I love science but why has getting funding become like the Hunger Games?

These sorts of questions pop up on Twitter all the time – and perhaps foolishly I rely on Twitter for gaining insights into how the scientific community, beyond my direct circle, is doing.

It’s doing great a lot of the time. People are excited about sharing their progress, highlighting each other’s work, celebrating advances and opportunities. But some of the time it is pretty gloomy out there. There is a lot of anxiety.

I think much of the anxiety revolves around getting funding. People talk about how tough the world of science is, but I think sometimes they mean that getting funding is tough. This is true. The success rates of grants and fellowships used to be around 30% but in recent years funding rates of 10 or 15% have become more common. With perhaps 90% of people missing out, it is not surprising there is a lot of unhappiness around.

And I think the dismay arises because people really fear they will be forced to leave science. This is a big deal. Most scientists are passionate about their discipline and they love their work. What’s more they are driven by curiosity and can’t wait to see what happens next in their experiments. The idea that their grant won’t be funded, so they won’t be able to find out, is confronting, and the thought that a fellowship may not be funded and they’ll have to leave research altogether is awful.

What’s more, despite the fact that the community is trying to be more supportive, more inclusive, and to provide more mentoring, we really aren’t too good at helping people withstand professional setbacks and career transitions – perhaps because most of the mentors are those lucky few who were dealt the right combination of luck and opportunity and didn’t make the career transition out that is sometimes required.

And to make leaving even harder, I wonder if there has ever been a time when science has been so celebrated – no let’s say it, hyped!

STEM is sold heavily at school. STEM is celebrated at universities. STEM is the solution to the world’s problems. And scientists are sometimes portrayed as knights in shining armour fighting the good fight for all of humanity. And the opportunities to do good science, if you can land them, are greater than ever before. Given all this – who would want to leave?

But science isn’t the only area of professional life that is both over-glamourized and over-hyped. I often wonder what it is like in art, or music, or in professional sport, or in the film industry. I can only imagine. The difference is that I don’t follow brilliant young musicians or actors on Twitter, and if I did I might not understand the nuances of what they were prepared to share. I mostly follow scientists. I also think the scientists share their stories a lot and since professional science is a young discipline I’m not sure the sense of acceptance of failure or of being ignored, that artists may have got used to, has yet settled over the scientists.

I wonder if science is at a delicate phase in its development – it started out in poverty, then there was a burst of investment after World War 2 when countries around the world built up their universities as research centres, and now the number of interested researchers and ideas is outstripping the resources available (everywhere except perhaps in China where investment in science is still increasing).

So, do I have any answers?

I think we have to be careful about over-hyping science as the only answer to humanity’s problems. Research is great but there are so many other ways of contributing to the world. We’ve worked hard to celebrate scientific achievements, I think we can also do more to recognize other contributions more within our universities.

Most importantly we have to separate the issue of funding from the practice of science. Science remains great, it is just the competition for funds that drives people nuts. I wonder if we can help those we mentor to balance their operations so that things don’t all depend on one big grant or fellowship. Some people run three strands in their research, yes, the big grants, but also smaller cheaper ideas, and finally it’s worthwhile to look for opportunities to take part in bigger science consortiums, or just collaborate with the big labs where even the crumbs off the table are enough to survive.

Thought also needs to go into how many people we drag into the Hunger Games arena. Once upon a time there were fewer researchers and on top of that it really was cheaper. The modern research enterprise is staffed in part by PhD students and this reality has meant the competition pipeline has become very tough. It won’t be easy but being judicious with the students we recruit and supporting them to leave science, if they wish, has to be part of the answer.

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