On grant funding

Aug 18 2016 Published by under academia, female scientist, funding, race

One of determining points in my leaving academia was grant funding.  I was not confident enough, or motivated enough to sustain continuous funding for however long I was willing to be a PI .

In a way, my years as a postdoc and project scientist traumatized me for applying for grants.  In my former lab, my PI’s grant (NIH RO1) application preparation was a group effort.  Our PI assigned advanced graduate students and postdocs two or three sections of his grant application, and we had multiple meetings prior to deadline to flush out ideas, revise sections, and integrate them into his master draft. It was a great practice for me, until the deadline came.  Whether it was paralysis, procrastination, or waiting until we were under extreme duress to come up with brilliant ideas, finalizing an application as a lab came always at the last minute or never.  For one submission, graduate student and I took turns pulling all-nighters for one week prior to a deadline, to come up with preliminary data for experiments proposed in a grant.  In another or the same submission cycle, on the date it was due with 6-7 hours left, all members of the lab sat around a conference table as if in the Situation Room.  Each person stared at his/her laptop screen, worked on different sections of different versions of a draft, sweated grease, pulled hairs, and waited to be called by our PI so that our sections can be integrated.  The time of submission brutally approached, and we were nowhere near being done.  My PI was on the phone with a departmental grant officer pleading for more time and understanding.  The time of submission came and passed, and we kept on working.  About 20 minutes later my PI finally called it, “ we are not submitting the grant.”  We did this at least TWICE, for two consecutive application deadlines.  As you can tell by italics and capital letters, it still raises strong emotions for me, even years later.

In my tenure at the lab, getting an NIH RO1 grant for my PI remained elusive. He did however receive other grants to keep the lab thriving and afforded me.  But we needed a RO1. What imprinted in me from the experience was how difficult it is to obtain a RO1 funding.  Without RO1, one is less likely to get tenured and maintain a lab.  If my PI, whom I deemed a brilliant scientist, had this much trouble getting a RO1, what an audacity to assume that I would get one?  I felt I had no chance.  Or more honestly I did not want to work that hard.  I did not want to make my graduate students and postdocs work that hard only to fire them when the funding did not come.

So I was scared and chickened out.  The shrinking funding rate did not help either.

It turns out I would have faced obstacles if I stayed in academia, not just my own demons (I am as bad, if not worse, procrastinator as my former PI)  but external ones.  Not to be consistently pessimistic but if I had stayed in academia more than likely I would have become a part of statistics in this recent article.  The study analyzed gender and race differences in the likelihood of receiving NIH RO1 in years 2000-2006.  The authors found that race, and not gender, was a key determinant in RO1 award. While white women did not differ from white men, Asian and black women received significantly less funding than white women.  Although this study did not find disadvantages of being a female applicant, many other studies do (like this one).  As a woman of color (Asian), I would have faced an uphill battle, a double bind. If only I was more ambitious, this type of studies would have made me energized and strive to reverse the current status.  At this point, I can only ask for those who are still in it to try…


8 responses so far

  • Susan says:

    As an assistant prof with several grants - I am shocked by your experience. Frankly, and clearly: your former PI clearly had no idea how to write a grant. (If he had to rely on panic and other people's work -- he was Doing It Wrong). You and your labmates paid the price, and got very, very bad training towards actually writing a grant. I can only imagine what the reviewers thought of some cobbled-together, unpolished monstrosity. No wonder it "remained elusive" for him.

  • potnia theron says:

    There is something very very wrong here. or was. This is not appropriate use of trainee time.

    • ecologist says:

      I have to at least partly disagree. I think that this part:

      "In my former lab, my PI’s grant (NIH RO1) application preparation was a group effort. Our PI assigned advanced graduate students and postdocs two or three sections of his grant application, and we had multiple meetings prior to deadline to flush out ideas, revise sections, and integrate them into his master draft."

      is highly appropriate training. Having a lab working as a team on a proposal that has a lot to do with the future success of the lab, seems to me to be a fantastic use of "trainee time", both for the science involved in crafting the proposal and for the experience of what it takes to put a proposal together.

      The part about last-minute panic as deadlines approach is, however, not so good. Although, having pushed many a proposal right up to the deadline, I'm not going to fault the PI too much for it. But as training in how to do proposals, it leaves something to be desired.

  • The Other Side says:

    Writing an R01 that way makes no sense to me. I'm not surprised your PI was unsuccessful.

  • sel says:

    Your PI was an idiot.

  • lurker says:

    Is your former PI still a PI? Was he/she a seasoned or noob PI? A group-effort on an R01 may sound nice and wonderful for training, but definitely not appropriate to delegate on the "trainees" when the lab's funding is on the line. There's a reason awards are given to Principal Investigators, where the 'Principal' title means the buck stops with him/her leading the brunt of the grant writing effort, both intellectual and bureaucratic, to get the grant submitted. Sorry you had to go through that!

    Doubling concerning is the racial biases still being inflicted on Asians in the grant game. Being one myself, I can attest to the whole perception of being judged as a "model minority" but not getting any of the benefits of affirmative action, since we are not considered 'underrepresented' in the sciences anymore. And because grant review has become such a lottery, it is less how "strong" your science is, and more of who you know on the SS that determines whether you can get a payline score.

  • Robert L Bell says:

    The big problem here is that real funding for basic research has plummeted, scarring the ranks of established scientists and shutting out most of the fresh blood.

    The small problem here is that the traits of a person likely to thrive in the funding competition are at best irrelevant and in general quite opposed to the traits that sustain honest and competent and significant research.

    To a certain extent this has always been a tension within the field, but I say it has gotten way out of hand over the last four decades. Which to belabor the obvious, was the same time window when overall US real compensation began to stagnate and income/wealth inequality took off.

  • Amboceptor says:

    This was exactly my experience in academia,although as a white male it's more like a self-assessment that I am not the sort of genius, impervious to criticism, with brand new brilliant ideas every month, who is also a brilliant salesman, that can get funded. The vast majority of a PI's time was spent on writing grants. 90% of that just seemed wasted as the applicatons got rejected, cycle after cycle. In more than one year, nobody in my whole department got more than a 1-year grant, and most of them didn't have a current R01 anymore either. Coming close to the threshold seemed even more demoralizing than having your grant soundly rejected, because you knew that the difference between being in the top 10% and the top 20% was entirely random, and there was not even a way to improve your grant for the next go-round because the reviewers would be different. It just seemed like such a joyless existence.

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