From the Suggestion Box: When Science Research Becomes a Numbers Game

// I got a great request from a reader to talk about what he called “the ethics of science.” In his words, “Science needs looking at to see that our finite resources are used sensibly and wisely to benefit all mankind.”

How does science research get funded?

Doing science research can get expensive, fast. Depending on your field of expertise, the cost of maintaining the daily operations of your lab could cost between just a few dollars and up to thousands of dollars. Per day. This means that every science research lab needs sizable funding in order to continue doing research. Funding can come from a number of sources, but most academic research labs get funding through government funding schemes (like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation) or sometimes through non-profit organizations (like the American Heart Association). This money is limited, and competition for receiving funding is high. In 2014, the National Institutes of Health received more than 51,000 grant applications, and funded just over 9,000 (18.3%), meaning that more than 1 in every 5 applications was rejected.

Over the past few years, the amount of funding for the National Institutes of Health (the purple bars) has remained about the same, while the chances of getting a grant funded (green line) have decreased. Image via NIH.

Even though the amount of funding for the National Institutes of Health (the red line) doubled between 1998 and 2008, the chances of getting a grant funded (green line) have decreased. Image via NIH.

This high competition means that the projects that are chosen to receive funding by the NIH have evolved over time. (For comparison, in 1970, more than 35% of all grant applications were funded). Similar trends can be seen for other groups that give funding, with an increasing number of applications and higher competition seen over time. As such, a researcher must tailor a grant proposal to give the highest success of receiving funding. If a research lab is not able to write successful grants and receive funding, in the worst case the lab could be forced to close.

Writing a successful grant application

One way that scientists can increase the chance of success of a grant application is by focusing on recent trends, or “hot topics” in their field, or to show how their own research could impact other fields. This means that, more and more, “translational research” (research that can be directly used in some application) is funded over “basic research” (research for the sake of research). It also means that research on cancer has a much greater chance for being funded than research on leishmaniasis and tuberculosis (accounts for 35% of all HIV-related deaths). In fact, many funding agencies require grant applicants to write a section that describes the impact that the research will have, whether on their scientific discipline, or on society-at-large. This is directly opposed to the idea of basic research, as the direct impacts are often not known when basic research is being performed.

Steve Caplan, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center shared his thoughts on the importance of basic (or fundamental) research in an article recently published in The Guardian:

The rapidly shrinking support for fundamental scientific research today in the US is rather alarming. Translational science is entirely dependent upon the continued progress of basic research. No new drug trials will be done unless new drugs are discovered. And the process of discovering new drugs that inhibit cancerous cells and Alzheimer’s disease (among a multitude of other ailments) depends upon the ability of basic science to understand essential cellular mechanisms about how cells grow and divide at the molecular and atomic levels – and of course, this lies outside the definition of translational research.

Unfortunately, it’s a numbers game. Science research is not self-sustaining. As a researcher, I do not sell any product that will allow my research to get continued funding. If a pharmaceutical company puts in the money to develop a project, they must weigh the cost of research and development with the potential profits. While there certainly are some labs that are studying diseases that disproportionally affect the world’s poorest populations, these labs are certainly not as prevalent as cancer research labs, for example.

What is being done? What can be done?

I am an advocate of equality and increased diversity in the sciences. This means not only supporting girls and other underrepresented groups in the sciences, but also that there should be more equality in the types of research that are being funded. Well-funded science is such a powerful tool, and needs to be promoted in all areas, not only for translational research aims.

What can you do?

Write to your legislator! 

Write to or call your local government representative, who will vote on the budget for science funding to discuss the importance of continued and expanded science funding. If you’re in the US, here are some tips from the Society for Neuroscience on writing to Congress on science issues.

Need a bit of inspiration? Here’s a suggested/form letter to your legislator from FASEB, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Be vocal.

Start a conversation about scientific research and funding. Share your opinions on a blog, Facebook, Twitter or other social media outlets.

Learn more about science policy!

Check out science policy articles at The Guardian.

The Swiss National Science Foundation also has a rapidly growing collection of science policy articles on a website called Sciencegeist.

And as always, check back here! I am passionate about writing about science and scientific discovery. If you have a topic you’d like to see here, or you’re a scientist and want to share your interesting discovery, send an email to courtney[at], or drop a line in our Suggestion Box!