Is The Grant Funding System Removing Creativity From PhD Studentships?

M.i.c.isms

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?

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