Archive for the ‘Funding’ Category

Video Grant Proposals

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Grand Challenges Canada is a nonprofit organization that strives to improve health care in developing countries.  The organization funds research in a rather innovative manner: they lay down challenges and require that PIs not only submit written proposals, but also two-minute video summaries.  The videos get posted to the Web where visitors can vote on them to assist the program in awarding funds.

I love this experiment in grant “writing”.  While this specific program is driven by a private organization, I see no reason why public agencies wouldn’t at least consider something similar.  I think that scientists need to be cognizant of the fact that most of our funding originates from the public, and we should feel a responsibility to keep the people informed of what we’re doing with their money and why it is important.  The value of this endeavor is magnified in times where budgets are tight; in politics, it is much better to be on offense than defense.

And just to be clear, I am *not* saying we should allocate grant money based solely on an online ballot open to the general public.  That is not what is going on here, anyway.  Rather, the willingness of the PI to engage the public (and her effectiveness is doing so) is important to the funding organization, so the organization has made this aspect a part of the scoring.  That makes perfect sense to me.

You can view the videos for the first challenge here.   Ratmir, an old labmate of mine, and the JACS Twitter feed, @J_A_C_S, brought this competition to my attention.  Ratmir’s video proposal on the use of paper as a platform for cell-based diagnostic assays can be viewed and voted on here.  It’s pretty well produced.  I hope you like progressive house music.

So far, the most popular video seems to belong to Krishna Khairnar, who is developing a field-based rectal swab collection system for diagnosing parasites.  I think his success might be something akin to Sanjaya Malakar’s on American Idol.  At one point in the video, Dr. Khairnar holds up his fecal-collection device.  It looks scary, and the fact that he doesn’t explain how it’s used makes it even scarier.  Also, I think he didn’t pay attention to the rules—the organizers cut him off mid-sentence at the two-minute mark.  I’d say “FAIL”, but he’s winning…

Birthday Meditation

Friday, March 18th, 2011

I recently watched Ken Burns’ documentary on the Lewis and Clark expedition, and it was truly excellent.  Perhaps the thing that I found most interesting from the film was an entry that expedition leader Merriweather Lewis made in his journal on the occasion of his 31st birthday:

This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existance, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.

I turned 31 this month, and over the course of the past year, I’ve felt many of the same sentiments as Lewis.  If I dropped dead tomorrow, there is no question in my mind that I would have had a net negative impact on the world.  I’ve essentially been in school for my entire life, chewing through a variety of taxpayer money in the form of (free) public education, competitive scholarships & fellowships, and grant money.  There’s also the many man-hours of time I’ve sapped from the workforce by way of the training provided by my parents, teachers, and mentors.  In contrast, my contributions to the world (e.g., teaching and a smattering of research papers) have been fairly insignificant.  My body of published research has little chance of helping anyone besides, perhaps, a couple of random souls in the future who are (more than likely) also working on projects of little importance to society at large.

Perhaps this waste and my unease can be written off as unavoidable costs of growing up, but the funny thing is that—unless one actively puts his mind to doing so—it seems pretty difficult to break out of such a cycle.  I mean, look around you.  How much of academic research truly excites you?  What percentage of papers in today’s journals will be especially helpful for more than twenty people, ever?  How many will go completely uncited—or even unread?  Is this what you want to spend your life doing?

I’ve asked this question before, but I’ll ask it again:  What is the greatest achievement in chemistry of the past 10 years?  20 years?  30 years?  Genome sequencing techniques, maybe?  Gleevec?  If that’s all we can bring to the table over such a long period, we’re in trouble.  Lack of production—not in terms of insipid papers, but in terms of compelling advances that benefit society—is going to make it increasingly difficult to justify our current level of taxpayer funding.  If steep budget cuts can happen to NASA’s human spaceflight program, they sure as hell can happen to chemistry.  We’ll probably find this out if we keep spinning our wheels.

Is there hope on the horizon?  I don’t know.  It seems like most of the cattle coming out of the barn are heading right down the same path as those before them.  Many areas of modern research have been tapped almost dry scientifically, but people continue to line up to fight over the scraps.  The academic system of chemistry has become some weird game where there are all of these expectations of what you should be doing.  These expectations keep people busy doing a whole lot of nothing, like publishing a bunch of boring/worthless papers to get more money so they can publish more boring/worthless papers.

What is the point of getting an academic job—or any job in research, for that matter—if you are not going to work on problems that stand to provide significant benefits to mankind?  Part of me understands why washed up professors continue to work on overfarmed land—they were there first.  What I can’t understand is how freshly minted assistant professors can start out working on crap projects.  Why bother?  I assume it’s simply because these people want the status of being a professor, so perhaps hiring committees are to blame?

Or maybe it’s the funding agencies?  I am not advocating cutting back on the funding of scientific research, but you can count me among the people who believe that we need to modify the way we fund this research.  I’d like to see fewer people rewarded for “playing the game” and producing a whole lot of insipid garbage rather than those who have got bold new ideas, even if they are associated with decreased chances of “success”.

Industry has its own problems.  Pharma is neck-deep in an area of diminishing returns for how it discovers drugs, and the industry is shedding weight like a cancer patient.  Of course, not everyone seems to care.  Grad students continue to pile into total synthesis labs, and our flagship news weekly runs pieces titled “Chemistry: Alive and Well”.  Chemistry is alive, but is it really well? 

