Taken for granted: Pure science research funding

Andrew Huff (flickr.com/deadhorse/2292191571) Andrew Huff (flickr.com/deadhorse/2292191571)

The tension between material profit and intellectual fulfillment is at the core of most disagreements about education, its purpose, and its delivery.

The age of the gentleman scientist poking at natural philosophy on the back of inheritances and railway bonds is, for the most part, past.

We like to imagine art and science to occupy a different plane from mundane considerations such as politics and accounting, but even our most abstract endeavours can no more escape the limits of economics than engineering can break the laws of physics. The age of the gentleman scientist poking at natural philosophy on the back of inheritances and railway bonds is, for the most part, past. Exceptions like Stephen Wolfram and James Dyson made their own fortunes. The average graduate student brings enthusiasm, curiosity, and ability to their work, but also debt from their undergraduate years and a powerful need to eat sometime during the month. This is where our modern system of patronage – somewhat simplified from the days of the Roman Catholic Church bankrolling Michelangelo, but not by much – comes to a dubious rescue and enables the work of science to move forward.

Grants may be public or private, industrial or academic. Most Canadian researchers are familiar with five-year grants from NSERC, the country’s National Science and Engineering Research Council. For most laboratories, this grant pays for the major portion of their research costs. Since two NSERC grants are a rare thing, this is supplemented by smaller grants from a variety of other sources. Applying for grants involves substantial paperwork, with its concomitant investment of time and effort. The applicant must explain and justify highly-specialised research, essentially making promises of potential work to a grants committee of randomly chosen subject-matter experts. This requires the distillation of what is likely a complex and nuanced body of work into a few convincing paragraphs, which is as unlikely to effectively communicate the true worth of the planned work as a resume is unable to represent a person in their totality. Additionally, each application is in competition with every other application for a finite pool of money, and like any zero-sum game, this perversely incentivises an arms race. The contest is to link one’s research interest to a rich vein of donors and investors that can be tapped for reliable support, such as those attached to research on major families of illnesses (cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression) or annoyances with market potential (male pattern baldness, the cosmetic effects of ageing).

In the present system in Canada, grants may be Program Analysis Grants (money drawn for very specific items of research) or Open Operating Grants (awarded for excellence). Applications to the OO programme are assigned to a panel of reviewers who are specialists in a field and score the grant out of five. A score of 3.5 or below is usually not fundable, while scores of 4.4 and above are almost always positive news. The panel meet together for a final review. All applications with a ‘passing grade’ are then ranked, and usually 15-20% of the highest-ranked actually receive funding. Occasionally, an application that was very close but did not exactly make the cut is awarded bridge-funding for the short term so more work may be put into it to bring it up to par.

Frequently, a researcher will be forced to misrepresent their work on studying skeletal evolution in birds as an attempt to find a cure for osteoporosis in humans, since curiosity has few backers.

The average Canadian Institute of Health Research grant will last 5 years at about $140,000 a year, or $800,000 total. The challenge to the grantee is the core question of all economics – the allocation of finite resources to maximise output. A postdoc, the exotic species of academic caught in the limbo of having completed a doctorate but not yet embarked upon a professorship, is paid $35,000 to $45,000 a year. A research associate, typically the most senior postdoc in a lab, is paid $40,000 to $60,000. Students researchers receive about $25,000 in a blend of waived tuition fees and a monthly stipend. Consumables like reagents and glassware may cost around $1,000 per member of staff per month. User fees for certain pieces of equipment must also be accounted for. A confocal microscope may cost $25 an hour to use; an electron microscope four times as much. Some researchers need far more (for example, it costs $80,000 a year just to maintain mouse cages in uniform conditions). This level of funding can be achieved with multiple grants.

So a grant of this size can support a lab of 3-4 staff at various levels of qualification for about 5 years. The really surprising part is that the Institute does not set aside funds for purchasing equipment. It does, however, allow $1,500 per staff member per conference for travel and $2,000 per paper, so the fungibility of money comes to the rescue and makes up for this mystifying misallocation. The accepted practice is to ask for around $170,000 a year, expecting it to be reduced by about 20% before being approved.

Multiple grants bring with them their own set of challenges. One is that each grant must be unique and include 2-3 ‘specific aims’, which must not overlap overmuch across all the grants applied to by one lab. Essentially, applying for the grant means applying for three separate Ph.D. projects. One Ph.D. student can publish about two papers during the life of the grant. One high-visibility submission (say, in Nature, Science, or Cell) counts for more than several submissions in less prestigious journals, and may assist in winning future grants.

The issues surrounding the grants system are many and diverse. The shortage of money is an obvious one. Is it any wonder that, with salaries being as they are, math majors are picked up by investment banking while physics majors staff animation studios? Some research groups like those in engineering or cosmetics find themselves in a slightly better position due to military or industry funding, while the pure sciences are the worst off.

Frequently, a researcher will be forced to misrepresent their work on studying skeletal evolution in birds as an attempt to find a cure for osteoporosis in humans, since curiosity has few backers. Alzheimer’s, cancer, Parkinson’s – these are the big-name families of disease whose coat-tails pure biologists find themselves needing to ride to gain funding for their projects. This sort of purity-by-stealth is harmful twice. It impedes pure research unless it can show some link to a well-funded field, and it provides false positives in terms of how much effort is actually being expended on that field.

