Fixing NIH funding

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Sun Aug 25 19:03:47 EST 1996



On 25 Aug 1996, Mike Gruidl wrote:

> The current mechanism for training of students and post-docs needs to be fixed.  The 
> traditional career path is no longer an option for many of those students.  In my 
> opinion, we must first look at the root of this problem, which I believe is the 
> tremendous conflict that is placed upon the laboratory PI. Students and post-docs are 
> needed to do the research so that the PI can be competitive for grants.  I would argue 
> that most PIs would not want to take on the moral responsibility of promoting a career 
> for which fewer jobs exist than when they started their careers.
> 
> Therefore, I am proposing a simple idea which will difficult to implement.  Remove the 
> money for student stipends and for post-doc salaries from investigator initiated grants. 
>  Transfer those funds to block grants or to training grants which would be awarded 
> directly to departments or to colleges.  The departments or college (as in a division 
> within a larger university) would directly compete at the federal level for these funds. 
>  I am also proposing two levels for which funding for the funding of students and 
> post-docs.  One level would be an automatic level of funding of stipends and salaries 
> based on the total level of funding for research and the number of peer reviewed 
> publications produced by the requesting organization.  Some formula can be worked out 
> where for every $200,000 of grant funds and 2 peer reviewed publications equals 1 
> graduate student stipend.  I am sure that a closer look at how the NIH and NSF funds are 
> spent on stipends and salaries as well as the number of publications which result from 
> that research will allow derivation of an appropriate equitable formala for the 
> distribution of funds.  
> 
> The second tier of funds would be awarded based on the submission of competitive grants 
> from departments or colleges.  No individual investigator would be allowed to write for 
> such awards.  The basis for funding these awards would be solely on the merit of the 
> research involved and on the proposed training for the students and post-docs.  
> 
> Individual investigator initiated grants would still allow funding salaries for 
> technicians and for funding salaries for non-tenure track research assistant professor 
> positions.  Clearly, a research assistant professor is an advanced post-doc.  These 
> funds would only be available for individuals who had completed at least two years of 
> post-doc fellowship.
> 
> This proposal would place the power to award student stipends and post-doc salaries to 
> the chair and deans of their respective departments and colleges.  This clearly has the 
> possibility for abuse, but since these individuals would always be accountable to local 
> authorities, I don't believe anyone could get away with a serious abuse without the 
> local faculty raising the alarm.  If an entire department participated in a deception to 
> aquire more than their justifiable allotment of funds for student stipends and post-doc 
> salaries, the granting agency could penalize the institution by removing funds in future 
> years.  
> 
> Another benefit would be the close scrutiny that students and post-docs would then be 
> subjected to because of the limitation and difficulty of obtaining funds for stipends 
> and salaries.  The best students and post-docs would be actively recruited and would 
> only go to those institutions or departments or laboratories which could give them the 
> adequate training.  Students would actually gain control of their own future.
> 
> The big looser in the short term would be the individual PI who could not recruit people 
> directly with funds from NIH.  These individuals would need to hire qualified 
> technicians or hire senior post-docs as faculty.  I believe these changes would give 
> good careers to individuals without the desire or the capabilities to become independent 
> investigators.  This would also give long term stability to many laboratories that is 
> now lacking, because of the turnover of students and post-docs.
> 
> I am throwing these ideas out for discussion.  My intent is not to hurt or to point 
> fingers or to lay blame on any individual or institution.  The system which we have all 
> used is now in need of change.  If your intent is to flame or to incite, please respond 
> directly to me by email and I will consider your comments.  Since I don't claim to have 
> any great insight on the best solution, I am hoping that many people will contribute 
> ideas which we can use to forge a better solution for how research is done.
> 
> Thank you for your time
> 
> Mike Gruidl
> 
> 

Dear Mike:

Thanks for posting well thought-through proposals.

You are quite right - they are difficult/close
to impossible to implement. Not because they
lack logic or insight (they have both) but because
they are at odds with the present system of
'grantsmanship' and thus their implementation
will run against the interests of the power
control elite and peer review mafia which
dominates present system of research funding.

