The struggle for funding overtakes research
There is a general agreement that the funding system for biomedical research is broken. In fact, many researchers would describe our current situation as a deep crisis. Although we lack hard data to verify the darkening mood of the science community, we seem to be losing the creative, idea-centred environment required for leading-edge science. A common experience of many of us is a sense of hopelessness and bitterness due to the non-stop struggle for funding, and the lack of fairness and predictability in our professional lives. In fact, I have never before witnessed such desperation among my colleagues during my 17 years in research in this country.
As recently pointed out by the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences in a letter to the Minister of Industry, ‘the overwhelming majority of discovery research laboratories critically depend on the very competitive and most innovative open operating grant competitions’ . As funding rates are falling, labs are underfunded, and the current funding environment threatens the existence of many labs across the country. Even well-established investigators, who have proven themselves excellent and productive scientists, are just one failed renewal application away from a crisis due to disruption in funding. High-quality research productivity no longer guarantees renewal of funding. ‘Publish or perish’ has been replaced by ‘publish AND perish’. As a result, we now spend less time focusing on ideas and research itself, and more time applying for funding. As I learned during my many cycles of resubmissions, enormous amount of resources and brain power goes into preparing grants, generating preliminary data and addressing often subjective requests from reviewers who might not even be in the committee to read the resubmission.
The cycles of resubmissions waste financial and human resources, but in addition to this, their detrimental effects on the psyche of all involved cannot be emphasized enough. I spent unimaginable number of hours rewriting the same grant for resubmissions, time I spent not doing research. Loss of time however was not the biggest problem. As many of us will testify, nothing reduces scientific creativity more than the increasingly desperate fight for funding, the inevitable soul-crushing rejections, and the constant pressure from competition. There is nothing less motivating than writing and reviewing grants, especially with the knowledge that the outcome more likely than not will be a rejection. The constant grant competitions with unpredictable outcomes are a major source of debilitating stress that crushes creative thinking. In addition, it is worth noting that science is a collaborative endeavour, where the rocky road towards discovery is best smoothened by sharing data instead of hiding them to protect one’s chances for funding. Overall, our funding system is turning scientists into entrepreneurs and managers, and forcing them into roles they have not trained for, never wanted as a career, and which requires a very different mindset than doing science. I was trained to be a scientist and Dragon’s den is not my world. Rules of the business world cannot be applied to science.
Training is also an important task of research labs. The funding crunch victimizes our trainees in more than one way. Students are facing a rapidly changing training environment, as fewer researchers can afford to train graduate students. Those labs that can still participate in training now rely too heavily on these inexperienced but cheap members of the research community to perform cutting-edge science. Absence in the labs of senior people, e.g. technicians and research associates who no longer can be paid from average grants, reduces the quality of both training and research, slows progress, and forces students into roles they often cannot fulfil. This is a fact well known to anyone who has tried to finish promising research projects with inexperienced students. Finally, who will be the next generation of researchers? Academia has lost its appeal and our struggles will hardly make our trainees want to follow in our footsteps.