I’m not as concerned that we’re in the doldrums as I am that no one seems especially motivated to get out.  But who am I kidding?  I’m sure as hell not going to change the broken system.  People have been saying things like “pharma is broken” and “total synthesis is dead” for years, but nothing has stopped their slow march into oblivion.  The only thing I can control is what I do, and I’d prefer not to spend the rest of my life polishing turds.

Getting back to Merriweather Lewis…the Corps of Discovery’s expedition would go down in history as one of the greatest feats of human exploration and of immense national importance to his fledgling country.  In taking such a grand risk, Lewis unquestionably achieved his goal of “advanc[ing] the information of the succeeding generation”.  Unfortunately, he never reached his predicted lifespan of 62.  Rather, Lewis put a bullet in his head at the ripe old age of 35.

Money as an Ethical Lighthouse

Friday, June 1st, 2007

Money makes the world go ’round, and the research world is no different.  Chemical and pharmaceutical companies exist to make a profit, so they will explore lines of investigation not because they are interesting, but because they are rewarding.  This purpose does not make these companies inherently evil—they simply value profit above everything else.  We have to accept this fact and make sure that we pass laws to protect the public from harmful and unethical business practices.  Part of the reason these laws are effective is that they provide a financial disincentive for undesired behavior.

In the academic world, our thirst for knowledge should be greater than that for cash, but we have all seen examples of departments choosing to tenure professors who rake in money over those who are excellent educators. Of course, who can blame them?  Schools need money to exist and funding is easy to measure, whereas scholarship, mentorship, and teaching ability are not.

Despite the fact that they are difficult to quantify, these “intangibles” can still be examined in financial terms.  Students pay tuition, so when you accept a teaching position, you owe it to them to do a good job.  What counts as a “good job” will always be a subject of debate, but knowingly slacking off in your teaching duties is despicable behavior.  When a grad-student TA proudly decides that teaching is not something to be taken seriously, he is cheating his students and their families out of their hard-earned money.  Of course, there are many other reasons to take teaching seriously, but I think the monetary aspect is lost on many of the proudest slackers.

In the lab, we must remember that we are the stewards of the taxpayers’ money.  Whether you are paid by a fellowship or off of a grant, you owe the public a good job in return for your stipend.  This includes maintaining a respectable work schedule and upholding the ethical standards of our profession.  Fortunately, most of us enjoy our work and are proud to defend our profession against those who would damage its reputation for personal gain, financial or otherwise.  Researchers who engage in scientific misconduct show a callous lack of respect for science and profound disregard for the sanctity of taxpayer money.  Those who commit fraud—and those who are grossly negligent in their responsibility to police the activities of their employees—should be charged criminally, punished by the government, and dismissed from their institutions.

Beyond the truly loathsome individuals among us who lie about or misrepresent their results, I also get upset with researchers who win grants for one set of ideas, then spend the money on projects that are not just tangential, but completely different.  To me, this smacks of obtaining funding under false pretenses, and I consider it to be dishonest behavior.  If someone offers you money to work in an area, either use it to do what you said you would do or decline the offer.  At the very least, you should contact the funding agency to disclose your intentions and make sure they are acceptable.  A famous professor here has been chided by students and colleagues alike for returning unused portions of his grant money back to the funding agencies upon completion of a project.  While this practice is viewed by many as an incredible waste of an opportunity, there is definitely something gallant about his honesty and sense of responsibility to the public.  For the record, I would have no problems with his using the remaining balance to improve his students’ efficiency by purchasing new equipment—it would probably be better for his lab to use the money instead of it getting distributed to someone else.  Still, I respect his choice.  Government funding should not be viewed as an entitlement to the scientific community. We must earn our keep and prove that it is in society’s best interest to continue to fund our work. We live in a democracy—a government of the people—and correspondingly, we owe it to everyone to spend their money in a responsible manner.

I try to be on my best financial behavior when in lab.  While in many labs at Harvard it seems like we have a limitless supply of grant money, it irks me to see people waste it.  I try not to waste time on the NMR instruments.  I try not to leave the HPLC pumps running longer than necessary.  I shut off UV lamps.  I shut off lights. I always search for the best prices on chemicals and supplies.  (With the ease-of-use of the Available Chemicals Database, there is really no excuse not to.)  Occasionally, I undertake projects like rounding up empty nitrogen cylinders in our lab and returning them (they cost us $3/month, each, to rent).  Does any of this make a difference?  I hope so.  Is it a big one?  Probably not.

Despite my best intentions, there are still times when I cheat.  I use solvents to clean stains from personal belongings.  I use bits of dry ice to blow up microcentrifuge tubes.  When pulling spotters, I warp a few Pasteur pipettes with the Bunsen burner because it is fun.  I rationalize these perks by thinking about how much money I’ve spent on office supplies for research and how many articles of clothing I’ve lost in the name of science, but I realize that these considerations don’t make my indiscretions right.  Still, my violations equate to jaywalking where the crimes described above amount to first-degree murder.

At the end of the day, my guiding principle is simple: If reports of my behavior were to become public, would I be embarrassed?  If someone were to step forward and describe my actions that day, in explicit detail, would I be proud of myself?  Could I defend my conduct without feeling dirty or guilty doing so?  Thinking back over my days in chemistry, I can’t think of any event of which I would truly be ashamed.  Don’t get me wrong: I’ve made mistakes—tons of them—but they were all honest mistakes.

Sadly, I think we all know of individuals in our field who could not make the same claim.

Don’t become one of them.