Skip navigation
The Black Hole

Success in research requires stability: The long con


Dear readers, with a new year comes new challenges. The pressures on young scientists today, while certainly greater than they were last year, are quickly coming to a head. With the upcoming American sequestration discussions in March, and an improving economy, it is more important now than ever that the current structure of academic science be discussed: to shape upcoming policy decisions, direct future innovation and streamline a system that has become entangled by heavy administrative burden and which has lost sight of its primary purpose. Last year I began by outlining the current academic structure and highlighting the most serious problems with the current system:

This year I will endeavour to present some solutions.

Success in research requires stability: the long con

Success in research requires stability. Scientific advancement is a long-term investment in which progress is incremental. It takes almost a year to prepare, submit and be awarded a research grant, and principal investigators are encouraged to prepare and submit multiple grants to offset relatively low funding margins. In the United States and Canada, primary operating grants such as the R01 (NIH) and CIHR Operating Grants last 1-5 years and are becoming increasingly competitive as federal investment in biomedical research continues to fall short of demand.

While success should promote peace of mind, to maintain bridge support between operating grants, and on the assumption that the next application will be unsuccessful, principal investigators are expected to begin applying for additional funding within their second year of support. In what has come to be called the Scientist’s Dilemma (the scientific equivalent of a famous problem in game theory known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma), if scientists agreed – or were otherwise required – to limit the number of proposals that they submitted they would not incur the substantial time penalty of writing and reviewing many proposals, but might retain equivalent chances of funding. Indeed, the extra work resulting from increasing numbers of proposals does not increase the total pool of research money available to scientists.

While Roebber et al have recently shown this to be true, once available funding falls below the 10-15% margin, the most effective strategy for scientists to maintain research funding is to submit many proposals. Since an investigator cannot be awarded two different grants based on the same research plan, a second and third major research proposal must be developed for which preliminary results are required to prove feasibility. This is a prototypical Catch-22, and I will explain why, and how to address this in my next post.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *