Lottery or Meritocracy?

kevin k-mckenna at
Mon Jun 10 10:46:56 EST 1996

In article <Pine.A32.3.93.960608112744.38132A-100000 at>, Bert
Gold <bgold at> wrote:

> For Kevin Mckenna,
> Dr. Mckenna,
> When I see injustice I want to change it.

Me, too.

> 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.

I think the problem is your question: Lottery or meritocracy? The research
funding system is both and neither. There are many aspects of merit and
there is a large component of chance. I would like to see less chance in
the system, but it can never be eliminated. As biologists, we should be
pretty comfortable with stochastic processes. Look at fertilization: it
greatly favors the energetic sperm. But only one sperm gets the 'prize'
and it may not necessarily be the "best." 

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

I certainly do not believe that and I have never said or implied that! I
think there are a large number of excellent scientists who do not have
adequate funding or the necessary institutional position to pursue their
goals. There are a large number of things I do not like about the system:
it greatly encourages the accumulation of resources in the hands of a few;
it's rigged against younger scientists; it's way too random. And most
importantly of all: It's grossly underfunded. But never never have I
claimed or thought that unfunded scientists deserve their empty plate.

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

I do speak out on them. But to pick on this paltry $22M going to Canadian
researchers is completely silly.

> Most of the scientists I know do see such problems, but are afraid of the
> recriminations which will befall them if they speak out.

What recriminations? I have never seen any reluctance on the part of my
colleagues to bitch about the system. The problem is coming up with a
system that is meritocratic and fair. A real problem is that fairness and
meritocracy may be often in conflict. And it is also important to come up
with reforms that benefit the entire community, not simply make proposals
that will increase our own chances.

> Many luminary scientists have admitted to me that the system is deeply
> flawed.
> 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.

This is very true. A lot of this is because there is simply not enough
money. The study sections are overapplied so they must split hairs very
finely. There is no conceivable system which can rationally distinguish
between a 12% or 15% grant. 

> 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.

So true.

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

And in no way, shape or form do I think this indicates that am a better
scientist than those who are not funded. All it indicates is that I am
persistent and keep writing grants, revising and resubmitting until
finally one hits. It's absolutely a shitty system and I hate it. I detest
writing grants. I hate writing a grant that I know won't be funded, but I
have to send it in anyway to get the criticisms, revise and resubmit.
Repeat as long as possible. It sucks. I would much rather spend my time
doing research.

> 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.

I'm sorry, but I personally have seen very little scientific fraud. I do
not think that widespread fraud is a major cause of the problem. First and
foremost, I think the system has nowhere near enough money for the pool of
scientists. I think a good case can be made to the public and Congress
that research saves health care money and a large increase is well
justified. But I also think that graduate schools have been negligent in
overproducing Ph.D.s knowing full well that the system can not absorb
them. Second, because money is so tight, NIH tends to be overly
conservative. It funds sure things. Often this means funding the
established, big labs, those that already have a lot of funding. These
labs are in a better position to generate the necessary preliminary data
(i.e. a big fraction of the 'proposed' studies). They get funded because
it's a sure thing because essentially the study is already done. I also
think that centers, program projects, core grants and RFAs (all of which I
have benefited from) are a bad thing and should be abolished. These
definitely encourage the concentration of resources, coasting on
reputations, and 'old boy' networking. 

> 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!

Again, $22M is a very small amount of money and they do need it. 
I think the proposed changes in review are a good thing. I would also like
to see some kinds of limits for the amount of money a given PI can
receive. I would like to see the intramural program compete more
rigorously. I think the system needs reforms urgently. I have responded
because I think your complaints about scientific fraud, bureaucracy and
the Canadians as the cause of our problems are absurd. The facts do not
support your arguments. A less hysterical approach will be more productive
in generating public support for research funding and encouraging a
consensus for reform among scientists.

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