Sunday, June 28, 2009

Grant Coincidence

I just blogged about grants a couple of days ago, and now one of the lead articles in the New York Times focuses the processes and outcomes of grants to study cancer. The article indicates that the National Cancer Institute is far more likely to fund incremental projects that are unlikely to lead to innovation and significant strides in fighting cancer, and far more likely to reject projects that are riskier.

“We have a system that works over all pretty well, and is very good at ruling
out bad things — we don’t fund bad research,” said Dr. Raynard S. Kington,
acting director of the National Institutes of Health, which includes the cancer institute. “But given that, we also recognize that the system probably provides disincentives to funding really transformative research.”

I really have no idea how it works in the hard sciences, and I really am not sure about the macro picture in the social sciences, even in Canada. What I have tended to observe in my corner of academia is that funding follows the fads, which, in turn, follows current/recent events. So, heaps of funding after 9/11 for terrorism and then counter-insurgency but probably not that much before. Funding for research on international finance, I would guess, probably was pretty hard to get, but will be easier now.

A key difference between the social sciences and the hard sciences, for the most part, is that their equipment is quite expensive and regular outside funding is required to keep their labs up to date. They also require larger numbers of post-docs and grad students to operate the labs. We, in the social sciences, as far as I can tell, put most of our money into graduate students for research assistance and then travel. We don't need much in the way of fancy equipment, except for some outliers in the profession. We can get by with interruptions in our grant cycles--when we do not get renewed. At least I hope so.

When the folks who rank universities into categories (Research 1, etc) changed their criteria to focus more on external funding, my previous institution went way over the top, making the pursuit of grants seem more valued than the actual accomplishment of research. Funding is an important means to an end, but not an end in and of itself. Sometimes we forget that, but perhaps in the world of cancer research, the funding issue is so critical that its dynamics determine the research.

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