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An unruly calculus: doing, funding, and communicating science

I recently returned from ScienceOnline, a meeting for journalists, scientists, artists, teachers, and others who discuss (and do!) science on the internet. This was my second time at the conference and, like last year, I came home with a mind full of ideas about effective outreach, open science, and teaching innovations. I tweeted something to this effect, to which @labroides responded, “Devil’s advocate: which of these things will help you get tenure?” I confess, the question gave me pause. One of the most useful parts of ScienceOnline for me this year was being able to ask a range of faculty for first-year advice, as I prepare to start as an assistant professor at the University of Maine next fall. That advice came cascading back to me: Learn to say no. Put enough–but not too much– effort into teaching. Protect your writing time, but be prepared to get little to no writing done.

I thought, too, about the sessions about scientific outreach and blogging, where inevitably someone reminds the room that many academics aren’t supported in their outreach endeavors. A common revelation is the advisor or senior colleague who says “time on a blog is time away from the lab bench,” or “How do you have time for science?” The implications, added up, are that podcasts, collaborative student blogs, and field-based live-chats with the public well and good in theory, but they should ultimately be jettisoned in favor of doing Things That Will Help You Get Tenure. Those things are 1) publications (in peer-reviewed “traditional” journals, of course) and 2) grants. This very blog is, by the rubrics of many tenure committees, not a Thing That Will Help Me Get Tenure. It doesn’t matter that I know that my blogging, Tweeting, and other outreach efforts are greater than the sum of their parts. I’m sensitive to the challenges I face in the coming years. So, I ask for advice, and I do what I can to prepare for next year.

Funding rates versus proposal submissions for NSF-DEB. As funding rates decline, it becomes more and more critical to make sure that your proposal is as strong as it possibly can be.

Funding rates versus proposal submissions for NSF-DEB for the last decade.

Recently, the National Science Foundation (the primary funding agency for my research) started moving from two-a-year to one-a-year grant cycles, in part to reduce reviewer burden. The numbers are in for last year’s Division of Environmental Biology grants– the first year with the new one-a-year cycle– and it appears that early career researchers have about a 7% success rate, which is down from the previous year. Given that investigators are now limited to two proposals each per year (for DEB), I both have lower odds and fewer opportunities for funding than someone in my position would have had even five years ago. I’ve been told that it takes about three rounds on average before a grant is funded (if at all), which puts the funding situation in an even more sobering context. 

And so, I ever since the holidays, I have been working on grants. Many folks have been surprised to hear that I’m already submitting NSF proposals, given that I’m stim a postdoc. My tenure clock may not start ticking until September, but I am keenly aware of its looming presence. If my DEB is rejected, which has a high likelihood, I won’t be able to resubmit it until January 2014. Even if that gets funded, my co-PI and I won’t see the money until January 2015, which means we can fund students to start in September 2015. Let’s give them three years to start cranking out papers, and we’re looking at 2018 at the earliest for that research to reach the broader community. 2018 is also happens to be the first year I can submit my portfolio for tenure. 

One consequence of my foray into grant writing is that I have gotten very little science done since December. Instead, I have spent most of my time and effort on projects that likely have a <10% chance of being funded. Don’t get me wrong; I’m excited about these projects, and excited about the science and students they will fund. But the last six weeks have been time away from 1) writing about the science I’ve already done, and 2) doing new science, which means fewer papers in the pipeline (one of the Things That Will Help Me Get Tenure).  I made a choice to invest in the long-term project of acquiring funding, and it may not have been the right choice. I won’t really know until I reflect back in six or seven years.


From PhDComics. The joke I’ve heard is that research grants fund you to do the work you’ve already done.

There are real barriers preventing scientists from being better teachers, doing good outreach, and effectively communicating our science to our peers and the broader public. But I can’t help but think, as I’m deeply embedded in grant-writing mode, that “time doing outreach is time away from science” is the wrong part of the activity pie to be focusing on. To me, teaching, blogging, and other forms of outreach help vitalize my research and make it relevant. Publicly funded scientists have a duty to make our research accessible to others, whether that’s as a resource to citizens via a university extension program, or bringing high school students into the lab. Outreach activities need to be recognized, incentivized, and rewarded by university tenure committees, and they rarely are.

In the meantime, though, when I hear “blogging is time away from science,” I can’t help but think “so is grant writing.” Which isn’t to say that scientists shouldn’t have to apply for funding; I’ve found grant writing to be a powerful exercise in both honing my thoughts on a topic while simultaneously broadening my knowledge base.  But being at ScienceOnline while in full-time grant-writing mode has been an eye-opening experience for me. I hear a lot of academics say that they don’t have time to blog, or talk to the press, or volunteer to be a scientist liaison in their local communities, and yet many accept the enormous burden of grant-writing as part of the status quo. The irony of this is that outreach ultimately serves many more people than failed, perpetually unfunded grant proposals.

