On "transactional" science

Aug 13 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism

Important questions from Paul Knoepfler:


In today’s transactional dominated world, scientists are spending an increasing proportion of their time basically fundraising. Writing grants. Honing grantsmanship. Doing experiments specifically for grant preliminary data rather than driven by transformative ideas. Working the philanthropy side of things.

By contrast, transformative activities would include these kinds of things: reading, thinking, teaching, mentoring, model building, listening to others, doing risky pilot experiments, etc.

So are you as transformative a scientist as you think or has transactional science become a dominant vein in your daily professional life? How is this playing out more generally in science?

Can you have the best of both worlds to be transformative and transactional?

I think the answer to the last question is that sure, one can be both transformative and transactional...and even still have fun in the lab. It is possible.

Is it better to spend less time raising funds? Better to spend less time working for preliminary data and more time working to get the paper closed out?

of course.

Nobody is in this merely to raise support for their lab.

But to ask this question is to be in denial.

The question has a bit of the upraised nose sniff to it. A bit of a slap at those who are in a situation in which raising laboratory funding looms large right now. It is a pat on the back for those who happen to be flush with cash and can go back to thinking about fun science for a little while.

My problem is that rewarding the people who don't have to work for their support very hard with more easy support just hardens the silo around a lucky few and makes it even harder for the rest of those poor chumps.

We (and here I mean Francis Collins and his comments on HHMI-like support for a select few) continue to think that success is the province of the brilliant deserving few. This gets in the way of recognizing that it is the outcome of giving any of a number of deserving someones the chance to succeed. It therefore, has the potential to give us even less bang for our funding buck since a select few are unlikely over the long haul to be as creative as a crowd would be.

11 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    The question comes back to figuring out how to make it more possible for more people to have the space to be transformational.

    Saying "that's just the world we live with" ignores the fact that it doesn't have to be this way. There have been previous science funding models that did not entail living in the Thunderdome.

    There is no reason to think that this has to be about the select few. (Or rather that the select few have to be any smaller than the current crop of funded R01 faculty.) The question is how can we make funding for a good lab (contributing important, impactful science - the kind that is "competitive" for R01 funding) more reliable. There's nothing in the original questions that suggest the "transformative space" is useful only for a select few superstars. Imagine if all the currently competitive labs had room to explore.

  • Science Grunt says:

    Maybe I'm being a bit too naïve here (just a postdoc after all) but isn't this specific dichotomy between "Doing experiments specifically for grant preliminary data rather than driven by transformative ideas" and "model building, listening to others, doing risky pilot experiments" false?

    I understand (and felt) the burden of writing grants, reports, papers and how much that removes me from the more creative, computational or lab intensive tasks. But at least during those episodes, a huge amount of the time is spent organizing my thought process, catching up with the minutia in the literature that i missed, something I'd argue is "transformative". Unless your field of your research feels like a dead end to you (or you're chasing hype waves).

    Also, I find "scientists are spending an increasing proportion of their time basically fundraising" incorrect. Scientists are still doing a lot of science. The fundraisers are the PI. Nothing wrong with that. But I'm going to guess that there is about 10 full-time young'uns for every year-round grant writing PI. And we do a lot of "reading, thinking, teaching, mentoring, model building, listening to others, doing risky pilot experiments".

    I am starting to belive that actually PIs don't enjoy doing most of these things anyway (except reading and mentoring). Honestly. They like to think they enjoy these things, but I never heard of a PI taking a sabattical and then executing a "pilot experiment". What I did see was PIs selling their pilot experiment as a side project to one of the lab members. Again, nothing wrong with that.

  • Morgan Price says:

    Sometimes I think that PIs specialize in grants/administration and everyone else does the work and we should reduce overhead by having fewer PIs (i.e., bigger labs). Although there's some evidence that big labs are less productive...

  • drugmonkey says:

    SG: do you know a lot of PIs that can slack off on the fund raising to take a "sabbatical" at the bench without consequences?

  • Science Grunt says:

    Well, I've seen some PIs taking sabbaticals and going away for a few months to a year and the universe didn't end. And I know that when you take sabbaticals, you at least get time off from teaching and I haven't seen a lot of these PIs spending the extra 6hrs a week at the bench. I know that's very little time, but that's often how much time those free undergrad research students spend in the lab and a professor is much better skilled...