Present research system is based on the 
exploitation of the young. Postdoc is especially
unlucky category. In recent years (due to the
uncontrolled overproduction of PhDs), postdoc
(as a position, not as a person) degenerated
from the valid step of a research career to
a largely dead end career trap. I see many
young (and more and more not-so-young) people
languishing on these positions without any hope
to impove and/or secure their lot unless they 
do the only step they still have - opt out from 
science altogether. I know few people who did
this and some of them even prosper. Of course, not 
all can do it and for many it takes years, if
not decades, to get rid of illusions. 

I attach  2 articles which develope these
themes further. You are right - it is desirable
to have a wide discussion of this. But this
is highly unlikely to happen because people
are too busy: slave are slaving and slaveowners
are keeping their grantsmanship latifundias 
running. Except of a very few rebells, nobody
is interested in any discussion. Good luck.

Alex Berezin

The follwing article is published in "Physics
in Canada", March/April 1995, pp. 72-73.
 
RESEARCH FUNDING MYTHS 

Alexander A. Berezin (1) and Geoffrey Hunter (2)

(1) Department of Engineering Physics,
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario,
Canada, L8S 4L7

(2)  Chemistry Department, York University,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3

World-wide network of univeristy research is one of 
the major pillars of the modern civilization. Despite 
that research and intellectual potential is, of course, 
not entirely confined to university campuses, the 
economical, social and cultural progress of today is 
unthinkable without an open forum for new ideas 
facilitated and validated by the international community 
of university scholars. Therefore, the problem of balanced
support for university research within the realm of available
means, despite its appearence as a "local" problem, gains 
the level of international significance.

Numerous critics, speaking primarily of recent 
evolution of the North American model of university
research funding, have indicated damaging consequences
of ferocious competition for funds which are externally
"justified" by the presumption that such strategy fosters
"excellence" in research. At first glance the idea of
"excellence through competition" seems reasonable. It is
easy to sell to politicians and general public. After all,
if it works for business deals or Olympic games why it 
should not work for science ? However, as it often happens,
the argument fails by extension. The problem is that the
currently practiced regulating mechanisms of the externally
monitored competition in science ("grant selection") are
based on several underlying fallacies (myths) briefly
discussed below.

MYTH OF "EXCELLENCE". Despite a nice sound, a careful
scrutiny of this term turns it to an empty clause. The true
measure of the long range impact of research is its
originality, NOT its apparent "soundness" and conformity to
currently dominant paradigms. A truly innovative research
proposal is unlikely to attract a smooth approval by grant
awarding committee or get high peer review marks. By the 
very way these judges are presently selected they tend to
be "paradigm keepers" rather than genuine innovation
searchers. Of course, no defence system is perfect and some
truly innovative reasearch "slips through" and gets funded,
especially if the applicants use proper decoys in their
grant applications. Nevertheless, many academic critics,
e.g., Nobel Prize laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi [1], have
pointed out that such fortunate occurences happen AGAINST
the dominant gradient of general suspicion (and often open
intolerance) to new ideas which is typical for almost any
committee of pre-appointed "experts". The viable alternative
to it is to fund RESEARCHERS (not proposals !) on the basis
of their overall record. Such a reform, however, will be
at odds with the present American project-oriented funding
model and also it will diminish the power of the
paper-shuffling bureaucracy and grantsmanship elite.
Therefore the idea "fund researchers, not proposals" [2] is
fiercely resisted by the research bureaucracy.

MYTH OF IMPARTIAL PEER REVIEW. "Impartial peer review"
was, for example, recently stressed in the policy document
"Partnership in Knowledge" issued by the Natural Sciences
and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). By
definition, peers are those who are themselves activly 
involved in the area. Consequently, they are never free
from vested interests in it. While it is, of course, true
that not all of them are evil or dishonest, with all good
will in the world they can't be "impartial". The benefit of
the doubt, therefore, should be with an applicant and a
reasonable implementation of it is a sliding funding scale
[3], not a policy of sharp cut-offs (pop-philosophy of 
"winners and loosers") which is presently the basis of
funding ideology of NSERC and other federal funding agencies 
in Canada and USA. The social purpose of funding agencies
is to ASSIST the university research, they SHOULD NOT have
de facto mandates of directing or controlling the paths of
free inquiry. Their present trend, however, is towards 
precisely the latter - a direct result of the bureaucratic
takeover in any unjustifably blown-up agency.
     
