The ultimate work of science fiction – grant proposals

2017-05-16

Many of us laboratory dwellers are self-confessed science-fiction fans. Sigourney Weaver running through a field of alien eggs about to hatch, flamethrower in hand. Tripodic martians bringing Victorian England to its knees only to be defeated by microorganisms (spoiler alert). A seductive android going beyond the Turing test to trick her creators into setting her free. Near future. Far future. Dystopian, utopian. With such sci-fi credentials you’d think that scientists would be better prepared to write the ultimate work of science fiction: research grant proposals.

As scientists progress in their careers an increasing amount of time is spent applying for research grants. A steady influx of grant money is necessary to keep a research group churning out its main product: research publications (a less cynical version of me would have said “scientific advances” but all optimism was drawn out of me in 2016). In turn, the publication track record is used to strengthen future grant applications bolstering the so-called Grant Cycle. This creates a system where research groups are continually quality controlled whilst forging a healthy competitive environment. Or so it should be, in some far-fetched utopia.

Reality is somewhat harsher. Diminishing research funds associated with increasing number of applicants means that success rates for grant applications are at an all-time low. Consequently, researchers must spend an even greater amount of time applying for grants in order to pay for staff salaries, reagents, core facilities, departmental overheads and, in some cases, every square meter of lab space. A dry period caused by a string of failed applications often means a knock on the door: the grim reaper of academia announcing the end of yet another research group.

Thus, scientists are locked into a perpetual state of distress as they attempt to keep their research groups afloat while progressively mutating from scientists to full-time fundraisers producing unimaginative, risk-averse proposals. The system is under a lot of pressure and the cracks are becoming visible in the form of scientific misconduct and growing mental health issues. Unfortunately, relieving these pressures requires money: either by increasing research grant funding or decreasing costs such as rent and overheads. But in a time of budget constraints and corporate culture within research institutions it seems unlikely that scientists’ stress levels will be coming down.

A third solution would be to cryogenically freeze, say, two thirds of scientists, and wake them up when the situation improves. I always wanted to see the 24th Century.