Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Soul-sucking exercise in futility

After a wonderful and relaxing summer, I was actually ready to go back to work. I cannot honestly say I was looking forward to the daily grind again, but my mood was positive and upbeat. You might even say I was motivated to start a new academic year. Unfortunately, those feelings never last. They are replaced by ennui, resignation and boredom once the grant application season starts or once we start to get replies from the grant organizations to which we applied before the summer months. You would think that after so many years in the business that rejection gets easier to take. It doesn’t, at least not initially. By the end of the day however, I have recovered from it, compared to perhaps several days some years ago when I actually cared more.

I did not spend much time on grant applications this year, since I and my colleagues agreed that we would spend the next year working diligently on new projects and generating data so that we could use that data in next year’s applications. Applying for grant funding at present is a soul-sucking exercise in futility. The funding situation is so brutally competitive that it makes no sense to waste precious time on writing and sending an application with preliminary data; it will not get funded, period. You need to be an established researcher in your field, and it gets harder and harder to remain in that field if you don't get funding. I sent only one grant application to a private foundation that has supported us previously with funds for a PhD position. I was hoping to get funding; I asked for about 180,000 USD to cover a two-year technical position plus costs for lab consumables and overhead. After all, the foundation knows that we can deliver the goods—their support of my PhD student was money well-spent since it led to a successful PhD defense back in 2010. However…….

The foundation’s board members were not entirely negative to my application for a technician. They agreed to give our institute one-third of the amount I applied for, with the stipulation that I come up with the remaining two-thirds. In other words, I cannot accept their 33.3 % funding unless I can guarantee them that I will obtain the remaining 66.6% from other sources. I have to find someone willing to support us with 120,000 USD or I cannot receive the 60,000 USD they are offering. It’s laughable if it didn’t make you want to cry first. The reason I am applying to this foundation is because all other sources of funding have dried up at this point. I have a snowball’s chance in hell of raising 120,000 USD. So it doesn’t look like our group is getting a research technician any time soon, which is unfortunate because a full-time technician is exactly what we need.

I will allow for the possibility that the foundation doesn’t really understand the brutality of the funding situation. But hopes get raised and dreams get smashed each year, and for each year that passes, I see less and less point in the whole process. I struggle to find meaning in such a soulless and brutal profession. Any wonder that I prefer to be alone in my garden these days, with no interference or constant rejection to deal with? I understand the laws of nature and manage to work with them--a peaceful co-existence. Sometimes things grow and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the slugs win and sometimes they don't. But there is at least some reward for the hard work. In academia, there is none.

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