Archive for October, 2009

Is The Grant Funding System Removing Creativity From PhD Studentships?

October 10, 2009


There just isn’t enough cash to go around. I attended a seminar on grant writing last year where a study of grant funding was presented. Statistically, grant funding bodies in Ireland have the cash to fund only twenty percent of grants. This means that after all the substandard proposals have been thrown in the bin and there remains a group of perfect grants, there is only funding for twenty percent of these. A parallel study to this asked Principal Investigators (PIs) who are considered to be excellent grant getters about their success rates. Interestingly, these PIs reported that only twenty and thirty percent of the grants they’d written in their careers had been funded.

The result is that funding bodies must find some way of differentiating these grants to select the twenty percent to fund. So when we write grants these days we have to define each and every experiment that will be carried out. Every detail must be pre-designed, every chemical pre-selected. Should a grant not contain this detail it will be cast aside as a document prepared by a researcher who has not fully considered their project.

This has been compounded by an alarming increase in the demand from some funding bodies that researchers stick precisely to the detail of the grant. If the researcher develops a better approach or a new technology becomes available, this is deemed unacceptable as it was not detailed in the original grant. Any deviation may result in cancellation of the funding for the remainder of the grant. This might seem fair enough until one considers that if a grant is written today, it will be a year before the grant is reviewed and the awards decided and a further number of months before contacts have been finalised between the funding body and the research institution. Only at this point, one to two years later, can the studentship be advertised, candidates interviewed and the student appointed. In an industry where one can come back from a long weekend to find the entire research area has been turned absolutely by one publication, the idea that new ideas can’t be incorporated is insane.

A long time ago, in a lab far far away, I remember meeting my PhD supervisor. He had funding for a project. I was presented with a question. It was up to me to go to the lab and solve the puzzle. I learned from those with more experience than me and quite quickly I was bringing novel ideas to the project. I remember one moment when I met my supervisor in the lab and told him we wouldn’t be doing the experiment the way we had originally planned. He pulled up a stool, not ready to object, but ready to argue the merits of the new plan. I delivered one sentence. He smiled and nodded and walked away. I didn’t quite understand it at the time but now, as I supervise my own students, I understand what that smile was about. He saw that it was working. He was helping to create a scientist who was bringing new ideas to the project. Not just the physical skills to carry out the experiment but the intellectual skills of experimental design and analysis, hypothesis development and design.

I started working with a new student this week. The first thing I did was print out a copy of her grant, e-mailed her an electronic copy for her records and sat down with her to talk about the experiments. Over the next couple of days I realised that this was what the department was now doing with all its PhD students. It suddenly hit me. There was no avenue for creativity. Some of the PIs in my department actually threaten to throw students out of their PhD programs for deviating from the experiments! There isn’t enough cash to allow for extra experiments to be conducted and the experiments in the grant must be carried out exactly as described lest our future with this funding body be compromised. It hit me. The system is strangling and suffocating creativity. It directly produces PhD students who are discouraged from developing their own ideas. This, the very essence of the PhD in my opinion.

So as a supervisor who wants to create good scientists to send out into their careers, how can I help them to develop their creativity, their ideas, while appeasing the funding body?


Decisions: Decisions & Luck

October 4, 2009

When I look back at my life there were countless times in which particular happenstances defined where I am today, either positively, negatively or in a negative taken positively fashion. I wondered why these things happened. Was there a pattern? If so, could I understand it? Could I take the world on in a different way resulting in different outcomes? I guess we’ll see….

In pondering this I choose to use two models that involve only me. With these understood I can perhaps escalate to appreciate what happened with something as dense as a relationship, with two such individuals’ happenings to consider.

I compete in a sport at a reasonable level. I’ve had the same injury in each shoulder that required surgery each time. The first time this was not covered by health insurance for a variety of reasons. The second was. The first took two years to diagnose and treat, the second took a week. The first took two years to rehabilitate while six months after the second I no longer felt injured and continue to get strong every day. All of these improvements in time were a direct results of my trusted physiotherapist and I taking what happened with the first rehab, learning from it and making the second rehab perfect.

