Grantsmanship: (2nd) Reply to Harriman

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Tue Nov 28 16:13:25 EST 1995


Dr. Harriman:

This time you give more extended and specific comments,
and consequently I, in turn, provide some additional
points for clarification of what seem now shaping form
of dialogue rather than stone throwing.

As it often happens in communications like these 
postings a lot of things get truncated, misunderstood, 
abbrevieated, etc.

Problem is that most of us simply do not have 
enough time to write extensive essays and to 
devise constructive and workable solutions.
Furthermore, many of those who DID attempt to propose
useful adjustemts of the funding system, based
on the in-depth analysis, etc. are (almost invariably)
highly frustrated in their experience, those in charge
(primarily funding bureaucracy) do not want any changes
as any attempt to raise the efficiency and solvency
of a system will immediately jeopardize their 
(bureaucracy's) nice life.  

Nonetheless, I do provide some further comments, even if
eventually turns to be a wasteful effort and sooner-or-
later the whole edifice will collapse under its own 
weight as it happend with (now "former") Soviet Union.

Alex Berezin
  

On 28 Nov 1995, Gregory R. Harriman wrote:

> 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. 


(HARRIMAN): 
> 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.  

BEREZIN:
No problem. It is natural for ALL of us to see primarily
the most agreable OR the most dis-agreable points, and miss
the nuances. Most of what we (Forsdyke, Hunter, Gordon, Berezin,
Osmond, Roy, and many others) wrote on research funding represents
a highly flexible, dynamical approach to the problem, 
contary to the ridgid and bureaucratic model under 
operation in NSERC, NSF, NIH, etc. 

Nowhere we did say such nonsense as "all professors
should be funded equally", or that "peer review is 
completely irrelevant", etc. But what we DO say is
that all these tools need to be carefully curbed, bracketed 
and accounted for thier inherent uncertanties. One proposed 
mechanism to address this is the "sliding scale" which 
Donald Forsdyke advocates for many years.

Neither we do say that all disciplines are equal and
need the same funding. Of course, work in
theoretical physics or mathematics needs much lower 
grant levels than biochemistry or experimantal physics.

Nonetheless (and here is the crux of the issue), even the 
above "theoretical" researchers need SOME funding level, but
the present all-or-nothing system denies to many of them 
(in Canada to ONE THIRD) ANY level of funding. This happens 
due to the fact that policy of "selectivity" and
"competition" is vigorously defended by funding 
bureaucracy as any departure from it will weaken the
bureaucratic ranks. The extendend criticism of these aspects
can be found in the work of the above quoted authors. 
(I can provide reference list, should any one requests).

(HARRIMAN):
> Nonetheless, where 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.

BEREZIN:
As I explained in prev. passage, this is largely a
misreading. Having a close relative with 30 years
in biomedical research and cell biology, I am not that
unfamiliar with this kind of research as you may think.

Despite all the cost problems expensivity of such 
research what I see though that a lot of these costs
are artificially blown up by the existing mechanism
of such research, monopolies of suppliers, chemical
industries, etc. Also, many (perhaps, majority) labs
are indeed blown up in terms of manpower due to the
availability of cheap qualified labor at most level.  
Of course, people may disagree on the level of this
problem, but to deny it altogether as a non-issue
is pointless. It IS a serious issue. 

(HARRIMAN):
> 
> 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.  

BEREZIN:
No problem with the above. Nontheless having over 
100 papers (publ. rate at least 3 papers per year),
I am denyied ANY opetaing grant. Not even $ 5,000 per
year (which could cover many expensese). And I said,
I am not alone - there is 3,000 to 4,000 unfunded
(research active) profs in science and engineering in   
Canada (out of total about 10 to 11,000).

(HARRIMAN):
> 
> 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). 

BEREZIN:
Idea of soft money salary for professors is the major 
in-granted flaw. You may be requested (and "pressed")
to cover PART of your salary from grant (e.g. 3 months
out of 12), but the core should be guaranteed by the
tenure provision. Tenure is not a meal ticket and no-one
can deny that to get it, you need to pass several 
stages of intense competition, to prove your abitity
to do research. But once its done, the idea that 
competition should continue (at the present throat-
cutting ferocity) is nothing but utterly contr-
productive. 
   
(HARRISON): 

> 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.

BEREZIN:
No matter what we may think, we will better to adjust
to the coming reality. It is totally and fully unrealistic
to expect support at $100-$150 K per prof per year for
any much longer. Perhaps, people should much more carefully
select their priorities and downscale. Shared technitian
for 2 or more profs is another option. Don't forget,
Michael Faraday (experimentalist !) had only one life-time
technician. And yet, this did not prevent him from his
great synthesis of electicity, magnetism and optics.
As a recent Faraday's biographer states what he did 
amounted to at least 4 clear Nobel Prizes.

So, if one lifetime technician was enough for Faraday,
it should clearly be enough for any-one of us. 

(HARRIMAN): 
> 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. 

BEREZIN:
Hope, I did enough clarifications that I do not mean the
above ("average... regardless"). So, lets attribute it
simply to the deficiency of the communication (I am ready to
take the blame for it). As for the (and I repeat, INEVITABLE)
downsizing, the desk book for everyone in the field should 
be "Small is Beautiful" by Schumacher. Business as usual is,
unfortunately, not an option.

> 
> Greg Harriman
> 
> 



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