July 14, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

The black hole: grants eat up most of scientists’ lives

black holeBiomedical science is all about data, discoveries, brainstorming, and ultimately making a difference in patients’ lives, right?

Isn’t it true?

Well, hmmm….. I wish that were true and maybe at some point in the past it was true.

Nowadays there is a different reality.

The black hole at the center of most biomedical scientists’ universes is the grant submission process.

The horrific equation that dominates most scientists’ lives is not some scientific one, but rather is the following:

No money = no research

In one form or another, we biomedical scientists spend an enormous amount of time and energy putting together grants to try to get more money to fund our research. I call grants “black holes” for a number of reasons.

First because their gravity (i.e. funding) attracts us like moths to a flame. Biomedical research is incredibly expensive and to make our research happen, most faculty scientists figure that applying for many grants is an essential part of our lives.

Second, I refer to grants as “black holes” because most of the time we get sucked in and squashed. In other words, most grant proposals never get funded despite inordinate amounts of effort that go into them.

It is not unusual these days for only 10% of grants to get funded in certain cases. Best case scenario is 15%. That is really a devastating reality because most scientists agree that it is almost impossible to differentiate between grants scored 0-10% and those 10-20%, especially given the huge number of variables such as different study sections, etc. There are even some excellent grants in the 20-30% range and truthfully some in the 0-10% range may not be much better than those in the 20-30% range.

Imagine your kid goes to a school where there are only 2 grades: A or F. That’s the current grant system where a B+ or even an A- yields the same outcome as an F. No funding.

So while most people imagine scientists toiling away over tubes and spending hours in front of a white board brainstorming, while we do spend time doing those things, we spend at least as much time or more hunched over a computer typing up our last grant proposal. Perhaps even multitasking and working on 2-3 grants at once.

If you are a biomedical scientist, ask yourself when was the last time you spent an entire month without a grant on your mind? It could be a grant you are working on, a grant in review, a grant you are re-writing. For me, I literally cannot remember such a grant-free month existing even though I am blessed with, at least for the moment, with more funding than I have ever had before, but of course grants run out so we always have to be planning ahead and worrying and writing grants….

Every moment we spend as slaves to grant writing adds up to hours that we are not doing the other stuff we really want to be doing.

The real science. 

If this reality concerns you then you should be lobbying for greater support for biomedical research.