How to kill research

The absurdity of the funding situation

Posted by Viviane on April 15, 2016
Academia Point of View

My First blog post (a while ago) was about why I love my job. Now I’m going to describe the one thing that I hate that could lead me to quit it some day. I will be talking about the situation in France but I know there are some similarities with other countries. The one very annoying aspect of the French situation is that it used to be “not that bad” but we are running head first into very bad decisions.

I will concentrate on the funding aspect, it is also linked to many other questions which I won’t develop: lack of permanent positions, complicated and precarious career path for young researchers, lack of diversity… I have been lucky enough to pass these barriers, I have won the Grail: a permanent position in academia. I am in a good university which is not (yet) completely bankrupted (another problem I won’t discuss here is why all French universities go bankrupt, the key word answer is “Automonie des universités”). I work in the big fancy fashionable hub of “Paris-Saclay” where France is trying to fit all scientists all together. My teaching situation is good. Even in terms of grants, I have been quite lucky. So why am I complaining? Well I have been here not even two years and the time I lost in stupid / useless / absurd things is already difficult to count.

Let me start with:

Why do researchers need money?

I guess some people might read this post who are not researchers and so I should explain. For some fields, it is quite obvious: you need big machines, a telescope, a particle accelerator, some fancy chemistry gear. It is not my case. I am working on the edge of fundamental computer science and fundamental mathematics. All I need in terms of equipment is a good computer (I am not a “pen and paper mathematician”, I am a “pen and paper and computer” one). My computer is great, it costed around 1000 euros, I have had it for 18 months and I will probably keep it for another 18 months (hopefully more) before I need a new one. From time to time, I need to run a big computation which my computer cannot handle, so I need an access to a “super-computer” which can be owned by my university or whoever is willing to share. My field being all about openness and all, this is usually easy to find.

So why do I need money? I need to travel. It might sound stupid but it is true. Part of my job is to move around the world to meet other mathematicians, to attend conferences and workshops to present my work and hear about the work of others. Sometimes I need those other mathematicians to come and visit to present their work to me. How much money do I need for this? Well, if I had something like 2000 or 3000 Euros per year, I’d be happy with that. Especially if it was reasonably renewable from one year to another: if I use less in one year, I can use more the next year… It is not much really, it doesn’t even cost an extra month of salary. But I don’t have it and to have it, I need to go through absurd paths and trouble.

The other reasons one might need money would be to offer jobs: phd grants, postdoc grants, engineering positions, etc. This is what makes an active research lab. It used to be mostly handled at the department / university level. There were a certain amount of positions and some more of less fair rotation to decide who would get it. But the more it goes the less it looks like this. Now every one goes running around trying to find money to fund this or that. The results are mostly random and certainly not fair.

How do we get the money?

When I took my position at Orsay, I realized at my first team meeting that the budget for my whole team of like 18 people was about the amount I spent on my own as a postdoc. I came from a great postdoc position where they seemed to have endless money (does not mean they have a better system, I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right moment), and I admit that I travelled A LOT that year: it was my one year of freedom and I had to advertise my work to get a job. So I knew I would have to change my way of life. But still, I was quite depressed by the financial state of my new employment. Clearly, there was not enough money to send everyone on one conference per year. I heard things like “do not send your papers to far away conferences as we cannot pay for the travel”. I refused to follow this advice: being a young researcher and all, it is important that I publish where it makes sense regardless of location or money issue. But I did have to take that new situation in account and find a way to still do the job I had been employed to do.

So I understood very quickly that I had to apply for grants. What are those? They come from different places (local, national or European), different organisms, in different forms. But the principle is mostly the same (even though the process is always is a little bit different, just to make sure you loose the right amount of time): you have to write a proposal. What do you put in this? Well obviously, you cannot write the truth which would be:

I need some little money to do my day to day research and go present articles that I have written already to conferences because it is part of my job.

This does not work… You have to sell your project. You have to sell yourself as a researcher. Wait? I thought I already did that when I got my job, that was bad enough! Well, bad news, the bullshitting days are not over… First, you have to ask for more money than what you need. Because there is no “day to day research grant”. You have to come up with a bright new and shiny project which includes lots of spendings. Otherwise, it does not look impressive enough.

What do you write in those projects? Well, that is the issue. Being a researcher, by nature, I don’t know what I will find. So it is quite difficult to write a four year plan. I mean I have an idea of some directions I might take but they are likely to change. And when I am asked for deliverables and milestones it just sounds quite stupid.

On year 1, I will prove Lemma 1 and 2. It will lead to the proof of Proposition 1. Year 2 will be dedicated to Proposition 2 and Lemma 3. And so following all of this, I will have the Riemann Conjecture proven by the end of Year 4!

Of course, this is exaggerated. But the more it goes, the more I feel we are asked to do this. This is a sentence I got on my last grant review: “Lack of specific plans to solve mentioned problems”. Well, see, I NEVER have a specific plan BEFORE I solve a problem. If I had, then it would not be called research.

