10 September 2009

Call a cab, buddy, the party’s over

Dwayne GodwinI was listening to an interview with neuro researcher Dwayne Godwin on this week’s Science Talk podcast. After discussion of Godwin’s work at the U.S. capital to convince legislators about the need for science funding, interviewer Steve Mirsky asks what advice Godwin would give to a young researcher about how to build a career when funding is so bad.

What I would say to young people coming into science is, “Hold on.” Because I think that things are going to get better. I think there's a realization in congress, based on my meetings, a realization certainly with the incoming administration, that science is a worthy endeavor, and I feel that the decisions that are being made by the upper levels of our leadership now are based on evidence. And for scientists, that's a good thing. Because what it means is, the realization that science is our future, and is critical to our future, is going to be realized at those levels as well.

I hate to say it, but I think that is bad advice. What I find ironic is that this comes right after he talks about how:

  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds about 7% of grant proposals, when it used to fund about 30%.
  • How many politicians are opposed to increasing government spending.

Many scientists seem unwilling to face is the possibility that the party is over.* For all we know, a young scientist may never see U.S. federal research agencies funding 30% of grant proposals. (I’d be stunned to see a return to a 20% success rate.)

Less than one in ten isn’t a competition. It’s a crap shoot. Actually, I take that back: the odds of rolling sevens in craps is better than 7%.

A young scientist should make a career plan that involves a scenario of how they will survive if they do not get federal funding. That means looking hard at what kind of job they want to hold. If you want a job where you are going to be evaluated based on getting federal funds (and that’s most major research universities), ask if you are willing to be fired in six years.

(Yes, it’s horrid and unfair that universities are increasingly basing tenure decisions on federal funding. It’s a criminal waste of talent.)

Even if you are one of the lottery winners who gets the federal grant, develop $5 projects if you possibly can. You may not have continuous funding throughout your career, so have projects you can do for very little money may be able to keep you productive through the lean times.

The problem you have to be aware of is that your research career may span decades, but no American administration lasts more than eight years. As the saying goes, “A week is along time in politics.” You will face changes in funding, so figure out how to create a research program that will survive fluctuations.

* For us in Gen X, the party never started.

Update, 25 March 2014: For some reason, I got thinking about this post, and wondered how long ago it was. I tweeted that it was four and a half years on, and the situation has not improved. Godwin noticed the tweet, and replied:

Yes, guilty of misplaced optimism. My soul is not completely hollowed out, yet.

Godwin went on to talk about cutting doctoral program enrollment, and the growth of master's programs; see the replies in this thread.

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