​A silver lining to the squeeze on research funding?

The challenging funding environment may not be all doom and gloom for science

Go to the profile of Professor Pankaj Sah
Mar 12, 2017

For those of us in Australia, grant funding season is well and truly here, as months of preparation to ensure academic survival reaches a crescendo. In many countries around the world, success rates for competitive grant funding from national governments have been declining. There simply isn’t enough money to go around, meaning funding rates now languish at 15–20%, even though grant review panels deem a much higher proportion worthy of support.

This mismatch between worthy applicants and available funds has consequences.

First, a low success rate incentivises researchers to submit more grant applications each year, taxing not only their own time and effort, but also those of grant reviewers and administrators. Second, a degree of randomness enters grant decision making, since only a portion of equally worthy proposals can be supported. Third, a researcher’s incentives can become skewed towards generating publications and securing grants, rather than producing quality, impactful science. Fourth, the pressure on up-and-coming researchers to succeed is much greater—and their opportunity to do so much smaller—than it was even 10 or 20 years ago. A lot has been written on each of these topics, but here I want to focus only on the last – the impact on young researchers who are trying to establish their place in the academic community.

Supporting young researchers

Only a small percentage of PhD students in the US ultimately become tenure-track faculty, despite more than half expressing the desire to do so1. A bottleneck of opportunity makes it difficult for postdoctoral researchers to obtain independent faculty status, with hundreds of applicants often applying for the same position. This, in turn, is directly caused by funding levels that haven’t kept pace with increased numbers of trained graduates and postdocs.

It’s a situation that is likely damaging academic science. Young researchers are often considered to be at the peak of their creative powers, less tied to convention and traditional thinking than their more established peers2. Such thinking isn’t the exclusive domain of the young, and of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with following accepted wisdom, but out-of-the-box thinking can propel fields forward in leaps rather than steps, bursting open entirely new avenues of research. Only if junior academics are provided opportunities can they exploit those chances, yet a smaller and smaller proportion are in a position to do so.

New investigators also bring an energy and dynamism that can be lost with decades in academia. Part of this is the new ideas and perspectives they can bring, unencumbered by the accepted wisdom of previous decades. Another reason is the motivation to become an established independent investigator. The difficulty of this transition amplifies motivation, as researchers need to compete for limited funds against countless other equally driven and capable peers. To be sure, the pressure felt during grant season is felt by us all, but it’s fair to think that for those without a lengthy track record of success, the situation is even more stressful.

The tough career environment in which today’s young scientists find themselves has a clear corollary – more PhD graduates are finding work outside of academia. For some, this is because of a realisation that research was never right for them. For others though, it is a direct consequence of the difficult academic environment. Sustaining a career in academic science is today much harder than it was 20 years ago, or certainly when I was training. Despite their best efforts, extremely capable young men and women are being forced into other careers. Early career researchers who in years past may have become successful academics now pursue what they envision as a brighter future elsewhere. In fact, in this graphic prepared from a survey of US biology PhD students, it’s estimated that only 8% of entering students will ever secure a tenure-track faculty position. Simply put, the funding situation is forcing capable young people away from academic research.

A silver lining? Are low success rates such a bad thing?

It’s regrettable that promising scientists leave the profession for funding-related reasons, but taking a broader view, just how concerned should we be?

Science is much bigger than just academic research, something we researchers can sometimes forget. It informs policy, and leads to innovation, economic growth, improved health and standards of living. It is part of the fabric of society. To survive, Science depends critically on business and government support, and so is greatly reliant on taxpayer funds and the good will of society as a whole. We need to show what Science is worth, not just by producing knowledge and technological advancement, but by communicating, educating and influencing those we depend on. To achieve these outcomes, a whole machinery away from academia needs to be engaged.

We often lament what we perceive as the poor standing of Science in society, that people don’t see its value. Furthermore, as scientists and researchers, we know that Science is not what you see in the news. It is not about yes or no answers, quick fixes, or headline-grabbing stories of cancer cures. It is about evidence accumulation and subtle knowledge advancement, an excruciatingly slow, piece by piece quest to understand Nature, who does not give away her secrets willingly. The public, in general, does not fully comprehend this, and nor do politicians. The problem, then, is one of communication and education.

Maybe what we need is people who truly understand Science, who have been trained in its operation, to advocate for it and help communicate how Science really works to those who matter – the public who fund the enterprise, and the politicians who make decisions. Maybe the increasing numbers of PhD graduates and postdocs who leave academia for funding-related reasons isn’t such bad news after all.

Imagine having more science policy advisors who, thanks to their training, fully grasp the realities of science funding, the changing demographics of academic research, the benefits of discovery-based science, and the true time-scale of discovery. Imagine having more science writers and reporters who could pay heed to the subtleties of the latest advance, all the while maintaining the excitement it brings. Imagine having a public that could, thanks to quality science communicators, appreciate Science for what it is – slow, complex, argumentative, but also vitally important for society’s progress.

This is perhaps the unexpected bright side to what is an otherwise challenging research environment. Academic research is important, but we don’t sit in a silo. PhD graduates and postdocs, trained in the realities of Science, are the ideal people to educate and influence those who form part of the wider scientific enterprise – government, business, and the general public. This isn’t to say that current PhD programs and postdoctoral research positions are the most direct way to improve the relationship between science and society. Still, as these people struggle to be accommodated in today’s academia, there may at least be a silver lining to the grey clouds overhead.

1Sauermann, H. and Roach, M. (2012) Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement. PLoS One 7(5):e36307

2Callaway, E. (2015) Young scientists lead the way on fresh ideas. Nature 518:283–284

Go to the profile of Professor Pankaj Sah

Professor Pankaj Sah

Editor-in-Chief, npj Science of Learning; Director, Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland