Saturday, October 10, 2009

Self Funding in Science

I’ve gotten onto the theme of early naturalists, adventurers, and generally intrepid souls who ventured into an essentially unexplored world to view and study nature. Many were self-funded “gentleman scientists” who could spend inordinate amounts of time (years) pursuing their travels to collect scientific specimens for museums and to observe and study remote natural areas.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the pursuit of science has changed. Most of us spend a lot of time not actually doing science, but instead carrying out bureaucratic tasks or running after grants to fund our research and our staffs. In a previous post, I mentioned an article in Science called “Scientists Who Fund Themselves”. It is quite interesting reading and made me wonder why more of us don’t fund ourselves—at least in part.

The article describes a diverse group of scientists, some wealthy, but most just middle-class, who personally fund part or all of their research. One person used his savings to invest in the stock market, and now he runs his own lab, mostly funded by him. Some scientists use money made on the side consulting to fund their labs. Other scientists use part of their annual income ($10,000 to 20,000) to help pay expenses, including the salaries of staff, instead of wasting time begging for the funds from NSF. Many of us have used personal funds to pay for a conference trip or for a field trip when we did not have enough grant money to cover costs. But few of us are aware that some scientists have chosen to fund themselves at a higher level. Many who are aware of the practice think it’s crazy. Part of it is the loss of prestige and status that comes with winning grants. Also, the idea of using personal funds to carry out one’s job is abhorrent to many people.

But for some, it was the only way to keep their labs going. One researcher at the University of South Florida has donated $15,000 to $20,000 (made in outside consulting) annually for 30 years to his research. He’s not wealthy, but thinks his university salary is enough to live on. The consulting funds he’s donated has sent students to conferences or to do fieldwork or to pay for journal subscriptions.

Some of these self-funded scientists are driven by a desire to side-step the “time-gobbling”, “dignity-draining grantsmanship process” and pursue ideas that funding panels pan. Interestingly, a number of the people highlighted in the Science article are scientists studying biology or physiology of organisms, but who find they cannot compete with the molecular scientists. Whole-organism biology has definitely fallen out of favor. Not only are university departments not hiring such people, but funding agencies have also shifted interest toward molecular work. What is so sad about this is that a lot of whole organism or ecological research can be quite inexpensive, and these scientists are asking for very modest grants.

Also, if you delve into another field or area within your field, it’s difficult to compete for funding because you’ve not established yourself. One wonders how many good ideas and possible advances have been squelched because the proposal was written by an unknown, goes against the dogma, or does not involve sexy new techniques. And then there are the politics involved in getting grants--no need to elaborate.

Besides avoiding the competition for funding, self-funded researchers have more time for their research. Also, there’s no loss to overhead, which can eat up half of a grant. Self-funders are free to pursue their interests and not have to justify it by showing how the results will have some technological application or “broader impact”.

What a concept! Studying something just because it’s interesting. Sounds a lot like the 19th century “gentleman scientists” who studied nature because they found it fascinating.

1 comment:

Peter Nelson said...

I find this both inspirational and sad. I have colleagues with incredible track records in funding for basic, whole organism research, but they are also academic rockstars. There's little opportunity for junior researchers or folks interesting in exploring new interests. Your blog reminded me of the wonderful personal pleasure some of my heros--Ken Norris and Paul Dayton come to mind--have gotten from self-funded projects that they pursued purely for the pleasure of learning. Time for me to start getting up early again! Thanks