Lottery or Meritocracy?

Bert Gold bgold at
Sat Jun 8 14:13:52 EST 1996

For Kevin Mckenna,

Dr. Mckenna,

When I see injustice I want to change it.

Gambling is unjust only for those who participate.  They take the chance
that they will win; and some occasionally do! Of those who do, no
matter how small their win, many become addicted to playing... 
Geneticists and neuroscientists agree that there may well be
a genetic or physiologic component to this addiction, but at
our current state of development as a species, individuals
who ignore their own tendencies toward addiction
do so at their peril.

I am not a gambler.

Our granting system should not be like gambling.

Your apparent belief that so many capable scientists *do not*
deserve any resources to do their work is folly.

If you see problems in our current granting system and 
do not speak out about them, you are being disingenuous.

Most of the scientists I know do see such problems, but are afraid of the
recriminations which will befall them if they speak out.
Many luminary scientists have admitted to me that the system is deeply

Below are the wise words of a capable CANADIAN investigator.

The deeper I dig the more I find wisdom up NORTH.

The looming issue in US research policy is not *only* that there is
not *enough* funding for science (there is not; although the
leaders of American Science policy do not want to fight for more);
but also that it is impossible for the funding agencies to so finely
distinguish between the capable and the not-so-capable,
so as to make millionaires of the one and
paupers of the other.

The funding agencies are *trying* to make
a distinction between *outstanding* and just *excellent*.

But no such distinction should result in a person being deprived 
of a livelihood!

Even the *outstanding* are not *outstanding* all the time.

I am glad to read in NIH CRISP that you are a funded scientist.

But, by zeroing out MANY capable and serious scientists (including several
of MY STUDENTS!) AND aggrandizing MANY who have forged data,
or at the very least, been more interested in their own
advancement than in mentorship, our science policy has failed.

It has further failed because so many in positions of power have
been disingenuous.

The HIGHEST LEADERS OF AMERICAN SCIENCE have justified to me the
$ 22,000,000 we send to CANADA.  They are foolish.  The Canadians
don't need the money that much!  Our young scientists need it more!

Read the words of the wise Canadian below and see if there
is anything in them from which we can learn.

 Bert Gold, Ph.D.                         "Seeing much, Suffering much,
 University of California, San Francisco   and studying much,
 School of Medicine                        These are the three pillars
 Program in Medical Genetics               of learning." -- Benjamin Disraeli

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 7 Jun 1996 12:01:41 -0400
From: "L.A. Moran" <lamoran at>
To: bgold at
Subject: Re: Eyes on the Prize
Newsgroups: bionet.general,,,talk.politics.medicine

In article <Pine.A32.3.93.960606120045.173544B-100000 at> you write:

>NIH has just announced its plans for a MAJOR OVERHAUL of the RESEARCH
>Grant allocation system.

As a Canadian I've been staying out of this discussion because I really
can't comment on the American system. (As an aside, there are times when
I wish that you Americans would realize that these newsgroups are not
exclusively for Americans. Why not create a separate news group that
concentrates on issues that only concern those in the USA?)

>Kieth Yamamoto, here at UCSF, is already objecting and has apparently
>drafted his own plan.

Keith and I are friends from way back - say "hello" to him from me. If you
are going to continue this on bionet.general then why not ask him to post
his plan as well.

>I have spoken with literally hundreds of scientists over the past two
>years about this issue.  Many of the most prominent have confided to
>me that the current system is unfair, unworkable and unreasonable but
>have told me that 'human nature' prevents a change for the better.
>Nonetheless, many have shared their very best suggestions and thoughts
>with me. I doubt, however, that I have heard every possible salutary
>suggestion for changing the current system...  
>Therefore, I would like to invite you
>to send me your very wisest thoughts about how we can change the system
>for the allocation of research funds in the US so that our children can
>again begin to prosper from the intellectual harvest of plenty of our

If you don't mind an outsiders opinion I'll be happy to add my two cents.

It seems to me that some of the problems could be seen in a different light
if you consider how some other countries differ. For example, in Canada
we are not allowed to pay ouselves from a research grant. Our salary is
the responsibility of the University or hospital that hired us. This means
that Canadian researchers are somewhat more at liberty to take risks
witout jeopardizing their families and it means that we are somewhat less
inclined to compromise our principles for the sake of income.

The other major difference concerns infrastructure or overhead. In Canada
the grants from federal agencies do not allow for overhead. It is assumed
that the University or hospital will provide the appropriate level of
support. What this means is that there is no pressure on us to bring in
money simply to help the University or Department pay for infrastructure.
I'm not exactly sure what the effect of this difference is in the long run
but it is something to consider.

In Canada you can lose a grant and still make valuable contributions to
the mandate of the University. For example, I gave up my grants three
years ago to concentrate on writing textbooks. This would be much harder
to do in the top American schools. Perhaps part of the problem is that
there is this overwhelming pressure to get a large grant in order to pay
for the groceries and maintain some level of status in the community.
There should be respected alternatives that promote scholarship and
reward teaching. In the absence of alternatives there seems to be a
tendancy to make whatever compromises are necessary in order to get that
grant. If Keith, for example, lost his major grant for any significant
number of years then he would probably feel that he should resign. I doubt
if Bruce would have forced him out while he was chairman but I don't know
who is currently in charge. I think that people like Pat O'Farrel and Tom
Kornberg feel this pressure intensely, not to mention the younger ones
at UCSF. So, as an uninformed (sic.) outsider, part of the problem seems
to be of your own making. You have created a monster by making such a big
deal out of "success" in publishing lots of papers to the exclusion of
anything else. 

Larry Moran

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