MYTH OF "SUPERFUNDING FOR SUPER-RESEARCH". This is
another, seemingly sensible, but in essence perverted,
extrapolation of a business model to science. This myth has
two components:
   1) the "most promising" research with the best future 
"impact factor" CAN be correctly identified (by peer 
reviewers, expert panels, boards of directors, or whatever),
and
   2) putting "more money" into the so identified "excellent"
research is bound to make it even "more excellent".

   The first item is wishful thinking based on a presumption
of a "collective wisdom" of expert committees, the second is
based on traditional american aberration that "money can buy
everything". This is not just plainly naive, but also very
costly socially as it leads to an unwarranted overfunding of
many "polically correct" research activities like targetted
mega-projects, "centers of excellence", etc. This myth 
bluntly ignores all crucial non-monetary constraints of any
genuine research. In reality, even Albert Einstein, whose
grant is suddenly increased from, say, $ 50,000 per year 
to $ 200,000 per year WILL NOT produce "four times as many
discoveries". On the contrary, his real productivity will 
likely drop due to additional paperwork, new commitments,
etc. Yes, some modest bonus of, say, 30-50 % above average
for a "really good" (by whichever criteria) research may be
quite appropriate. However, the systematic policy of
preferential (over)funding of some "selected" groups at the
expense of zero "awards" to scores of other equally decent
researchers is nothing short of an arbitrary ideological
apartheid. Its consequences are especially damaging for 
the moral of the younger generation of university
researchers.        

The typical university research program normally evolves
as a result of complicated ("nonlinear") interaction of
personal motivations of researchers and a web of social, 
micro-political and financial aspects of a specific research
case. Rich spectrum of personal motivations can range from 
the pure humility of research curiosity and selfless quest
for truth to a pragmatic (but socially still quite 
acceptable) aim of personal career gains and attaining the
sizable level of authority, influence and institutional
weight. In the present university reward system it is not
that rare that the latter traits detrimentally degenerate 
to the obsession with power control or personal enrichment
schemes. 
  
It was mentioned earlier by E.Chargaff [4], the present
university system is based, to a large extent, on the 
exploitation of the young: graduate students, postdocs,
assistant professors. So far, the major currency unit in 
science is a "solid" peer-reviewed paper in a well acclaimed
mainstream journal. The more such units are accumulated, the
better is the bargining position in obtaining new funding,
hiring new postdocs, attracting even more new Ph.D. students,
etc. This vicious circle is self-serving and self-propelling.
The role model in today's academic science is "the boss" -
the head of a departmental mini-empire with 10 to 15 (above
listed) members of cheap research labour force with a net
output of some 20 to 40 papers per year. Though they are not
always entirely useless, the per-capita, per-paper 
(and per-dollar) innovation effect of such super-groups is,
as a rule, much lower than of small groups, or even of many
sole researchers. 

In reality, the philosophy of "winners and loosers" has an
overall effect of a coercion of research into the avenue of
established paradigmas ("safe science") to satisfy the peer
reviewers and hence to assure the "fundability" of research
proposals [2]. At the end of the day, it is the very idea
of the peer review-enforced "excellence" through a brutal
"selectivity" which is a sure route to a mediocrity, NOT THE
OTHER WAY AROUND. The bulk of historic data suggests that it
makes more sense to fund MORE researchers at LOWER level to
maintain their research base - many important discoveries were
made with quite modest funding. What history of science
clearly DOES NOT show it that the overfunding of
super-research is a guaranteed roller coster to
super-excellence [5]. On the contary, numerous case studies
show that in accord with the universal Peter principle [6],
super-funded research usually quickly gears to its level of
incompetence. 