Instead of outreach, I’d like to suggest that the real effort bottleneck for scientists is funding. NSF can restructure its funding cycles in any number of ways, but it’s still the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. This year’s new crop of faculty are facing lower funding rates and fewer opportunities than ever before; meanwhile, many labs are turning to crowd-funding efforts like SciFund and iAMscientist, (which, incidentally, rely on strong social media networks to be successful). I worry about my faculty cohort, and the choices we are faced with as we learn the juggling act of the tenure track. It’s unclear to me how tenure committees will judge my faculty cohort relative to those that came before, when funding opportunities and rates were both higher. More time grant writing means less time doing and communicating about science, which are the things I really signed up for eight years ago when I started graduate school. We lament poor teaching, a lack of public science literacy, chemophobia, climate denial, and creationism taught in public schools, and so we continue to put the pressure on scientists to be better communicators, more innovative teachers, and multimedia experts. Which is all well and good, but if we’re not also calling for increased science funding, the outreach training and media initiatives are all for naught. We have to get that funding rate above 7%, period. Otherwise, all those ideas I’ve brought home from ScienceOnline will stay in the Broader Impacts section of my next grant proposal, instead of in classrooms, living rooms, and town halls.

For some numbers on US research funding rates, check out this useful LiveScience infographic here.

ETA: If you know of a specific initiative to increase federal science funding, please let me know in the comments! Otherwise, feel free to contact your elected officials.

ETA: NSF program officer Alan Townsend has some (unofficial) insight on why this first year’s DEB numbers might be a bit low, and we shouldn’t read too much into them yet. Check out his post here

Categories: Academia Commentary Communication Conferences Outreach

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Jacquelyn Gill

28 replies

  1. We need to change the mind set of senior PIs who believe that time away from the lab is a waste of time. These attitudes are partly to blame for the scientific illiteracy of the general public and other aberrations such as creationism taught in schools.

    Regarding the frustration produced by failed grant applications; straighten up soldier! What are you crying about? Grant rejections are the equivalent of experiments with negative results; we have to put up with them and try to find a way around them. Of course there is no reason to assume that the number of experiments with negative results will increase whereas the number of failed grant applications will certainly grow bigger which is kind of worrying.
    The truth is that we cannot do much about the success rate. We can push for socialistic-style wealth redistribution from richer labs to poorer labs but this will only be a palliative remedy and could be potentially worst than the disease. The budget could be increased but it can only be increased up to a point.
    We have to spend some time thinking about alternative ways of funding in the same way that we use our time for blogging (I say it, I don’t do it. But at I am aware of it…).
    We also need to push for a serious debate about how to deal with an arguably overstretched scientific system. For example: Should (or can) the scientific system grow faster than the economy? Perhaps we are producing too many PhDs. Perhaps the number of PhDs produced is alright but PhD students need to be told from the very beginning that 95% of them will end up outside academia and prepare them for that.

    Regarding Jeremy’s 5-pages 50% successful grants: mate you must be really good! I will read your blog posts this week. However I noticed you work in ecology. As we use to talk with a friend of mine, who is a very successful ecology scientists, you have an advantage over say, molecular biologists. You may need to purchase equipment, as we do, but you do not need to spend thousands of pounds in expensive regents every week. As a result your grants tend to be smaller and easier to obtain. I’ll see your posts and come back to you but: What is the success rate for Molecular or Cellular Biology grants in Canada?


    1. Oh, I understand that rejection is a part of academic science (and that the process of review improves our work!). But a 6% success rate (for some NSF programs, at least) is not sustainable, and forces faculty to spend my much more time grant-writing than they did in the past. Meanwhile, job security here in the States is tied to funding, at least until you acquire tenure. And without funding, I can’t support students or publish papers, guaranteeing that my career will stall. It’s not just a matter of sucking it up and handling rejection! I’m new to the process; I’ve submitted grants but haven’t had time to hear back yet.

      The funding rates do vary quite a bit– NIH rates are closer to 25% in some cases. My point is that outreach is demonized for being a time-suck, when in fact it can improve the odds of funding or open alternate avenues. Meanwhile, I think the scientific community could rally around improving funding (see Pres. Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he calls for increased support for science and research).

      And you’d be surprised how expensive ecology (and the geosciences) can be!