Science with less immediate or concrete outcomes gets shunted to the reject pile and pure curiosity, which used to motivate science, is punished

Stepping out of science for a minute, research in the arts and social studies are even worse-funded, because much like pure science, their value may often only be apparent in the long term, instead of being accountable as immediate profits.

How do we move forward from here? How do we ensure adequate funding for purely interest- or curiosity-driven scientific research while acknowledging the necessity of transferring lab accomplishments to life? And finally, how do we afford for our brightest and most dedicated researchers a standard of living that holds its own against the lures of industry and the demands of life?

Grant agencies are themselves deeply cognizant of the need for better distribution of grants and have attempted a variety of measures to bridge the gap between how much funding is required and how much is available. The EPSRC, the UK’s primary scientific grants body, has experimented by blacklisting scientists who submit multiple unsuccessful grant applications to reduce their own expenses on reviewing the thousands of applications that are made each year. This has unsurprisingly attracted opposition since it directly affects the careers and reputations of the scientists, who are directly identified to their university administrations. It also disproportionately affects against younger scientists who are already disadvantaged when applying for grants. The quality of research suffers as researchers opt for safer, incremental projects than riskier but more innovative ones. JST, EPSRC’s counterpart in Japan, solved the problem by reducing the amount of money in each individual grant. This reduced the quantity and quality of the research possible with each individual grant. In Germany and Canada, the funding deficit is ameliorated by universities’ ability to add to the funds internally, unlike in the United States, where for most scientists, grants are their only source of income for research purposes. The common theme is simple underfunding. Even the most efficient engine cannot compensate for an empty fuel chamber, and a limit exists to the efficiency of fund allocation until one runs up against the simple fact of there just not being enough money to go around. Completely excluding scientists from the applications process or reducing individual awards to the point that they no longer bring value to the applicant are stopgaps at best and not solutions in any meaningful way. More funding is definitely called for, but it is also the case that some promising and proven sources of funding are being ignored.

One such source is commercialisation. Many eminent universities dedicate staff and resources to enable technology transfer from the laboratory to industry, via licensing, sponsored research, or spin-off companies. The Harvard Office of Technology Development, MIT Technology Licensing Office and Cambridge University Enterprise are prominent examples. These provide legal and financial services to university community members seeking to capitalise on discoveries and inventions stemming from their research. The university typically retains a stake in any resulting benefits. That income can then be re-allocated at the university’s discretion. Such a system would create a positive feedback loop where new developments brought in additional income that could be used to supplement researchers’ grants and salaries, further allowing them the resources and freedom to approach bolder and more rewarding questions.

Our last recommendation learns from a feature of American politicking called ‘rider bills’. Often, a politician indifferent to the passage of a major bill will attach a ‘rider’ to it – a minor bill that will pass or fail in concert with the primary bill. This allows politicians to achieve pet ends by going along with the flow of a popular proposal. We propose that rider funding be enabled such that any grant to a university researcher includes a small percentage – say, a 10% surcharge on the grant amount – rewarded directly to the university. The university can then disburse this money according to its own judgement, to the pure sciences and even non-science research projects.

It is clear that the grant system as presently created favours high-visibility projects while being unable to handle the load placed upon it by the large volume of applications it is expected to process faithfully. As a result, science with less immediate or concrete outcomes gets shunted to the reject pile and pure curiosity, which used to motivate science, is punished. Universities must therefore adapt in various ways to ensure that answers to fundamental questions of life and existence continue to be sought, and that academia continues to be a viable career path for those with the drive and ability to do the seeking.

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  1. Gersande

    October 30, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Excellent article. Intrigued by the proposition of academia imitating the political ‘rider bill’.

  2. Steve Lowe

    December 6, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Hi. Just discovered this mag and excellent article, when checking if ‘technophilic’ was actually a word.

    An extremely interesting paper on the role of the state in science and innovation can be found at http://www.demos.co.uk/files/Entrepreneurial_State_-_web.pdf

    It was written by a professor at SPRU, where, years ago, I was a junior academic. Even back in the 1980s there was much discussion about this and what might be termed the ‘gaming’ of science citation indexes (Irvine & Martin)

    Allocating public funds for both applied and basic (disinterested) research has always been problematic. Fashion, sexy statistics and ‘wow’ concepts always win out.

    One way forward (and this is an admittedly half-baked, five minute idea, triggered by this piece) could be for university science departments to buddy up with their legal, business and other colleagues. Regular cross-disciplinary gatherings could then brainstorm possible future patents that could spin-out from yet to be funded basic research and, where possible, some of these could then be prepared and filed.

    Such activities would promote cross-departmental innovation, allow genuinely disinterested research to both raise its profile and appear more meaningful, and help protect potentially important future areas from constraints imposed by patent trolls.

  3. Pingback: Science in Society Journalism Submissions: Your Summer Reading List | Canadian Science Writers' Association

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