Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Call for Reform - Fix the Broken Funding System

Broken The grant-funding system is broken, argues Peter Lawrence in a new commentary published in PLoS Biology. While government officials and educators steer more students onto scientific tracks, those who heed the call will likely come to regret their decision. The current system churns out promising, creative young scientists only to betray them, Lawrence laments, leaving even the best and the brightest struggling against a baffling, impenetrable Kafkaesque bureaucracy just to do the work they were hired to do. Lawrence, a University of Cambridge developmental biologist who has worked on fly development for more than 40 years, says the current system forces scientists into a Darwinian struggle for funding, with the result that those who learn how to game the system survive and those who don’t, lose out - often leaving the game altogether. “To expect a young scientist to recruit and train students and postdocs as well as producing and publishing new and original work within two years (in order to fuel the next grant application) is preposterous,” he writes. “It is neither right nor sensible to ask scientists to become astrologists and predict precisely the path their research will follow - and then to judge them on how persuasively they can put over this fiction.”

In an all-too-familiar tale, Lawrence describes the experience of a scientist (called K.) who spent 18 years in training after a brilliant start, only to be thwarted by the granting system when he tried to break out on his own. This once-bright star now appears en route to failure. “The waste in expertise and time is heartbreaking,” says Lawrence. Mushrooming and expensive bureaucracy, onerous rules and regulations, pressures to churn out rushed papers to boost publication record, inadequate initial grants, and inherent biases that favor established scientists at the expense of new talent are just some of the problems Lawrence outlines. He also presents the perspectives of numerous senior scientists, who recount their own experiences and offer insights into how the system has failed. Lawrence, and his colleagues, recommend a number of reforms to allow researchers to get on with the business of research - and restore science to its rightful place.

Lawrence PA (2009) Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research. PLoS Biol 7(9):e1000197 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000197