I have a grant due on the 3rd. It’s a smallish, sort of medium-sized grant that would allow us to add some supplementary studies to our current model. The blessing and the curse it that it’s only 1.75 pages. One would think that I could get my shit together to write 1.75 pages but, as with other things in my life, the smaller it is the harder it is for me to get it finished.
If you head over to Drugmonkey’s joint and read the comments of ASBMB president Steven McKnight, you might conclude that I am a member of the scientific #riffraff – less talented and creative than my predecessors in previous generations. Maybe that’s why these 1.75 pages are so damned hard to write. After all, “ the average scientist today is not of the quality of our predecessors… Biomedical research is a huge enterprise now; it attracts riff-raff who never would have survived as scientists in the 1960s and 1970s.”
I should be able to have big ideas and big dreams and be able to easily communicate my wispy, truthy sounding ideas in that short amount of space.
Or, maybe the game has gotten so hard because the rules continue to change in unpredictable ways. Back in the 60s and 70s, a bunch of old, white dudes held the keys to the club. They knew each other and gave out money to the gentleman, renaissance scientists they knew and their big, innovative ideas. But, the probability of funding was different, both because of the number of people and the breadth of fields, and its easier to split pie when there are fewer mouth to feed.
Now, I find myself with a damned conundrum. Having written R-type grants, I know that the ones most likely to be funded are the ones solidly rooted in pilot and feasibility data. I understand that it’s important to sell the notion that the shit will really work and “Do you know who I am” doesn’t get a gal as far as it used to. The proof-of-success strategy worked for a time being, to be sure. Yet, there are also awards that hint at a desire to get back to this renaissance scientist notion - the NIH is trying to be hip and edgy, funding people and their high risk, highly innovative ideas. Allegedly. I remain skeptical of our commitment to new and edgy when the pot feels so small. When people tell me “be innovative and pilot data be damned”, I feel like a puppy whose nose has been hit too many times.
But, this is the easily predictable outcome when you expand the number of areas of research that you label “important” in excess of the amount of money you pour in and it means that we’ve taken to eating our young. I would remind the esteemed and noble Dr. McKnight that he and his ilk produced us riff-raff. Empires were built on the shoulders of a large number of trainees. Perhaps the error was in making the number of faculty trainees one generated a milestone of success. None of us trained ourselves and now that the next scientific generation(s) poses a threat to the established greybeardatariot, it’s time to get offa their lawn. Dr. McKnight lists 40 riff-raff scientists that he has trained. Where did he think they were going to go? Where were they going to get money from? Who does he think is making up the society that he allegedly steers?
Perhaps at the core of his discontent is the fact that there simply isn’t enough money to go around to do science the way McKnight would have it done. He writes on his lab website:
…how might a young scientist pursue this course and decide what to do? The actual choice of direction is the easiest problem to solve. One simply has to look where the trends are headed and go the other way. Here, for conceptual purposes only, I suggest a “pin the tail on the donkey” approach. A randomly assembled chart is printed up containing squares labeled with all of our 20 to 30 thousand genes. Of these, we know lots about some, a bit about others, yet almost nothing of the remainder. We slap on a blindfold then throw the dart against the wall. Chances are reasonably good that the dart will land on an “unknown” gene—as long as the contestant does not peek around the blindfold and aim the dart at the squares adorned with the comfortable names that already appear every day in the literature. That the unknown gene does something critical is supported by the fact that it’s been kept in place by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. That every gene and every protein are both interesting and important is incontrovertible. This being the case, why would anyone want to work on a gene or protein already staked out by dozens of other scientists?
Individual scientist, toiling away in their lab, each working in parallel on some randomly selected bit of the scientific enterprise simply for the discovery of science’s “mystic state [his words]“. Then how does one judge merit for entrance into the priesthood and eligibility for future funding? The way it was done when Dr. McKnight was a wee lad – by maintaining a club of well-connected, similar individuals with similar goals and attitudes.
I’d much rather be a member of the riff-raff.