I guess I've been lucky
Over at adaptive complexity there was a post yesterday discussing this editorial at sciencemag. It concerns the pipeline of young researchers into scientific careers and identifies the following problems:
- In the competition for grants, it is difficult to get the first grant.
- It usually takes two-three postdocs before getting on a tenure track.
Competing for grants
For point 1, the editorial mentions that the average age of the first independent grant is about 6 years after getting a Ph.D. Quoting adaptive complexity:
Part of the problem, as Leshner points out, is that younger investigators with new, unstaffed labs are automatically at a disadvantage when competing for funding with senior labs that, because of their already established research programs, are able to generate a lot more preliminary data to include in a grant proposal.
To which I would probably add that experience in writing grant proposals probably benefits senior scientists a bit as well...
In any case, in the competition for grants, it is probably safe to say that senior scientists -- with their proven track record and experience in the field -- are at an advantage. If they have an advantage, that means that young researchers are at a disadvantage, and if that means that they are rejected more often we have a problem.
Notice that I said if above. I have seen no statistics showing that young researchers are more likely to have a grant proposal rejected. From my limited experience and from what I've noticed with colleagues, the older you get the more grants you apply for (I apply for one or two a year now, and I certainly didn't five years ago), so even if senior researchers are awarded more grants, that could just be proportional to the number of applications...
Anyway, regardless of why, we do have a problem if it is too hard or takes too long to get the first independent grant. Breakthroughs are often made by young researchers. There's a saying that you are too old to make significant contributions to math after the age of 30. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I don't expect completely novel ideas to be produced by the people who produced the current state of the art.
If we want the novel ideas from young scientists, we should let them work on their own ideas. Give them their own grants.
How do we do that? Leshner suggests:
If the consensus is that young scientists really need a regular research grant to launch their careers, why not simply tilt funding decisions more toward new investigators? After all, there are many more meritorious proposals from junior investigators--which have passed muster through peer review--than can be funded. The tilt would, of course, result in fewer senior investigators getting funded or receiving multiple grants, but if we are genuinely concerned about the pipeline, we will need to make this tradeoff.
I am not sure that I agree with this. I think that a grant should be granted on the merits of the proposal and the likelihood of the outcome, not on any other considerations such as age (or race, gender, religion, whatnot).
When evaluating an application, of course, the experience of the applicant should be taken into account, but this need not benefit the senior researchers. If you have worked a decade in a field, you had better be able to show a successful track record. If you are just starting out, you only need to show potential, and that is probably a bit easier...
That is not enough to solve the problem, of course, since I would guess that this is already the way grants are granted today.
So, after complaining about another's suggestion I should offer my own up for criticism.
Offer smaller and short term grants, but offer more if them.
You won't be able to solve the big problems this way, but if you need your own supercollider for a project your screwed anyway. With shorter, smaller projects (say one year projects and just money for strictly necessary equipment) there are more grants possible, and although you can do less in the timeframe of one, you get more of them for the same money, which means that more researchers can get their hands at them.
Since I don't really need much equipment in my own research, I might be naive here in how this would work -- I'm not sure how expensive it would be if the same equipment needs to be acquired at different groups and such -- but reuse of equipment, or more collaborations between groups, could solve this, I think.
If it takes ages to get tenure, my suggestion above could be a dead end. If you need new grants every year just to get your salary, you will spend more time writing grant proposals than doing science. It just becomes too important to get those grants.
You want some kind of guarantee that you have a job six months down the line. Not having that is one of the main problems I have with my life in academia, and a problem I know has caused friends of mine to give up on the university.
Shouldn't we be able to do better than this? Couldn't we somehow provide universities "young researcher groups" grants -- grants that allow a university to employ young researchers for say 3-5 years for working on their own problems. Just the salary. Let them compete for additional grants as I suggested above, but give them a bit of job security! A university could pick the researchers for the group based on their potentials as scientists, but with no promise of future tenure or anything.
I guess I've been lucky so far...
In my own experience, I haven't had major problems with getting grants, which is why I picked this title for the post.
After finishing my Ph.D. (in computer science) I got a one year post.doc. at the Bioinformatics Research Center, Uni Aarhus. This was a very free position, not unlike what I suggested for "researcher groups" above. I could work on anything I wanted, related to bioinformatics, and I didn't answer to anyone (except, of course, that I needed to get some publications if I wanted to continue this career).
After the first year, the position was extended for two years. This time it was focused on association mapping, but that was my own choice, so in a sense I was still free to pick my own projects.
From this point on, all my grants have been my own. I have applied for the grants myself (with helpful suggestions from colleagues, of course) and picked the projects myself. So I guess I have been independent three years after my Ph.D. and at age 30.
Not completely independent for my first grant, I guess. That was a post.doc. in Oxford, but it was a grant I was awarded to go there and work on my own ideas, but in a post doc setting where I could learn from the experts rather than figure everything out on my own. The next grants I got, including the one financing me now, were completely independent grants.
In all honesty, I haven't been competing with senior scientists as much, yet. I have gotten some grants in competitions where there are no restrictions on who can apply, but the major grants I've gotten were grants only available to researchers within 5 years of their Ph.D. These are small-ish grants not unlike those I suggested above. It's major grants to me, working alone, but would be small for a research group with several postdocs and grad students.
I still haven't achieved a tenured position, so when my current funding runs out (January 2011) I'll be unemployed again. This bothers me a little bit, but I am optimistic about getting tenure soon-ish...