close this bookVolume 6: No. 20
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Are you aware of scientific misconduct at your institution? Before you notify sponsors, take a look at the NIH study in Science, 1/5/96, p. 35. Whistle blowers have been fired or not renewed, denied raises and promotions, lost research support and desirable assignments, and have faced pressure, counter-allegations, threatened lawsuits, and ostracism. But only 136 such incidents in 127 cases investigated. [Arthur Sowers ,, 3/10/96.]

Art Sowers has published several essays (and a self test) on research careers in science. He claims that there are more PhDs being graduated than positions or grant money for them. Professors are not being honest with students about this, or are themselves uncomfortable because of what they know is happening. Something like 10% of first-submission proposals are funded, 18% overall (i.e., after feedback and polishing), and only 40% of renewal proposals. (See The Scientist, 3/4/96, p. 15, for the latter two numbers.) "Some folks get into cycles of postdocs that last longer than 10 years and then end up in their 40s without ever getting anything like a real position." Sower's "Contemporary Problems in Science Jobs" and "Alternatives To Science Jobs" essays may be found at or by FTP from /pub/ysn/html_articles/Sowers_CPSJ.txt on A second edition is in the works. [,, 2/22/96 and 3/10/96.]

About 18%-25% of CS proposals were funded when I was at NSF, perhaps reaching 40% in certain competitions for small grants. Success rates were thus higher for first-time proposers, but only in special competitions. In the regular programs, competition for the big bucks is much stronger. The threshold is higher, and it should be. My impression was that more proposals were funded than were well-written and compelling. NSF shouldn't be blamed if proposers can't think of research that really needs doing, or can't convince their own colleagues. NSF is not a jobs entitlement for scientists.

Why aren't students learning to work the system? Perhaps it's the professors' fault, but most are doing the best they know how (with the limited training they've had, and the heavy teaching loads). I'd fault the students for trusting the system too much and not taking charge of their own careers. Ditto for parents if they're paying the tuition. And I'd fault universities for putting short-term economics ahead of faculty development. And faculties for giving control to administrators. And most professional societies for slighting the mentoring, career-development, and income-development training that should be a primary mission. (Look at mentoring programs for women to see what should be available to all.) And Congress is to blame for not requiring a "relevance statement" with each proposal -- other than how many graduate students will be supported. And taxpayers for allowing the pork-barrel committee-chairman system that considers in-district spending to be the greatest of all goods.

What can we do about this? First, each department that is submitting proposals should implement a quality-review and mentoring system. (Yes, deadlines do make that difficult. Additional personnel may be needed. But this is your bread and butter, and no less important than the quality of a book or magazine issue put out by a publisher.) Expertise from professional societies should be tapped prior to submission, not just as part of a review/rejection cycle.

Second, NSF should be pushed toward open review on the net, by anyone who cares to comment on a proposal -- even foreign scientists and ordinary taxpayers. Each proposal should have its own web pages and forum, and the PI should be available to field questions and even modify the proposal. (Secrecy be damned; this is taxpayer money being sought. Unless there's a genuine need for secrecy, as occasionally happens.) Reviews would be more meaningful -- no more "roll of the dice" -- and scientists would get useful feedback on how to make future proposals more compelling.

Third, Congress should be pushed to increase NSF's administrative budget for handling such open reviews. (Moderating and summarizing a forum is a time-consuming activity. Program directors might actually have to _read and understand_ the proposals and the arguments on each side.) Perhaps the submitting institution should pay a processing fee -- but that denies "access" for the poor, so it ain't gonna happen. Congress may also want to increase funding for the higher-quality projects it would be asked to fund, but that will take a few years.

Fourth, the results of NSF-funded research should also be browseable online whenever possible, at the discretion and expense of the funded institution. Grant-indexed hotlinks from NSF's website would improve reviews and help generate career-level feedback.

Fifth, universities should budget more time for scientists to participate in these and other online activities. The net offers continuous "conference" activities, much like having a relevant conference occurring on your campus. Participation should be expected to a similar extent. Professional citizenship is not a hobby. (Sometimes it's more like a knife fight. :-) Base-level participation should be on the university's time, not your own.

Most of all, our whole university approach should change. A university should not be a bastion of old boys under siege by young turks, some of whom will win promotion to the inner circle. Nor should it be a swamp with everyone mucking about independently hoping to find a path to a better life. It should instead be an "inverse pyramid" with students and research at the top being the most important, then junior faculty, then senior faculty, all supported by hired administrators. Each segment should be pushed toward individual greatness by those below, not pulled toward past departmental specialties and conformity as in the current system. Senior faculty should be coaches and mentors, helping the younger faculty to "push the envelope." (Less of their time would be spent in teaching or research than at present.) And when the students graduate, they'll be successful enough and grateful enough to pump money back in and keep the universities going. Maybe we wouldn't even need grant money. I've heard that it once worked that way.

-- Ken