To make the whole process less hostile and more time- and
resource-efficient, the awards of research grants should
be based exclusively on the long-term track record of the
applicant. Special provisions of a small bona fide grants
can be left for the junior applicants. Under the present
rat-race "competition for excellence" a university professor
with, say, one or two well thought-through papers per year has
virtually no chance to obtain funding at ANY level.
Implementation of the scheme "fund researchers, not proposals"
not only will make the process of funding more democratic and
socially responsible. It will also greatly reduce the paperwork
and raise the overall efficiency of university research. 
However, such reform will ALSO reduce the power base of the
grantsmanship elite. This is the prime reason why several
constructive proposals of this kind (e.g., [2,3] were bluntly
ignored by research funding bureaucracy.

While some ranking of applicants and grant amounts is, of
course, appropriate, the policy of mass "zeroing" of active
university scientists is not only anti-intellectual in its
essence, but also is clearly contrproductive socially and
economically. It is time to re-orient the university system from
the obsolete idea of "competition" (it fails to deliver anyway)
to the cooperation and "win-win" science game. But so far, in a
search for winners the system still follows an old prescription:
"The mass trials have been a great success, comrades. In the
future there will be fewer but better Russians." (Greta Garbo
in "Ninotchka", 1939).

References

[1]  A. Szent-Gyorgyi, Science, 176, 966 (1972).
[2]  A.A. Berezin and G. Hunter, Canadian Chemical News,
     46 (#3), 4-5 (March 1994).
[3]  D.R. Forsdyke, Nature, 312, 587 (1984).
[4]  E. Chargaff, Persp.in Biol.& Medicine, 23, 370 (1980).  
[5]  B. Savan, Science Under Siege, CBC Enterprises,
     Toronto, (1988).  
[6]  L.J.Peter and R.Hull, The Peter Principle, Bantam Books,
     1969 (many other editions).
-----------------------------------------------


------------------------------------------------------
MYTH OF COMPETITION AND NSERC POLICY OF 
"SELECTIVITY"

Alexander A. Berezin  and  Geoffrey Hunter
(published in "Canadian Chemical News", 
March, 1994) 

A widely held misconception about science it 
that its quality can greatly benefit from the so 
called "competition for excellence" which is externally
"coordinated" by funding agencies. Scientific and 
engineering research in canadian universities is 
supported almost exclusively through the Natural 
Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). 
The basis for the present NSERC funding philosophy 
and practice is the idea of "selectivity", i.e. 
the policy of NOT funding all the applicants.
This is done in the name of the alleged "excellence" 
of research and its "competitiveness". 

This is reflected both in the adopted NSERC terminology 
(terms like "grant SELECTION committee", "next 
COMPETITION") and the explicit instructions (!) to 
committees to recommend a significant fraction of 
applicants for non-awards ("NIL" awards).

Notwithstanding the best intentions of its designers, 
the present NSERC funding system leads to a highly 
detrimental effect: instead of being IDEA AND 
OPPORTUNITY DRIVEN which is the true path to 
excellence (1), the research is GRANT DRIVEN,
GRANT LIMITED and GRANT SEEKING. The only real 
concern of any applicant to NSERC is how to optimize 
all his/her research along a single (!) criterium : 
fundability.

The net result of this system is that truly innovative
research is often suppressed by the censorship of 
the peer-review process (2). The present NSERC policies 
encourage prolific productivity of routine (but 
easily publishable) results along well established 
mainstream research directions. Peer-reviewers are 
invariably drawn from the scientific establishement. 
They will be supportive of the established (their) 
projects rather than truly innovative projects; 
innovative projects are by definition not 
established (3). How supportive was the scientific
establishment when Boltzmann presented statistical 
mechanics ? 
                    
Stressing the very idea of "competition" is based 
on the illegitimate transfer of a business model to 
science. This is a case when a model is used beyond 
its actual range of validity. The so called "competition 
for excellence" has long ago passed all reasonable 
limits needed for a healthy stimulation and turned 
into a ferocious rat-race and Darwinian fight for 
survival based on a principle of confirmity to 
the mainstream. Often really innovative research can 
only be maintained by its careful concealment behind 
the mainstream facade. This dilemma is especially 
acute for many interdisciplinary studies and for the 
research which challenges the accepted paradigmas and 
the established dogmas.

