending public money that could be spent for more productive community programs, academia and education shall remain counter productive to their very promise. Unless preeminence of teaching is restored in educational institutions and teacher excellence be made pivotal towards consideration of promotion and tenure, we shall be disregarding the very tenets of educating. The obsession with research as the unitary evidence of scholarship is flawed at the outset as this along with the politicizing trend with impact factor of publications to singly recognize excellence in faculty fosters only an evidence of reliability and is not predicated at the relationship with validity. In educational parlance, it must be validity rather than reliability that should be the primary focus of evaluation at any level. For most educational institutions, the tryst with research as the singular and pivotal instrument of recognition is flawed and this trend must be reversed with research being made secondary to the evaluation of excellence in teaching if we are to envision a community nurtured with decent and appropriate education, one that is not held ransom to the obsession with research and publication.

17. tncarlson - October 23, 2010 at 10:28 pm

I am overwhelmed at the response to my article, Science by Proxy, in the Chronicle. Thank you all.

Just to add another comment or two (or five): to the person who faulted me for not knowing about the Canadian system, it was that system on which my suggestion was patterned.

To the person who faulted me for not having anough concrete evidence, let them try to dig up this data from the academic administration and see how far they get. BTW, this article was based on a much longer one which had much more anecdotal evidence. The Chronicle insisted on less than 900 words.

To the person who claimed that my suggestion would engender some laziness. True, my proposed system might cause some slacking here and there, but that defect would have to be balanced against the widespread abuses of the present system.

To the person who claimed that many proposals are substandard and it is the submission of such proposals that is clogging up the system. This is like blaming the victim, such as blaming the person out of work for not trying hard enough or being lazy. True, some proposals are deficient from the start but many, many proposals which are rejected are not. Tell that to the person I know who received all 'excellents' on his evaluation but had the proposal rejected.

Finally, the person who said that he could not run a lab on 20K a year, my idea was to provide a base funding level, beyond which anyone could still write a grant for larger sums in the usual manner but out of need, not out of fear for their tenure and promotion. I thought that point was clear. In any case, it is just a suggestion and there may be many other such ideas that would work more efficiently. I have no illusions of ever seeing the Canadian system adopted here.

Again, thanks all for taking the time to read the article.


18. ucprof - October 25, 2010 at 12:01 am

I disagree with the article. I spent one year submitting 15-20 proposals but it did not take up most of my time - some weekends yes, but not the majority of my working hours. The "spread the wealth" approach suggested by the author is very close to how things are done in Canada. Researchers have smaller groups and more work is done directly by PIs rather than by their mentees. It is not clear to me that scientific productivity is better in Canada than in the US.

If you have famous leading researchers - you want them to leverage their time by imparting as much of their knowledge as possible to the next generation. Having them writing proposals and overseeing a large group is exactly what you want them to do - writing proposals is about more than just getting money - it's about putting together ideas - the intellectual property for the research. A number of times, when I get a grant funded - I give the proposal to the postdoc or lead graduate student and say - here is your project - the ideas are carefully laid out now let's discuss more details and get you to work. In a typical NSF proposal for example I can have 100-200 references and the proposal gives students all of the information to start reading the literature and learning the science relevant for their project.

Moreover a competitive peer review system is critical if you want the best work to be funded - otherwise people are given money for projects that may not be well-formed or just repeating the status quo year after year just because they have a big name. In the US, even the National Academy members and Nobel Prize winners have to go and compete in the peer review system and I think that's a good thing.

Finally I will say that most experienced grant writers (in particular those writing 10+ proposals in one year) are not writing each one from scratch - one has a database of references, one has figures, charts, etc that can be reused especially if they are from a prior failed proposal.

Finally, IMO it is much easier to write proposals than the actual scientific manuscripts - in the former you just need ideas - in the latter you need journal quality publication material that has be reproduceable etc. But the proposal gives you a start for the manuscript because you have some of the literature already organized and a format for what the research might actually look like once it is completed.

In summary, I believe that well-organized proposal writing by leading scientists can be very synergistic with the rest of the scientific mission, in terms of developing the seeds of research ideas, developing literature for training students, and laying out the groundwork for future publications.

19. tncarlson - October 25, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Alas, I was unable to publish in the Chronicle article all the anecdotal evidence I received from disaffected and exhausted faculty members or document the dispair I have found among young scientists, at least in meteorology, or provide more than one or two examples of flagrant abuses of the present grant system in this essay. To #18, ucprof, I suggest reading a book, Gone For Good by a guy who was a professor of hydrology at Duke. His name is Stuart Rojscker (badly spelled by me, I'm afraid). Shortly after writing the book, Prof R. left academia because he found that the cost of writing proposals (10% successful versus 25% when he started as a young faculty member) was not worth the effort. NSF in the biological sciences has a success rate of less than 10%. And don't tell me that those 90% (of whom I was one) did not have good ideas.


20. physicsprof - October 30, 2010 at 11:18 am

"And don't tell me that those 90% (of whom I was one) did not have good ideas."

That's the statement it is impossible to argue with...

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