      1. Yes outreach is very important, that was my point too! But outreach was demonised even in the times when getting funding and tenure was simpler (yes, I started my PhD in the sweet 2000s). I genuinely believe that the problem with PIs’ views about out-of-the-lab activities need to be solved. I also think that it will be good if outreach activities were weighted more heavily in grant applications.
        The success rate of grant applications is a different matter. Perhaps the budget for research is too low. But do bear in mind that if you ask anyone in the public sector about the funding for his or her department they will always say that it is too low. My point there was that it will be good to find ways to make basic science more sustainable, perhaps by finding new ways to support our work or by estimating an optimum-size scientific population.
        If you have other interest beside science and you can distance yourself from your professional interests every now and then, you may notice that some times scientists have a huge sense of entitlement; they always want a bigger piece of the cake. But they can only be given so much cake. I hope you understand what I mean. I am (at least I consider myself) a scientist and I think that basic research is important (for the obvious reasons and more). However I believe that:
        – More science doesn’t necessary mean better science
        – In addition to science there are other things that require funding
        – Funding is not unlimited
        This is why I tried to centre the discussion on “what will be good for science in the long run” instead of simply asserting “the scientific budget needs to be increased”. I also think that the general public will be far more sympathetic with scientists arguing about how to improve the scientific system rather than with scientists asking for more money all the time.

        PS (Disclaimer), I have been a postdoc for 6 years and my chances of achieving a tenure position in the short future look pretty bleak, so I feel everybody’s pain. Again, my point is that simply asking for more money will not bring a long term solution.


  2. Writing grants is how I get new ideas and find new directions for my lab and really formulate an outline of our research program. So in a way this is doing science as much as writing papers, mentoring lab peeps or working at the bench and analyzing data. That being said, having proposal after proposal rejected makes writing a new one a waste of time and is soul-sucking at best. But it’ not that I accept this at the status quo, it’s that there really is not other viable way to get the lab funded and lab folks paid. And there is no way crowdfunding your research is a sustainable funding model either, it seems to take up so much time for relatively low payouts, compared to just writing another proposal.


  3. Writing grants is how I get new ideas and find new directions for my lab and really formulate an outline of our research program. So in a way this is doing science as much as writing papers, mentoring lab peeps or working at the bench and analyzing data. That being said, having proposal after proposal rejected makes writing a new one a waste of time and is soul-sucking at best. But it’ not that I accept this at the status quo, it’s that there really is not other viable way to get the lab funded and lab folks paid. And there is no way crowdfunding your research is a sustainable funding model either, it seems to take up so much time for relatively low payouts, compared to just writing another proposal.


    1. I agree that proposal writing is really valuable, and is “doing science.” I also agree that crowd-funding is not sustainable, and private grants aren’t the answer, either. I think we need some massive mobilization of scientists to start pushing for improving funding.


      1. Of course! The answer is to improve funding, but that’s not the trend these days. But for example agencies could adjust by offering smaller yearly budgets for multiyear grants, and have way more grad and postdoc fellowships, like they do in Canada.


  4. Excellent post. It makes me feel as if there is a dark cloud looming over my future career (I’m still a PhD student). It’s sort of a catch 22, because science has to be popular in the public’s eyes in order for the public to push congress to fund agencies which in turn fund us. A lot of people don’t know this messy financial business behind science in the U.S. and I hope that, in the future, science will receive more public funds and popular support.


    1. Thanks for your comment! My intention was not so much to put a pallor on your future goals, but to at least highlight some things that we need to be thinking strategically about. I have to say that having a strong network via blogging and Twitter has never hurt me, especially when it comes to discussing these kinds of topics. Good luck!


  5. You are right; it is harder to get funded these days and there’s a growing feeling of responsibility among some scientists. But make that if you want to keep doing science you to need tenure and the amount of outreach required is less than you might think. Try to verify your outreach, try to verify that what you are doing is ‘getting through’. If you can measure it you have a better shot at convincing your department that its worthwhile.

    But blogging is great – you can float ideas, explore a scientific idea and you get practice writing – I don’t see the downside really.

    So long as you are doing good science you will be fine. Don’t let outreach eclipse your research, make sure they complement each other. Unless you want to be a science writer, the ‘do’ and ‘fine’s come before the communication.


  6. I participated in Scifund’s crowdfunding efforts. I found it to be a fabulous reward for community outreach incentive. To attract people to a crowdfunding project, you have to do community outreach. However, our university had mixed feelings about our use of crowdfunding, but I found it a very powerful tool to fund small projects (eg. Scifund has success for projects on the order of 1,000 to 10,000 per project).


    1. I have heard rumblings that some universities have not been supportive of crowd-funding, or that there have been legal concerns. I’m curious to see how this all plays out as initiatives like SciFund continue to grow.


      1. Yes, same at our university. A friend of mine who participated in Scifund got severely reprimanded for doing fundraising through non-“approved” channels. (The powers-that-be found out because she was moderately successful and got media attention.) My friend was told that she was *not* to do crowdfunding again without explicit approval from the university.

        I think part (most?) of the issue is that the universities can’t claim their “overhead” costs. I’d be interested to hear if there are legal issues — maybe using a for-profit platform to raise money at a public university? My guess is that the issue is so new, they just aren’t sure what the ramifications are yet.