    All I'm saying is that if someone loved benchwork so much that they missed it, they would go and do it at least once in a while. Even if it's just one of the mechanical procedures, like running cells through the flow with a student or something. Case in point: I was first trained in microbiology lab with a PI (not BSD) that operated on a grant-to-grant basis. Spent most of his time in the annoying grant writing process. However, once a week he would come and wash the glassware that was dirty in the sink, check the media and buffers, clean the common areas, discard contaminated media from the shelves... and entertain us with a few stories from his old days. Whenever I asked how to do a procedure, he would come and watch as I did it for the first time, no matter how simple the procedure was. It was probably two hours a week only, but I feel _that_ is the behavior of someone that truly loved the smell of lab.

    I really don't think the situation as is is wrong or unfair or whatever, but it is amusing.

  • Dave says:

    Most PIs I know are frightened by the thought of doing experiments and much prefer being office-bound QBs, despite their constant moaning about the grant game and how they would luuuuuuuuuvvvvv to get back in the lab. It's all bullshite. Most of the ones I know don't work on grants like DM does, they get one and then relax for years. They have ample time for experiments in between, but deep down consider it below them to get their hands dirty. That's my experience, differs from place to place.

  • potnia theron says:

    Dave - do you have stats on this? Or are the very visible BSD's falling into this basket. I watch my peers (in their 50's, mostly) and most are still active at the bench, or in the field. I think there is a pretty steep selection gradient in fields that never had access to Big Bucks (ie NSF funded types). Those who don't have any $$ have retreated into teaching. But thats also just my perception. Numbers, numbers, numbers.

  • potnia theron says:

    SG - nice story, but 2 hr/week is not a sabbatical at the bench. There are things that my peeps can do better than I can. (yes, thats you most marvelous postdoc). But I still have to stay on top enough to teach new people, especially when for whatever reason there is serious lab turn-over. I like the data collection/analysis too much to give it up. Balancing what I do, with what is good for the peeps to do, with what needs to be done is hard.

    I used to love writing grants - when there was a relatively good chance of *eventually* getting funded. When writing grants wasn't "don't miss a cycle or you're screwed". Where one could be productive on a single R01, and wait a year or two to resubmit. Writing grants DOES organize your thoughts and importantly hone your arguments before you start collecting data.

    But despite being funded now, I still submit and submit and submit. Because funding is harder, because there isn't bridge money for me (and this is right - it needs to be for the younger folks). Its not so much fun anymore because I can't do as much in the lab.

    One of the solutions to this, if possible, ie. not salary bound, is to run a small lab, on one grant (yes, I appreciate you have to get that one grant, first), and provide yourself with a year of data collection/thought/etc.

  • Grumble says:

    "Most PIs I know are frightened by the thought of doing experiments and much prefer being office-bound QBs, despite their constant moaning about the grant game and how they would luuuuuuuuuvvvvv to get back in the lab. It's all bullshite. "

    I freely admit to having pretty much no interest in getting back to the bench. The reason why I always considered academic science as the perfect career is not because I have a particular affinity for bench work. It's because it's the one career where you get to spend a lot of time just reading and thinking about what you love to think about, putting together ideas and generally being creative at the level of ideas and hypotheses.

    Except that since becoming a PI, the grantwriting load has actually reduced the amount of time I've been able to spend at my favorite part of the job. Sure, grant writing requires reading/thinking/creativity, but it also requires a *lot* of sitting at the damn computer and writing out a big intricate salesjob. Less of that would be better for my productivity, and for the productivity of academic science as a whole.

    While I agree that the HHMI model that Collins seems to have in mind would be terrible, I also think that finding some way to reduce the grantwriting load for everyone, at all levels of the game, is essential to maintaining productivity per federal dollar spent and should be part of the NIH's mission right now. But unfortunately it isn't.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I've drifted away from bench work. It's just not very efficient for me to do it when my lab folks who in in there every day can do everything 3-4 times faster than I can. I compensated by teaching myself programming/simulations, and the lab now has a funded simulations based project going.

    Even when I was a postdoc and at the bench everyday, I think I was never more than an OK molecular biologist. I got by by having good ideas, but never had "magic" hands.

  • Dave says:

    @PT: No idea of the exact numbers, but bear in mind that I'm in a department/school which has no teaching load whatsoever. The BSDs spend much of their time fund-raising, often to cover the salaries of the unfunded profs in their divisions (and their techs/post-docs). What I'm talking about is the early- and mid-rank profs that have no teaching load, throw in one or two grants a year, and expect their BSD boss to pick up their salaries and keep their lab going. They have ample opportunity to accelerate things experimentally, but choose not too. I get that this is a far different situation compared to a traditional hard-money environment, but it is what it is.

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