Science by Proxy

Marta Antelo for The Chronicle

October 17, 2010

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.