Improvements in Science

I teach and so do not work as a scientist but via several conversations with friends later, I am wondering how you feel about the following in science:

  • Grant applications

  • Work/life balance

  • Peer review

  • Journal system

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When I am funded, the system is fundamentally fair, with only a few minor issues. When I am not funded, the system is totally corrupt. :grinning:

I’ve learned that having a coauthor much more famous than I am tends to produce much more constructive and fair reviews. :grinning:


I’m reminded of a Winston Churchill quote, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”.


One worry I have: the main problem with the grant system right now is not the way it is run (which could of course use improvement), but the fact that over the years we have moved to a situation in which more money is being spent for science by private foundations than by the U.S. government. That reverses the situation of previous years. This is true for biology, and I think more generally. Does anyone have specific figures?

Most of the private foundations are very well-intended, but there are two issues: (1) they are often very focused on immediate applications, and (2) they are too dependent on personal pitches by high-profile famous charismatic figures, who happen to know the leaders of the foundations.

I am basing this on impressions. Am I right about the situation, and if so, do you too find it worrying?


Related to this, I recently read this scary article on Food Industry influence on Nutrition Science:


On all of these, my rating is “would be nice to improve them somewhat”.

No specific figures, I’m afraid. It’s certainly true in biomedical research considered broadly, but it’s much less of an issue in many other fields. It certainly didn’t come up in particle physics.

It’s not just foundations, though. Increasingly, funding is dependent on impressing individual rich people. The better foundations (I’m thinking of Gates and Wellcome) have considerable in-house expertise in the areas they’re interested in, and they are reasonably good at evaluating research proposals. My impression is that individual donors are more hit or miss.


The Whitehead… The Broad… At least their governing structures are pretty good.

Haverford has Marian Koshland Hall. In that case it was the fortune of the Levi Strauss’ directed by Mirian Koshland, scientist and spouse of Dan Koshland.

@Argon: There have been such endowments for a long time – what is new is that the private funding is exceeding federal funding in biomedical sciences.

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Absolutely. All these things change the nature and focus of research. Advocacy groups also have dramatically influenced the timing and amount of funding. For example breast cancer research was greatly stimulated by a number of foundations.

I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing. It can be done badly, wasting time & effort or it can be done well, supporting research that would otherwise not see support. I’m not even sure if current federal funding levels are appropriate. That funding has certainly dropped over the past couple of decades but there’s also been a rise of big science ‘moonshots’ that frankly did not need to be conducted at large scale

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@John_Harshman hit the nail on the head with the Churchill quote. I have worked in the research lab for 20+ years for multiple investigators, and this has been my experience at one level below the PhD’s.

In the field I work in, only 5-10% of grants applications are funded, so it’s tough. Having your career impacted by a panel of judges is very stressful, but I can’t think of a better way of doing it. There are times when a grant application gets 2 glowing reviews and 1 bad review that absolutely doesn’t mesh with the other 2, and that grant isn’t funded. It is absolutely gutting. Working off of grant money isn’t for the faint of heart unless you have a lot of institutional support.

Peer review and journals are working quite well in my estimation. There is a lot of transparency and quick turnaround. As with any human institution there is some favoritism, but it isn’t Tin Pot Dictator levels of corruption. Papers are probably the least stressful part of the sciences because if you have enough for a paper then something worked.

Work/life balance will be a mixed bag. I think most established investigators have a good balance, but young investigators might be working longer hours. You can write grants and papers from home, so there are some positives there. Most of the investigators I work with are at the office during banker’s hours, but may also be spending time on papers and grants at home after work.

Administrative overhead is probably the biggest headache in modern science. Regulations have bred like rabbits over the last 20 years, and it’s become very cumbersome. Good admin staff are worth their weight in gold.

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