Don’t call this scientist soft!

I’m a soft money scientist, not because I’m cuddly (I am), or because I’m an easy mark for a fiver (I’m not), but because my job and my scientific output depend on my ability/luck at raising money.  As my 100th blog post I thought it time to describe this precarious state of affairs, especially as your taxes may be contributing to it.  Also, when the penny dropped with some friends of mine, so did their jaws.

Before I get into the description, let me say this: It is the best of jobs, it is the worst of jobs.  It is a privilege to spend most of my time solving the puzzle that are the diseases I study with the hope of making a difference to patients in the future.  It is appallingly frustrating that I cannot conduct long-term research or even rely on having an income next year because of the continued axe floating a few feet above my cranium.

In New Zealand, at least, scientists come in many flavours.  There is the industrial scientist earning a salary in a company somewhere who will sink or swim along with the fortunes of the company, there are the scientists in Callaghan Innovation, Ag Research, and other government entities that interface between academia, the commercial world, and the provision of scientific services.  I understand they have a variety of funding sources – in recent years the government side of it has moved from project grant based towards more bulk funding.  Given what is happening with Ag Research, I don’t know if that means more secured tenure for these scientists or not … I’ll let them describe their predicament.  Then, in academic institutions, there are the lecturer scientists who both teach and research.  Traditionally the spend their time 40% teaching, 40% researching, 20% in administration, but there are many variations on the theme. Normally, these people have a more-or-less permanent position (at least as long as students keep coming to do the courses they teach).  To get funding for their research (though not their salary unless they want to “buy out” some teaching time) they need to apply for grants.  In my institution, University of Otago Christchurch, most of the teachers are also active senior medical staff with joint appointments with the CDHB.

Then there are the soft-money scientists.  Most PhD students go on to do a 1 or 2 year post-doc (or two) which is funded by a grant that has been obtained by a senior researcher somewhere.  This is “soft-money” – meaning of limited duration and usually directed at a particularly project.  Most post-docs move into lecturing or leave academia.  A few may pick up additional fellowships or join a group which has the funds to employ them.  To continue in their chosen career they must contribute to the gathering of resources (money money money).  They have no training in this, but after the first few grant rejections begin to learn.  They realise they are competing against scientists who are lecturers or in other entities who already have their salaries covered.  However, the first thing they must put on their grant is their own salary + overheads (113% in my institution).  This, of course, limits what they may be able to say they will do in a grant application as they are not able to write into the grant all the expenses they’d like.  This puts them at a competitive disadvantage.  Another source of income for some groups may be commercial.  This may be the testing in their labs of some equipment  or a new product, or some forensic work etc. Not everyone has that option.

My own sojourn has been a little off the beaten path as six years ago at the age of 40 mumble I returned to the scientific fold after 15 years out of it.  My return was funded for two years initially by a Health Research Council Grant (HRC; your tax dollars) and by a private company who had obtained some government funding for development (Syft).  Since then I’ve had grants from the Australia New Zealand Society of Nephrologists (twice 🙂  ), Lottery Health, University of Otago Research Grant, and the Marsden Foundation.  My current funding till the end of the year is 41% from a Marsden Foundation grant and 59% from the profits of the last project (a commercial one) our lab-based group ran (alas … another long story, there is now no lab-based group).  Having multiple sources of income is not at all unusual for the more senior research scientists.  Indeed, the current funding levels of even the largest of the grants (HRC and Marsden) are not sufficient to fund a full time senior scientist along with all the associated costs of running a larger project (which these are intended for). The application success rates (7%) make it unlikely that anyone, other than in large established groups with broad funding basis whose success breeds grant success (rightly so!), will be able to sustain a long-term career based on grant funding alone.

One source of funding that I’ve not talked about is philanthropy.  This plays a vital, though small, role in New Zealand science.  Most are familiar with the likes of the Heart Foundation or the Cancer Society which take donations and use some of them for research projects.  An intriguing, though seldom visited, new source of funding is so called “crowd sourcing” where someone pitches a project online to raise money – Dr Siouxsie Wiles successfully raised US$4,480 last year doing just that. This, of course, will not sustain a scientist like myself.  What will?  What do you think is reasonable to spend on science and scientists?  How about the same as we spend per classroom?  According to a Principal acquaintance it costs about $17K per pupil p.a. to run a school.  The average class size is about 23 pupils making it a tad under $400K p.a per classroom.  I think what I do has similar value to educating a class full of kids, but right now I’d settle for half the amount.  Governments, of course, must make choices and impose certain limits on spending.  The current NZ government’s moves to increase spend in research are welcome, but this will at best make a small dent in the grant funding success rate.  Individuals with discretionary disposable income, though, may have other priorities.  I believe that for New Zealand to do more than tread water in the scientific world that it will require those individuals who recognise the value of science to be willing to donate substantial amounts towards science, particularly towards supporting scientists (scientists first, projects second). Indeed, for my own growth and survival as a scientist – for me to be able to put the vision I articulated last week into practice, I see that it will only be possible through the generosity of others.

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One thought on “Don’t call this scientist soft!

  1. littleredmed

    Interesting post! Very helpful to learn about what scientific funding is like in New Zealand.

    My mom is a professor in the social sciences in the US and has been for the past 30 years, and she’s facing a major funding crunch with the government sequester (much of her funding came from government grants in the past). I guess things are tough for scientists everywhere these days . . .

    Reply

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