It would be difficult to describe the negative impact that the first injury had on my life. The frustration was endless. You wake up everyday and once again live with the fact that you are mentally ready to train, ready to go! But you can’t. If you train a little you’ll make it worse. We have work and hobbies for a reason. Our hobbies keep us sane. For me the hobby was a sport that allowed me to see daily, weekly, monthly and yearly how I progressing through micro, macro and mega goals. The frustration of not being able to address these tasks challenged my happiness constantly.

Where did this injury come from? I know for certain it came from a decision. A decision based on two factors. First, cash. Second, wanting to train around an injury. It started as a niggle. At the time I was not in a financial position to pay a sports doctor to assess the severity or each strain. I decided to avoid that range of movement to allow the niggle to rest. The niggle progressed through other ranges movement. Then I stopped using the shoulder completely and while training something else I tore both deltoids slightly. When the swelling went down it was clear that I had a serious problem. I was eventually diagnosed as having torn the biceps tendon from the inside of the shoulder. I gave myself a career-threatening injury because of a poor decision.

Some years later I met a girl and fell in love with her and her favourite sport, snowboarding. I enjoyed the week or two a year that I got away from the world and just boarded. I was now at the point where I could board and was learning to do more complex tricks. I spent some time in the park. I took a jump on the last day of the trip and crashed, tearing the other shoulder in the same way. When I think back now I remember several conversations about how many people hurt themselves on the last day of s boarding trip, due to tiredness and knowing there was no opportunity to make an attempt the next day. I also remember hiking down to the jump to take a look at the potential problems. That I was even thinking this way, on the last day, meant it was not the trick to do that day. Once again, I gave myself a career-threatening injury because of a poor decision.

Contrasting this, the best decision I have made in my life was to walk away. I had been offered a full scholarship to a top school for graduate work. Accepting this, I left home and moved away from all my loved ones to be alone in a new country. I immediately realised that for a collection of reasons I needed to leave. A purely professional decision, staying would have damaged my career incalculably. The upset was something I hadn’t experienced in my young life. Not that I was making the decision but the consequences of the decision. I returned home. The shame, the failure, the home-sick child. But my career grew on from this excellent decision. Having succeeded and lived away from home for several years I can conclude that I was correct. I still consider leaving this once in a lifetime chance my best decision.

I extrapolate this onwards through the various decisions of my life. I find that every circumstance I can recall culminated from an individual decision that I made at some point in my life. Work. Love. Friendships. Sport. Life.

Luck. I hear a lot of people talk about luck. Luck definitely exists. I occasionally play the lottery. The decision is that the insane odds against winning are worth a couple of bucks to me. But if I win a substantial sum it is due to chance. However, life is not a lottery. Each and every day we are faced with choices that allow us to make decisions. We can place ourselves in an environment where we are more likely to meet a compatible partner. We can place ourselves in an environment that can further our career. We can train not just hard but smart. Training hard, resting soft and taking out time.

My life is not as governed by luck as I might have thought. It is controlled to an infinitely greater extent by the decisions I make. To this end there is no point in my making the same mistakes repeatedly. The same decisions repeatedly. And then complaining repeatedly about the consequences. Blaming the world. Blaming other people. Blaming luck.

So how can I understand the decisions I have made? Sean O’Casey wrote a character whose eyes had a haunting way of looking in instead of looking out. In order to understand my decisions I’ve had to become self-analytical. I’ve had to be become self-critical. This is not an easy thing to do. No one likes to see themselves in a negative way. We will still make mistakes. But in doing so one can identify ones’ own mistakes. Once identified, one can endeavour not to make them again.

The world I live in is filled with randomness that we can not even attempt to control. But punctuating this are the aspects of the world that I have absolute control over. When I consider them more I come to the conclusion that I am an infinitely more determining factor in my world than luck. It takes courage to be introspective and self-critical. But in doing so we can perhaps move to a place where the decisions we make are more often the correct ones, the consequences more often those we desire and our world a resultant happier place.