How do we make NSF science more sustainable?

Jun 05 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Yesterday I talked about the futility of making nano-scale adjustments to the process of review and funding at NSF. The take home is basically no system is perfect, but NSF is the best we've got right now.

The real issue is growth can't occur unless the system is fed, and Congress is starving science. For the enterprise to remain viable in the coming years, there needs to be money put into the system. However, the federal government being what it is, I think NSF needs to be thinking about how to change how we do science in the US so that we will be better buffered against congressional whims going forward.

My thoughts on how we do that aren't new. Many of these topics have been batted around in different blogs over the years, but some are unique to NSF and others aren't. These proposed solutions ALL require that congress view science as worth funding so that we can move forward and not continue to regress.

1) Extend the average time on proposals from three years to four. At least. Three years seems like along time only at the time of award. The second that clock starts ticking, that's no longer the case. Also, 4 years is a reasonable time frame to fund a student, whereas 3 years requires overlap with another grant (and that's unlikely) or institutional support, which may or may not be possible. Three years puts students and PIs in more of a bind and forces additional grant churn. This will cause overall awards to be more expensive, but the benefits are worth it.

2) Focus more on staff and less on students. I imagine this will be controversial, but I think we over-produce PhDs in some fields. Yes, the data say having a PhD is better for your job prospects than not, but it also says that the opportunity cost of entering the workforce much latter than peers is significant. Most current budgets can barely fit a student and one staff member (postdoc or tech). A cheaper option is to do two students. If NSF said it will only support one graduate student per grant and more critically evaluate whether some projects need a technician or a postdoc, I think we would see a growth in technical staff as a career path. This will likely also require some long-term commitment from universities to cover gaps for staff, but we need to shift to a model where there is less reliance on transient cheap labor and more on full time staff. Longer grants will also aid this.

Neither one of these changes fundamentally shifts science in the US, but neither is going to happen on it's own. The focus here is shifting to a system that produces slightly fewer PhDs and employs more. Obviously it's a non-starter with congressional action to care about science in this country, but stability is important as well. We can't do our best science while constantly writing grants and worrying that the coffers will be empty in 6 months. Is grinding and demoralizing, not to mention incredibly time consuming.

I would be interested to hear other suggestions.

24 responses so far

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    "If NSF said it will only support one graduate student per grant and more critically evaluate whether some projects need a technician or a postdoc, I think we would see a growth in technical staff as a career path."

    Whether funding agencies change their support for individual grad students won't change the systematic desire of higher universities to generate more grad students. Universities with grad students are still going to be in a better position than those without.

    "(W)we need to shift to a model where there is less reliance on transient cheap labor and more on full time staff."

    Yes. So funding agencies would need STRONG incentives for universities to hire staff. "We will not fund PIs at departments with more grad students than permanent technicians / staff scientists." Make it part of the reporting requirements.

    Funding agencies should not be shouldering the burden of changing the academic training system alone. As I pointed out elsewhere, the role of state agencies is almost never discussed. http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2015/05/dont-forget-who-approves-new-doctoral.html

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Fewer PIs seeking funding.

  • I think we need growth, just not exponential growth. The adoption of the preproposal system brought a 50% increase in applications, the vast majority of which were from new PIs to the system. Fifty. Fucking. Percent. That's not sustainable in any funding climate.

  • And I agree with Zen about the responsibility at the university level. I don't, at this time, know of a way to hold their feet to the fire, so I didn't include something directly on that here.

  • qaz says:

    The argument needs to be about how this will be better for science and thus better for society, not how "grinding and demoralizing" it is. Although I completely agree that it is grinding and demoralizing, you're not going to convince any business people [and that's who runs the country] with that kind of argument. They believe that they work long and hard hours (although they often don't), and will tell you to "suck it up".

    We need to talk about inefficiency, not about difficulty.

  • Inefficiency is writing proposals 300 days a year to have one hit every couple of years. Inefficiency is training people up to be experts and than having them walk out the door. Inefficiency is having to lay people off in a boom or bust cycle. Inefficiency is producing PhDs who never use their training. I could go on, I'm fluent in inefficiency.

  • qaz says:

    DM - Do you really believe that we have maxed out the scientific potential in this country? Do you really believe that if all those PIs were funded they wouldn't move scientific progress forward in real and tangible ways?

    If not, then why would you argue for fewer PIs seeking funding? Reducing the number of PIs seeking funding is a "Do it to Julia" solution. But we don't need to "Do it to Julia". (Remember, "Do it to Julia" is Winston Smith begging not to be tortured.) We don't NEED to do it to anyone. The fact is, there is more than enough GDP in this country to fully fund science at 1960s levels, which would almost certainly create massive new innovation, new economic drive, and new progress. (And would solve our NIH/NSF problems along the way.)

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Although I completely agree that it is grinding and demoralizing, you're not going to convince any business people [and that's who runs the country] with that kind of argument.

    Rather than focusing on how "grinding and demoralizing" it is, maybe a better approach is to highlight the sheer amount of time and effort that gets eaten up writing proposals. I think that most outsiders naively assume that scientists spend the bulk of their time actually doing science. They might be dismayed to hear otherwise.

  • zb says:

    "The argument needs to be about how this will be better for science and thus better for society, not how "grinding and demoralizing" it is."

    Yes. I am often concerned with how tone-deaf many of the arguments sound to people outside the scientific system (say, tech workers who are always at will employees, or freelancers who have to fight for every job, or small business people who can see their businesses crash in an instant as interests or employees change). Scientists are asking all of those people for a cut of their earnings to produce the science. We don't have to back away from the argument that science is a valuable good (including basic science), but we have to show people how the changes would benefit the science. Otherwise, the arguments sound a lot like the whines of the old fogeys who are having a more difficult time automatically renewing their taxpayer-funded grants.

  • Ann Loraine says:

    My suggestion: Develop projects that include masters students, undergraduates, high school students, and interns of all ages and walks of life. Politicians listen to voters. If more citizens understand and appreciate research -- because they've experienced it first hand! -- they will vote for politicians who think supporting research is a public good.

  • Morgan Price says:

    As a taxpayer, I think "training" grad students who mostly go on to become programmers is a waste of my money. I think paying a professor at state U to spend 20% of their time on grantsmanship is a waste of my money. I think these could be winning arguments but have not seen them backed by numbers.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    to spend 20% of their time on grantsmanship

    20%? If only...

  • Cerastes says:

    Honestly, this still seems like, to use your own words, re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Is there some legislation that we could advocate for, at the federal level, that would serve to both increase total funding *and* insulate science funding from the whims of various Congresses? Something more complex and long-lasting than just "more money"? Maybe a bill that permanently links science funding as a percent of the federal budget or GDP?

    Obviously we'd have to wait for a congress that actually passes budgets and bills, if that ever happens, but would something like that ever work? What should we go for? How would we best secure scientific funding at sustainable levels in both the immediate and far future?

  • Dave says:

    DM - Do you really believe that we have maxed out the scientific potential in this country? Do you really believe that if all those PIs were funded they wouldn't move scientific progress forward in real and tangible ways?

    Oh come on, qaz. You know it's not about that. It's about realistic solutions at a time when significant increases in funding are not coming. However, the data show that even if the budget was doubled, the large increase in investigators that would come looking for a piece of that pie would offset to a large degree any improvements in paylines, duration of award etc. Controlling the pool of applicants has to be a part of funding agencies strategy moving forward. It just has to be.

  • Cerastes, I encourage you and everyone else to write (letters, not emails) to your state reps in congress on a routine basis. I try to do so every 6-8 months, but I think I'm a bit behind this year. We need to lobby for both more money and more stability.

  • Michelle Elekonich says:

    You can ask for 1 to 5 years now... Many ask for 4 although not the average.

