01 March 2013

Happy sequestration

Earlier, Science magazine asked, “How will #sequestration affect you?” In response, I tweeted this picture:

And I said:

I’ve had to build research program without regular funding. #sciquester makes little difference to me.

Yes, it’s glib and impolitic. The scientific community wants everyone to present a united front on research funding. Yes, sequestration cannot be good for the scientific enterprise in the United States.

The question was about how the sequester would affect me personally, but some reactions from people who wanted to talk more about the prospects for sequestration and research generally. Indeed, a lot of the reactions being compiled at the Science Now website here are comments about general policy decision, and not reactions from individual researchers about how they personally will be affected.

But... damn it, I’m so tired. I am so tired of being marginalized in these conversations. I am so tired of the theme of “imminent crisis.” I am so tired of the lack of awareness that a lot of scientists got left behind by the funding agencies long ago.

I look around my department, where nobody regularly gets the stand alone research grants that are the bread and butter at a lot of places. It’s certainly not for lack of trying, but there’s history and infrastructure issues that are hard to beat. We have been mostly running on training grants (because we have a lot of Hispanic students). We’re doing research, and I’m proud that we’ve kept the wheels turning without the sort of federal research grants that has so many of my peers in a panic over losing.

Personally, if you’d asked me when I started this job if I thought that I’d be able to get grants for my research, I’d have said, “I think it’ll take me a few tries, but I think I can do it.” Well, that hasn’t happened. So I’ve had to re-invent myself, my expectations, everything, from almost the ground up. It’s been a decade-long battle to redefine myself as a scientist. I’m still not done.

But, to paraphrase Gunny Highway (Clint Eastwood) in Heartbreak Ridge:

Reinventing yourself professionally is long, and hard, and it sucks. So if you’re worried about the effects of sequestration on your lab... you might want to start that project now.

Additional: It was pointed out to me on Twitter that some of the undergraduate training grants I mention are supported by federal funds. Yes, and they could well be affected by sequestration. The point I was fumbling to make was that in our department, we developed ways to support research that didn’t revolve around individual research grants. Those individual research grants are, as far as I have seen, seen as much more desirable than undergraduate training grants at a lot of universities.

For example, when I had one undergraduate training grant, I went to a meeting of PIs holding those grants in biology. Several people from major research universities griped that their faculty didn’t want to participate in those program unless there was summer salary for the faculty. Contrast that to my experience, which is that we want those training grants badly, because they truly allow us and our students to get stuff done.

Just another example of different perspectives. Which one gets heard more often in these sorts of discussions?

(By the way, the line in the picture was a reference...)


Dennis Eckmeier said...

Well, I am glad some of us get around it. My institution doesn't apply for undergraduate student grants... because we don't have undergraduate students.

It is generally expected to get money from biomedical research funding (some of our PIs have several R01s), although the direct medical connection must have been a stretch in some of the proposals. ;)

We get money from private foundations and private donors, but still a large proportion of the whole institutional budget is based on federal funding. They already postponed a planned salary raise indefinetely. They even cut on food and entertainment to students applying for our grad school. How the research funding situation will change, we will see.

I am currently developing a NIH grant poposal with my mentor for a (my)upcoming big project. Fingers are crossed ;)

Robyn said...

Hi Zen,

Look, I understand the grind that comes with having a research focus that the NIH laughs at and the NSF doesn't have enough money for. And I recognise the value in finding alternative funding sources. But you are a tenured professor (right?) so the sequester was never going to cost you your job. There are many, many junior scientists in exactly that position, though. I am at a medical school, and there are postdocs and techs getting laid off here already because of this stupid sequester.

You have created a great voice and presence here in your blog, and I love it. I love that you offer solid advice to junior scientists, but this just seems like sour grapes to me. If science is really a collaborative effort, why not lend your voice in support of your younger colleagues who are not fortunate enough to be tenured, and can't go out and solicit their own money because they are not independent?

Zen Faulkes said...

Robyn: I think I "lent my voice" to younger colleagues by pointing out that the potential pain of sequestration to science is just a symptom of much larger structural problems. The instability of funding, oversupply of students, the shortage of permanent positions, and so on, have contributed to the situation many, like me, arrived at years ago: left out by a crazy competitive system. (Or maybe I'm just a crap scientist. Also possible.)

I admit that this post is partly an expression of a personal bugbear: the lack of diversity in discussions about how university research is done. As it is, there are enough people providing "the sky is falling" sequestration stories (e.g., here). I don't want "imminent catastrophe" to be the only story we're allowed to tell about science funding.

Robyn said...

Hey Zen, I completely agree about the larger structural problems, and I think it's more than worth everyone's time to discuss them. It's certainly true that science funding has been awful for years, and this is just one more (albeit serious) blow to the many junior researchers stranded without hope of progression.
I'd be happy to hear some more stories of 'long-term almost-catastrope' instead of the 'imminent' ones that are everywhere right now. But this is nonetheless a great opportunity to discuss the large-scale issues since science funding is in the press.
Maybe I'm a little sensitive to your original post because the 'oh well, it's not MY job on the line' attitude is something young scientists get really sick of hearing from senior, tenured colleagues when funding crunches come around every cycle.

Zen Faulkes said...

Robyn: You are completely right to be sensitive. This is why I described my post as "glib and impolitic," because I knew this would not be a popular thing to say. My goal was not to say, "I got mine; good luck, suckers!", it was to say, "I've gone through a version of this, and it sucks, and I am sympathetic."

Thanks for pushing me on this so I can explain / develop my thoughts further.