This whole thing is so annoying. I am used to facts: once a theorem is proved, I write a paper about it. I cannot bluff on my results, everyone can read the paper and confront me about it. But on a grant proposal, this is exactly what I have to do. Bluffing in a way that is convincing enough for my reviewer but not too obvious. I have to explain the objectives, scientific impact, societal impact, economical impact of results I don’t even have yet! Also, reminder: I am doing pure mathematics / fundamental computer science, so even when I do have a result the “societal and economical impact” is difficult to single out and, definitely, it does not fit in a 4 years frame.

I cannot speak for other sciences, there might be some fields where it makes sense to write a project proposal. I did write a proposal for developing open source tools in mathematics and because it was development and not research, it was not as bad even though I am still not sure it is the way to go.

Then what?

Then the proposals are reviewed by other researchers and some people get the money and some others don’t. Considering the object being reviewed and the inherent absurdity of the exercise, there is no way the end result could be fair. And it is not. It is very much unfair. I mostly consider it random but I wish it were actually random, this way I would be sure that I stand a chance and that I am not losing my time completely.

Anyway, the result for me is that I get random money at random time that randomly fits my needs. And it always comes with a bunch of absurd rules to stop me from using it for what I actually need.

As an example, when I started, I noticed the lack of money in my department. As I was planning to go to a big conference in the summer, I decided not to ask for any money before that. In May, my first ever proposal was surprisingly accepted! It was for a short term project, so I got 10 000 euros to share with my collaborator and to use by the end of the year, which meant early December. So… For the first months of my position, I was very poor but, then, I was suddenly, and for a very short time, very rich! There was no way I could keep the money for the up-comings years where I knew I would need it. Also, because I had already paid in advance with my own money (I mean my salary) the plane tickets to my big conference in Korea, I could not get it reimbursed by this newly arrived, unexpected, grant.

Also, every money I get comes with a bunch of rules: I can use it for this but not for that. If I said I wanted to use it for a conference but then I want to buy a computer instead, it could be a problem. With this money, I can pay an intern but not with this one! I have to justify that every spendings “fits” into the project for which I get funded. In my opinion, there is one big project called “research” but no, it is not the opinion of the grant system.

At the moment, the only project I have money on is a European H2020 which asks me to declare the exact time I spend on the project. It is a bit complicated but not impossible because the time I spend there is mostly administration and development. If I had to split my research time into different “projects”, this would be nearly impossible. Still, if I ever declare that I worked on a Sunday or a bank holiday (which, of course, never happens in research, right?), the university could be asked to reimburse some money. Actually, the university is so afraid that something might go wrong that I feel they would prefer it if we did not spend the money at all…

At the end, I lose an enormous amount of time either writing the grant proposals or finding my way through administration to use the money I was given.

What is the result?

Young researchers like me feel demotivated by the absurdity of the system. Still, because we (rightly) feel that this will impact our career, we keep writing proposals and trying to actually do things. Some others just drop it al together. They don’t ask for money and try to keep on anyway. It is not easy because even if you don’t care for travels, or pay them with your salary (instead of holidays with your family??) or just get invited (if you are fancy enough), there is still the problem of advising students. At some point in your career, it is expected of you to become an adviser, which means to advise interns and phd students. It makes sense. And then you have to write proposal, find funding and all, not for your sake but for them! So by quitting the system, I feel you slowly slide away from the research world. It might be good for your own sanity but I don’t think it is good for your research and I don’t think it is good for research in general.

How could we change that?

Well, it feels to me that it would not be that complicated to have something better than what we have now. It is not even a question of getting more money, but just make a better use of it!

  • Stop the losing time policy At the moment, I lose time writing the proposal, then people lose time reviewing it (5 different reviewers for my last ANR proposal). And if I ever get money, I lose time fighting the administration and some other people lose time checking if I used the money the right way…

  • Stop the illusion of big fancy projects: divide the money on a more equal basis. Not all science is big and fancy, not everything has to be shiny. What’s the use of employing researchers if you don’t give them the mean to do their job right? Instead of giving a lot to some few lucky ones, just give less to more people, and science will do better.

  • Stop trying to control science. This is a big thing. All those projects always try to give you directions and define the new trends. More accurately, they blindly follow the current trends. We don’t know what is going to be big. The only way to find big things is to give freedom to researchers. Thankfully, researchers are clever and we find our way around the directions to still do what we want, but we do lose time and energy in the process.

  • Leave space for failure Failure is part of research just as much as success. Project based research always expects results, outcomes, deliverables, and on a very short term basis. If you are not allowed to fail, then you will go only for the easy things: publish bad papers to get published because you promised in your proposal that you would. If you are afraid to fail, you stick to small objectives and never try for the marathon.

  • Give it time… Research is not a matter of 4 years or (even worst) 6 months! The idea that we should come up with a new project every 4 years is just utterly stupid.

  • Stop biases. We are not exempt of biases in science. We believe ourselves objective but we are not. Just look at this page on gender biais. And those project proposals are everything but objective. I don’t have a study to back me up on this, but I would be surprised if biais did not show there as well. It is a policy of the more you win, the more you are likely to win. What are your chances when you come back from maternity leave and have not published in some time? What time do you have as a young parent to write those damned proposals when you are struggling already with everything else?

Let’s stop now, I feel I have said enough even though I still have a lot to say! I will be leaving you with some interesting lecture (in French) that so well describes the current system that it is scary!

Comment retarder le progrès scientifique