While it is undeniable that many NSERC-supported 
projects are of a very high calibre, they became so 
largely IN SPITE of the system rather than because of 
it. Their continuing support does not offset the highly 
damaging implications of "NIL-awards" for the morale 
and research ethics of the entire university community. 
Also, a NIL-award to a researcher has a devastating
effect on his/her graduate students, many of whom will 
consider dropping a research career altogether. This 
means a potential loss of the most valuable of all 
resources - a human talent.

In terms of canadian research output and international
competitiveness, NIL awards to active researchers 
leave a significant fraction of highly (and often 
uniquely !) trained scientists FUNCTIONALLY UNEMPLOYED 
(even though they are paid salaries TO DO RESEARCH !). 
Our (very concervative) estimate is that at least a 
thousand (!) full-time faculty members in science
and engineering departments in canadian universities 
have no external funding whatsoever. On the other hand, 
a significant number of well established mainstream 
research groups ("departmental empires"), often with 
little real innovation, are clearly OVERfunded. 
Furthermore, the overselling the notion of research
"underfunding" is in the interest of such super-groups
experienced in the game of Grantsmenship.

It is a very common stand for almost any group, including 
the research community, to attribute all their problems 
to the underfunding. "Just give us more money and 
everything will be OK". It is always easier to blame 
somebody else than to look inside your own 
household - this is the reason why the underfunding 
mythology is so universally attractive and popular.

However, despite that Canada indeed falls behind some 
other developed contries in terms of its total R & D 
expenedure, the crux of the problem is NOT so much in 
the bulk underfunding as in the MISMANAGEMENT of the 
available resources. Contrary to what may seem obvouis, 
under the present funding system "more money" from the 
government (even if lobbing for extra funding will
succeed !) will EXACERBATE rather than solve the problem, 
as almost all gains of new public money will go to the 
already well funded groups and NOT to NIL-funded 
researchers. This is a well known "Matthew effect" in 
science "give to those who have and take from thos who
haven't") (4). 

We believe that the real roots of major flaws of present 
NSERC system lie in its UNDEMOCRATIC nature. Presently the
membership renewal in committees is NOT discussed publicly 
and no electorial process is in place. Instead, we have an
oligarchic system in which "committees are simply 
designated by previuos committees". Apart from some 
scattered letters in the public press from individual
researchers, there is no sound democratic feedback
mechanism to NSERC from the entire university research 
community.

The ineviatble result of any oligarchic structure is that 
it proliferates for its own sake. In NSERC case the 
consequences are the overblown and overcomplicated (and
resource-draining) funding structure of many dozens of 
discipline and program committees. To justify their very
existence the multiple NSERC committees require unnecessary
lengthly proposals and multistaged process of "proposals
evaluations". The latter process is de facto largely 
consists of a second peer-review of already peer-reviewed
(!) published papers.

Present NSERC trend to even more tighter peer-review 
"quality control", even greater "selectivity" in funding 
(more NIL-awards) is a step in a precisely THE OPPOSITE 
direction to what is required to forster the real 
excellence and innovation. Paradoxically it may sound, 
but agencies like NSERC need LESS (!) (and not more !) 
expertise to improve their operations. The bottomline 
performance of a complex decision-making system (like
NSERC) is NOT a linear function of the overall "expertise" 
it has. In fact, it is an inverted U-curve with a maximum
(optimum) beyond which the system LOOSES its efficiency. 
This is a known effect of an over-controlled system - too 
many strings damage the adaptability. Like with vitamines, 
the overdose turns stimulation into a poison. In our 
opinion NSERC presently suffers from a severe
"OVERexpertisation".

   To alleviate the damaging aspects of present NSERC 
functioning for the canadian university system, canadian 
economic competitiveness and better management of 
financial and human resources WE PROPOSE THE FOLLOWING 
REFORMS:

1. Numerous "grant selection committees" should be 
amalgamated to just a few. Their present activity is 
largely in "peer-reviewing" of proposals which are 
almost invariably based on already peer-reviewed 
published papers. There is no need to do peer-review 
twice. This simply imposes an unfair "double taxation" 
on the ideas, work and time of the researchers.  
                                   
