spreading the wealth

S L Forsburg forsburg at nospamsalk.edu
Thu Jun 19 19:57:28 EST 1997


Valerie Cardenas Nicolson (valerie at itsa.ucsf.edu) wrote

> Well, I did have one NIH program officer advise me to
> stay in a well-funded lab until I was a "have." With
> the current funding environment, and the way that
> study sections examine your pedigree and list of
> publications, he felt that it was safest to stay
> where you were until you got a grant, then leave
> and take it with you (if starting an independent
> lab was your goal).

If your institution will give you a staff position, then
you can apply for a grant.  Most will not give postdocs
authorization to apply for grants, and the study sections
I've been on have not taken kindly to grant applications
from postdocs who want the grant first so that they can
then apply for positions.  If they perceive that the applicant
 is a postdoc being given a corner of his PI's lab space,
to get funding to continue on what is essnetially the PI's
project, then they tend to get rather cross.  

The requirement to apply for most 
grants is that the applicant must have a real position and 
"institutional commitment" (ie, money and space).  
Some institutions will create job titles for postdocs 
 easily, but many more will not.  

Remember, grants are NOT awarded to the individual.  They
are awarded to the institution.  

>Are you *sure* it's not the same in the big labs? The head
>of our lab once estimated that he spent 80% of his time
>writing grants. I don't think he's exaggerating by much.

Yes, but his rate of return is better.  He needs more
grants for the big group.  More meaningful perhaps is
to figure out how much of his time he spends writing
grants per how many dollars in direct costs he gets.  Or per
person in his lab.

> Though I agree with you that writing endless grants seems like a
> waste of everyone's time, and I'm sure there are people who
> write some excellent grants but don't get funded because they
> don't have a list of publications as long as their arm,

That's usually not the reason.  

>  I don't
> think you can say that big labs keep getting funded because they
> were already big and well funded (which might not be what you
> really mean, but that's what it sounded like when I read your
> message).

That's not quite what I meant, although it's certainly true,
partly because when you have the resources you can build up
a project on one grant before it's big enough to go out on its
own.  

> There's merit to [big labs'] work, 

Of course there's merit!  There's no doubt about that.  But,
the question  is, if the size of
the pie isn't going to change, do you continue to let one
guy eat 4 pieces, or do you let those 4 pieces feed 4
people?  Because funding the big labs at big lab rates means
that you can't fund as many labs.  So other people with 
good ideas don't get a chance.

> and they probably spend the same
> proportion of time as you do on their grant applications.

The difference is, they get more money for it!  If I got $500K +
per year in direct costs, I might not mind spending 80% of my time
earning it.    

Also, 
people starting up need to be spending time at the bench.
In a small startup lab, that's where the PI is most productive.
The more you pour money into a few big
labs, the less there is to spread around.  yes, redistribution
means that the big labs are forced to shrink.  It means we
can't all do everything we want to.  But I'm already unable
to do everything I want to--I'm never going to be able
to have a lab of 15 people, the system will no longer support it. 
I will not be able to do everything I think of.  I will
have to collaborate more.  (Such a trend may really do a lot
for the civility in this profession, which has been declining 
of late.)

Valerie might feel differently when she is trying to do expts to
keep her lab running and wasting time grant re-writing and
unable to buy stuff she needs or pay an additional student, while
the lab upstairs has more money than they can spend, and 
they carelessly break equipt becuase they think one can always
 buy anohter.

The irony is, the big guys didn't have to go through this
15 years ago. The system could afford to stake a junior
person, without pitting them against established, productive
senior investigators.

-- 
-susan, who really doesnt feel as bitter as this sounds,
because after three years things are finally looking up and
she is better funded than many, but like most people
at the bottom of a pyramid scheme, she would like the wealth
more evenly distributed.

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S L Forsburg, PhD  forsburg at salk.edu
Molecular Biology and Virology Lab          
The Salk Institute, La Jolla CA 
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