Grantsmanship: Reply to Harriman

Gregory R. Harriman gregoryh at
Tue Nov 28 11:58:35 EST 1995

In article <Pine.3.89.9511271519.A15845-0100000 at mcmail.CIS.McMaster.CA>,
berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA (Alexander Berezin) wrote:

> I am afraid, you are slipping here on personal 
> finger-pointing. I did not discuss any biological
> issues on this group to give you grounds for this
> statement (I am NOT saying, for example that "Dr.
> Harriman is ignorant in theoretical physics").
> So, please refrain from remarks on other's 
> people understanding. We discuss issues here, not
> people. 

Suff deleted.

> (1) You distort my words. I did not say that grant should 
> be LIMITED to $ 20,000 per year. I said that the AVERAGE 
> grant of $ 20,000 for some 80 to 90 % of all professors
> in science and engineering is a prettey fair deal. 
> (2) On the issue (again !) of my alledged ignorance
> in biological research. Here are the amounts (in 
> Canadian dollars = 0.75 US$ ) per-year grants for
> the members of BIOLOGY department of McMaster 
> University awarded by NSERC (Natural Sciences and
> Engineering Reserach Council of Canada) this year:
>   $ 13,800
>   $ 29,500
>   $ 19,000
>   $ 15,000  
> (and please note that in Canada NSERC is practically
> the ONLY funding source for most of this kind of 
> research).
> So, in awarding the above grants (all but one within
> my above stated "average"), NSERC apparently believes
> that such ammount is SUFFICIENT to carry out the
> research program (otherwise, there is no point
> to make an award at first place). Correspondingly, 
> your statement, that "... [ Berezin ] is ignorant of 
> what it takes to do biological research" should be 
> re-addressed to Canadian NSERC. 
> They should know better. 

First, I want to apologize for my strident rhetoric.  I became frustrated
and tired of reading absolutist comments as if you know everything about
research funding.  Nonetheless, while I do believe my points are valid,
the way I stated them was unwarranted.  However, I'm afraid you did in
fact discuss biological issues and purport to know something about them by
making assertions that molecular biology is so simple that kits will be
sold in catalog stores.  If you want to make such assertions, then you
should be prepared to defend them.  In addition, by making blanket
statements suggesting that _all_ sciences should be funded in a similar
fashion (ie. average of $20,000/year) you infer that you have enough
understanding of biomedical sciences to suggest this amount is sufficient
for doing biomedical research.  This is where I take issue with you, since
you don't seem to have any idea what is involved.

I readily admit I know nothing about theoretical physics, however, I could
understand how $20,000 might be enough if your only needs are a computer,
some software, books, etc.  Also, I'm assuming your salary is paid for by
the university, since I wouldn't think the $20,000/year is suppose to
cover your salary as well.  

Biomedical research is considerably different.  First of all, you are
expected to cover a substantial portion of your salary by external funding
(ie. grants).  The university does not guarantee to pay your full salary
ad infinitum (and you would be very unlikely to get tenure without
external support for your salary).  Unlike theoretical sciences,
biomedical research is an experimental science and you have to do
experiments.  Therefore, you often must cover the salaries of any
technicians in your lab who particpate in performing experiments.  In
addition, you have to buy reagents for doing experiments.  This can be
quite expensive (easily costing thousands to tens of thousands of $) when
you're working with restriction enzymes, Taq polymerase, monoclonal
antibodies, etc.  Finally, if you work with animals such as mice, which
many biomedical researchers do because they are valuable models for
studying human disease, housing and maintenance charges can easily run
tens of thousands of $ per year.  This is particularly true when one works
with "knock-out" mice in which genes have been deleted by gene targeting.

While I don't know the researchers at McMasters University that you
mentioned, I can't imagine they are able to cover their own salary plus
that of a technician, as well as supplies and animal boarding costs for
$20,000/year.  The NIH provides most of the biomedical research grants in
the United States.  An average R01 (individual investigator initated)
grant award is in the range of $100-150K per year.

Perhaps this gives you a better idea of what is involved in doing
biomedical research in the 1990s.  Hopefully, you will now be able to make
more informed statements when you suggest average $ amounts for grants to
all scientists, regardless of their area of research. 

Greg Harriman

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