2. Out of 3 present NSERC criteria ("excellence of the
applicant", "excellence of proposals" and "need for 
funds") only 1st and 3rd should be left. "Excellence 
of proposals" is largely a Red Herring. For all practical
purposes, the presently used 1-page form (NSERC form 180: 
"intent to apply") is FULLY SUFFICIENT IN ITSELF, i.e. 
as a rule no "longer" proposals should be written AT ALL. 
This will not only save many truckloads of paper, but 
millions of hours of a highly qualified professional
labor (at $ 30 per hour at cheapest !) to write AND read 
the typewritten compilations of already published papers.
(Longer proposals can be left as optional only for some
special cases, e.g. for group grants in high-energy physics, 
or for the first-time applicants yet without published 
papers). 

In short: FUND RESEARCHERS, NOT PROPOSALS.

3. The rat-race terminology (grant "selection" ; NSERC
"competition") should be eliminated from the documents 
and actual policies. Its continuous use is harmful for 
the morale of the entire community and sends a damagingly 
wrong message, especially to young scientists, forcing 
many of them out of profession and/or out of the country. 
Science can not and should not operate by the rules of 
beauty contests and wrestling games. ALL university-based
researchers whose active status can be sensibly 
demonstrated, should be funded at some (basic) level using 
a SLIDING FUNDING SCALE rather than NIL-awards (5). These 
basic awards (we suggest to call them RBMG -  Research Base
Maintenance Grants) may not be great but they should cover 
such fundamental expenses as any serious researcher has:
publication and reprint charges, conference travel, 
computing and software, electronic networking, etc. The 
gradaute student support can be much more efficiently met 
through the direct grants to the departments where the 
students are being trained. We also note, that personal
research expenses which professors squize from their 
personal  salaries are NOT TAX DEDUCTABLE !

In any case:  NIL awards to ACTIVE researchers should not 
be tolerated. This practice is based on an ill-conceived
philosophy of the alleged efficiency of a rat-race 
"competition" in science when only peer-review defined
"excellence" is to be rewarded. In reality, NIL-awards 
amount to wasteful and irresponsible mismanagement of the
scientific and intellectual resources of this country.

4. It is imperative to obtain the views of the scientific
community on whether NSERC officials should be elected by 
all those eligible for funding, and if found to be so, the
electorial process should be instituted. Nomination to NSERC
bodies (including the President) should be discussed PUBLICLY 
and in advance, perhaps through a special bulletin. The
candidates should provide their platforms and be open to 
public questioning and criticism before they are elected 
to the office. They should be regularly publicly accountable
during their entire term in the office. It is also critically
important that the minority and dissentering views are duly
represented.

To conclude, contrary to a misleading similarity, the 
terms "competitiveness" and "competition" are quite 
different. The real competitiveness of research comes 
from open opportunities and NOT from the enforced 
"competition" which in many cases directly detrimental 
for the very spirit of the reasearch. We believe that
a wide and open public dialogue on the above issues is 
highly desirable for the strengthening of the economic
efficiencey, international competitiveness and social
responsibility of the canadian research enterprise.

 
Alexander A. Berezin,                          
Department of Engineering Physics, 
McMaster University, Hamilton,
Ontario, L8S 4L7; (905) 525-9140 ext. 24546
email: BEREZIN at MCMASTER.CA

Geoffrey Hunter, 
Chemistry Department, York University, 
North York, Toronto, Ontario, M3J 1P3; 
(416) 736-5306 email: FS300022 at SOL.YORKU.CA    

References

1. A.K. Vijh, Canadian Chemical News, 42 (# 10), 14 (1990).
2. A.A. Berezin, American Journal of Physics, 57, 392 (1989).
3. L. Hocker, Physics Today, 46 (#8), 13 (1993).
4. R.K. Merton, Science, 159, 56 (1968).
5. D.R. Forsdyke, Nature, 312, 587 (1984).
--------------------------------------------------------------

 








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