Science is Hell   Leave a comment

Doing science is fun- at least, I think it is. I get to play with toys all day- that’s not too bad.

But *paying* for the toys sucks. In order to keep the lab operational, I have to apply for and successfully obtain research grants. There’s lots of sources, some more prestigious than others, but the bottom line is that I have to convince someone else to give me money to play with toys.

I don’t have it as bad as a lot of scientists- most scientists I know (faculty or not) have to bring in money to pay their salary. Being at CSU, having a 9-month guaranteed annual salary, cut my stress level by at least 99%. Because the success rate for reasonably prestigious grants is around 10-15%, and for *really* prestigious grants around 0.1-1%.

Think about that- in order for the resnicklab to be ‘open for business’, I have to periodically (say. every 3 years) convince someone (actually, a large group of reviewers) that the work we do is superior to 90% of all the other stuff out there. We’re not competing against Elbonians, we’re competing against labs *just like ours*, or even better than us- bigger, faster, more established. And I am making this claim to a group of people who are unfamiliar with my research- that’s the essence of peer review: disinterested third parties.

Why am I bringing this up? I have a proposal due in a week, to the National Institutes of Health. I sent one in to the National Science Foundation several months ago. While I hope they both get funded, I can reasonably expect that neither will get funded. Whether or not I re-submit depends a lot on the reviewer comments. Those comments can be rough and demoralizing. I hate writing grant applications- it’s tough to strike a balance between “our work will solve the universe!!!” and “in reality, hardly anyone cares about this, but we think it’s cool”.

Even if they both get rejected, I can still eat and pay my mortgage. Like I said, that’s not the case for many of my colleagues.

I don’t claim to have a solution- there isn’t enough money is the world to pay for everyone’s science projects- but the state of research funding is such that is discourages people from ‘getting into the game’. To be fair, NIH and other agencies often have the equivalent of ‘set asides’ for new investigators as a way to address the problem- the issue is not in the scarcity of funding. The issue is linking high-risk activities (obtaining research funding) with job security. Factor in high-stakes issues like tenure, and it’s no wonder scientists are tempted to give in to bad behavior (lab sabotage, http://chronicle.com/article/Former-MIT-Scientist-Who/42286, complete mental breakdowns resulting in violence)

I’m not whining- professionals, should they choose to practice privately, are responsible for their own income (think docs, attorneys, being paid on commission, etc) and I don’t think I deserve special treatment. But I question if anyone is thinking about the effect this has on the quality of science research and quality of teaching/mentoring for graduate students.

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Posted October 17, 2010 by resnicklab in Pedagogy, Science

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