  • Yes, but my impression on both panel and from POs is that the extra year needs to be justified. I realize it can be done, but the norm is 3 and anything outside of that is typically, at least IME, given an extra look. It also means the budget might be more than normal as well, giving reviewers extra pause. I think making 4 the default would be very helpful

  • JaneB says:

    In the UK some. Funding bidies are moving towards rationing the number of grants that a university can submit to each round unless it has a very high success rate - which pushes some of the work of filtering into the institutions, but makes being allowed to apply subject to local conditions...

  • drugmonkey says:

    qaz-

    Real change will not come from tiny arguments that science needs better treatment within the current political climate. The 30+ year ride of selfish Republicanism has to be ended. I work on that part of the equation through other means. Science is not going to work.

  • qaz says:

    DM - I agree completely that there are two issues - one is how to fix the problem of reinvigorating the idea that investment (in infrastructure, in science, in people) is a good thing, and that there are some things (actually a lot of them) that government does better than private corporations do. The other is what are we going to do given that it is going to be very hard to turn this Titanic around. (Removing the anti-american republican brand is going to take another 30 years of work. By then you and I will be demanding our own emiritus grants!). Until then, we need better systems that can create more stable funding for more people. I argued against the K99 because the data was that it was solving the wrong problem. I argued against the emeritus grant because it was solving the wrong problem. I argued for the inclusion of assistant professors in study section because it is the only thing that helps them learn how to write fundable grants.

    But I also think it is important not to buy into the republican anti-community perspective. We need to say loudly that we need more scientists, not fewer. We need to say that a lack of universal health care *prevents* entrepreneurs from being able to take risks. (The ACA is a good start.) We need to say that a lack of diversity in bringing in students and a lack of diversity in funding leaves good talent and good ideas by the wayside. We need to say that funding NIH and other infrastructure at 1960s levels would create an economic boom that would pull us out of this depression.

  • drugmonkey says:

    You make very good points.

  • helldawg says:

    I agree with many of the comments about there being too many trainees in the pipeline to have a sustainable system, and that part of the solution could be controlling the number of students that get trained (i.e., somehow mandate that $ go to hiring PhD-level staff rather than supporting students). But it is important to remember that most non-medical school bio labs have students that are not funded by grants, but by TA-ships. And most, if not all, universities depend on this cheap labor to staff all their teaching labs. Even if the funding agencies make it hard to fund students and easy to pay staff, it will not shrink PhD programs in Arts and Sciences departments. The whole system is built on a house of cards.

  • commentariette says:

    A lot of the arguments here are surprisingly data free for a bunch of scientists: Nate Silver would mock you...

    1) Republican anti-community-ism isn't the problem; neither party has been dominant over any extended time period in the modern era.

    The presidency has alternated between D and R every 2 terms since the end of WW2, with two exceptions: Carter had only one term and Reagan + Bush had three. The senate has been D-controlled for 18 of the past 34 years (and R-controlled for 16). The house has also been D-controlled for 18 (and R-controlled for 16) of the past 34 years. Each party scored the trifecta for only 4 years of the past 34. Also balanced over shorter terms - senate has been D-controlled 8 of past 12 years, house R-controlled for 8 of past 12.

    2) There is no evidence linking health care policy to entrepreneurship. If there were, you'd expect e.g. France or the UK to have much higher rates of innovation than the US, or even Switzerland.

    3) I think that the data do suggest that quality is a much bigger problem than quantity in scientific productivity; many results are not reproducible, the median paper is never cited, etc. From a value for money perspective, that's probably the most important problem to address, not whining that it's hard to get grants.

  • Vax says:

    Why not discontinue funding for PI, postdoc, and graduate student salaries on grants? Make the universities put their money where their mouths are regarding hiring these individuals (12 month/100% salary for faculty, TA positions for grad students, and virtually no postdocs waiting in purgatory). There would be a whole lot less mouths to feed, our grant dollars would go a lot further, and there would not have to be any further investment by the federal government.

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