        But, given the rate of NSF funding, I think direct funding is going to be an increasingly important part of scientists’ research budgets. Having worked at a non-profit that raised money for medical research prior to grad school, I know it’s completely doable. In my opinion, those of us who learn to do so early on are going to reap the rewards later in our careers.


  7. “I made a choice to invest in the long-term project of acquiring funding, and it may not have been the right choice. I won’t really know until I reflect back in six or seven years.”

    I think this was a good move, actually. The papers you need to write up are ones you can do your first year on the t-t. It sounds bad, but now that you have the job, getting papers out during your postdoc won’t help you. You want to get them out once you’ve started your position. So getting a grant out the door now so that you’ll hear after you start your position, and while you’re waiting working on the papers, is perfect.


  8. Great post. The issues you raise are why I thank my lucky stars I got a job in Canada, which has a unique (as far as I know) approach to science funding at the federal level. I have a few old posts talking about the Canadian system, what I like about it, and the evidence that it works in terms of producing lots of very good science (as good or better than the US) on a per-dollar and per-grantee basis:

    Bottom line: As a Canadian ecologist, I write one 5-page grant (not pre-proposal, *grant*) every 5 years, with a success rate is over 50%.

    Are there trade-offs to the Canadian system (particularly in terms of grant size)? Yes. Am I happy to make those trade-offs? Absolutely. And I bet many (though not all) US academics would be too. Could the NSF change their policies to move at least a bit in the direction of the Canadian system? Yes. Will they?…


    1. Thank you – and thanks especially for sharing some information on the Canadian funding system, which I suspect many US readers won’t know about. I think it’s especially valuable to see alternatives to the current system, whether that’s changing the structure completely, going for a people-not-projects model like the one you suggest, or just increasing federal funding rates such that existing professors get a fair share.

      I would especially like to hear from folks sitting no tenure committees now, as to whether the changes in funded rates have cascaded to changes in how tenure portfolios are evaluated. Because if the expectations of my cohort are the same as those of current full professors, there may be problems down the line.


    2. Agreed – wonderful, thoughtful post. As a fellow scientist working in Canada, I agree. Our system is not perfect, but there are some major benefits. Only writing one 5-page grant (which focuses on your research *program* and not any particular project, so it is actually really fun to write b/c you get to think about where you’re going with the majority of your work for the next 5 years) is a big one. Having the vast majority of my students come with most of their funding secured – so my tiny NSERC stretches so much further – is another one.


  9. Clearly, faculty have trouble meeting expectations, and are spending too much time attempting to get money instead of doing and supervising research. But is lack of funding a bottleneck? For the most part, even in molecular biology and other expensive fields, what money is spent on is salary – people to get the work done.

    Funding rates should be higher, because so many excellent proposals remain unfunded. However, even with the changes over in DEB, the system is still designed for you to spend too much time trying to get money. In Canada, I understand it’s a lot easier to get governmental funding, but the awards are a lot smaller. Our system has evolved for big grants to support big labs. The NIH model has spilled over to all kinds of NSF-supported labs. PIs are now expected to bring in huge money and lots of pubs resulting from housing oodles of postdocs and grad students. That’s the part of the system which is unsustainable. If money were distributed a bit more evenly, I suspect net productivity would be higher. We shouldn’t make funding socialist, as it needs to be a meritocracy, but the bar to access is now so high that many excellent trained people are winding up without positions or without funding. If campuses had greater confidence that PIs could pull in grants, then they’d be more inclined to create tenure-track positions. In the current environment, provosts would be crazy to approve new hires to support research because even the best people could come up dry for a long time.

    We’re in the middle of a revolution about how science is communicated. The for-profit academic publishers are going the way of the music industry, despite their best efforts to fight openness. Successful scientists now need to communicate their work in a variety of venues. That’s not so much an extra cost of doing business, but just the way it is.


    1. Thanks for your comment! When I said bottleneck, I meant in terms of time. As someone writing my first grants, I’m definitely appreciating how much people costs– that was perhaps the biggest surprise for me. As a graduate student, the first revelation I had was about overhead, and how much money federal grants bring to the university. Seeing faculty lines replaced by adjuncts who aren’t writing grants, as well as reduced funding rates, I wonder if anyone has quantified how much money universities are losing?

      I think even distribution is a good idea, but I also think we need to increase the budget, period. If you look at the infographic I linked to, it shows that funding has gone down over time, relative to the GDP. And certainly, NSF is a tiny fraction of federal spending, relative to the military. I’m much less familiar with how NIH spending gets broken down, but I do know that it’s the largest source of federal research dollars.

      I’m a big fan of the scientific communication revolution. I just see a lot of faculty say they don’t have time to engage in those kinds of activities. Freeing up time spent on grants would in theory help with that.


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