Thursday, May 13, 2010

May is not a merry month in academia

The merry month of May? Not if you work in academia and have to write research grants in order to run your laboratory. I don’t know what it’s like to write grants in America these days--it’s been over twenty years since I worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and watched my bosses scramble to get their grants finished before the deadline. I hear from some of my American friends and colleagues that the situation has become more difficult there. I DO know what it is like to write research grants in Norway; it has definitely become more difficult here. I have been writing them for the past ten years and sending them out to the Norwegian Cancer Society, the Norwegian Research Council and the Health Organization South-East each year. It’s no fun. It’s not just that it’s hard work; it’s often pointless work, because the grants either don’t get funded or they receive just enough of a good score so that you get some money to buy consumables to run your lab frugally for one year. But you don’t get support for students and without students you cannot build a research group. It’s a catch-22 situation—without students you cannot build a research group, and without a well-funded research group you cannot attract students because the students end up being recruited by the larger research groups which have the money to support the students.

The granting system here has changed dramatically since the 1990s, in part due to the major mergers between several hospitals that resulted in a huge increase in the amount of administrative personnel needed to run these conglomerates. That is the major trend these days here in the “country of oil money”—make all organizations bigger, increase the number of administrators, decrease the number of scientists who get funding, get rid of all technical positions, focus on Centers of Excellence, discourage private research donations, and look to the federal government for all forms of support. The focus is on supporting only the best scientists, which is not a bad philosophy generally. The only problem with it is that there are not many other options for those scientists who don’t quite make the grade. Norway is fast becoming a nation of scientific ‘advisors’ and ‘senior advisors’. In other words, if you cannot do research, you can advise the government on how research should be done. You can design research policies. You can strategize and attend meetings about strategizing. It all looks great on paper. Or if you don’t want to be an advisor, you can work for drug companies doing sales and marketing, because most of the drug companies do not invest in R&D, in other words, there are no research facilities on-site and thus no positions for bench scientists.

Why is this approach now a problem? Because Norway is turning out PhD students at a tremendous rate. There are very few academic and/or research jobs for all these highly-educated students. But that doesn’t seem to bother the politicians or even the university leaders, who are simply interested in pushing through a lot of students because that translates into more money for the university.

So back to the merry month of May. Not. May is always a reminder of how academic life is a crap shoot. You can write your grant, submit it and hope for the best. Nine times out of ten your grant won’t be funded. So next year you write another one and get the same response. Some people would call that banging your head against a wall. I have to say that after nearly ten years of writing grants to fund myself and to pay for some few laboratory consumables, I now agree.

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