In a guest post on The Wild Side, Olivia Judson's blog, Stanford biophysicist Steve Quake offers a stinging critique of the US system of funding research. He identifies financial volatility as the chief villain in his piece, and explores its devastating effects on researchers' ability to pursue novel, high-risk ideas:
... [T]he university rarely pays the full salary of the professor — depending on the department, the professor must find between 25 percent and 75 percent of his or her salary from outside grants.
It strikes me as one of the ironies of modern life that professorial faculty, who by and large lean to the left politically, accept such a brutal free-market approach to their livelihood. If they can’t raise grants to support their research every year, they won’t get paid. So not only do they have to worry about publish or perish, it’s also funding or famine, in the very real sense that without a grant there might not be food on the family dinner table! [...]
Such a system does not come without its own perils. It is not so easy to ask our young scientists to think out of the box when a significant portion of their salary (and mortgage payments) depends on guaranteeing a steady source of funding. Consequently, professors become highly attuned to the institutional priorities of various funding agencies — often at a cost to their own creativity and desired research directions.
He ends his post with some questions along with his own answers:
As we think about how to heed President Obama’s call to “put science back in its rightful place,” I wonder if this should also be the time to rethink the basic foundations of how science is funded. Could we stimulate more discovery and creativity if more scientists had the security of their own salary and a long-term commitment to a minimal level of research support? Would this encourage risk-taking and lead to an overall improvement in the quality of science?
As we consider the monumental challenges facing our generation — climate change, energy needs and health care — and look to science for solutions, it would behoove us to remember that it is almost impossible to predict where the next great discoveries will be made — and thus we should invest broadly and let scientists off their leashes.