Understanding grants in science: doing research without selling your soul

Last week was a good week for me, because I received a several thousand dollar grant for my research, so I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about exactly what that means. Many people seem to be under the impression that I can now go buy a new car, or that I have been bought off by some company and am now their pawn. In reality, all that it means is that I can do a research project that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. So in this post, I want to clear up some myths and discuss how grants work in science.

Note: Throughout this post I am going to refer to anyone who provides a grant as a “grant agency” regardless of whether they are a company, society, government, charity, etc. Also, please note that I am speaking in very general terms. There are tons of different types of grants out there, so it is always possible to find unusual ones or exceptions the comments that I am going to make, but you should not make the mistake of focusing on the outliers and ignoring the general trends. In other words, I am not saying that there are no biased or unethical sources of funding, but most grants don’t work the way that many people seem to think they do.

You don’t get to keep the money
Addendum (14-June-16): Based on the comments, it seems that in some countries, such as the US, it is more common for grants to cover salaries than my personal experience with grants (which is largely not in the US) had lead me to believe. Please see the comments.

The first misconception that I want to clear up is the idea that scientists get to keep their grant money for their own expenditures. In a great many cases, a scientist’s salary is covered by the university, institution, or company that they work for. In those cases, all of the money goes into your research and you don’t get to keep a single cent (many grants explicitly state that they won’t cover salaries). Indeed, when you apply for the grant, you have to provide a detailed budget showing how you are going to spend the money, and at the end of the project, you are generally required to provide reports showing what you did, including providing evidence that you met the research objectives that you proposed in your application.

To be clear, there are some situations where a scientist’s salary is not covered by their university, and in those cases, you do apply for grants that include your salary, but even then, the salary can only be a very modest part of your budget. Trying to give yourself a high salary is pretty much guaranteed to result in your application getting tossed into the “do not fund” pile.

Now, you may be thinking, “well can’t you just lie and spend the money on personal stuff without telling anyone?” No, not really. First, grant money is usually locked up in institutional accounts. It doesn’t generally go into your personal account. This means that to use the money, you have to fill out purchase orders that go through your university. So there is accountability, and if you start trying to buy a bunch of clearly personal stuff, you’re going to get called on it. Second, you have to report back to the grant agency and show that you produced results. So if you spend the money on a vacation to Hawaii, you won’t have enough to do the project, which means you won’t produce results, which means that you’ll have a bad track record and won’t be able to get grants in the future. One of the things that grant committees want to see is evidence that you have spent previous grants wisely and produce high quality results. So blowing the grant on personal purchases is a really bad idea.

Note: When I say “produce results” I simply mean that you carried your project through to it’s conclusion and produced a report, paper, etc. I do not mean, “produced a specific result that the grant agency wanted.”

What’s the incentive?
At this point, you may be wondering what the incentive is for getting grants. If scientists don’t get to keep the money, then what’s the point? Indeed, by getting my recent grant, I have just committed myself to a project that will consume several months of my time and increase my pay by exactly 0 dollars. So why am I excited by it?

There are several answers to that question. First, a scientist’s status is determined largely by both the number and quality of papers that he/she produces. So getting a grant is a good thing because it lets you do research, which lets you publish, which lets you build your reputation as a scientist. For well established scientists, however, an extra paper doesn’t make that big of a difference. To be clear, it’s still important. Even if you have tenure you are usually expected to publish at least occasionally, but most scientists are workaholics, and working 60+ hours a week is extremely common. So why would we kill ourselves over these projects that produce little in the way of tangible personal benefits?

The answer is the underlying reason why many of us got into science in the first place: we love asking and answering questions. Becoming a scientist is an extremely long, difficult, and expensive process, so unless you really love doing research, you probably aren’t going to stick with it all the way through the PhD. As a result, those who do make it through tend to be extremely passionate about their work. So scientists get excited when we get grants because grants let us do the really cool research projects that we want to do. As a scientist, you get to pick what you want to study. So you write grants for projects that you are interested in and care about. In my case, not only do I get to answer an interesting question, but it is a question with strong implications for the conservation of many species of amphibians, and as a herpetologist/conservation biologist, that is something that I care greatly about. So I am excited by this grant because it well let me do research that I think is interesting and important.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all scientists are driven entirely by their love of research. We’re human. We have the same faults as everyone else, and there are always exceptions to the norm, but most of the people who stick with science do so because they love it (it’s certainly not for the money, because we make diddlysquat). Go to a conference sometime and talk to the scientists about their work. I think that you might be surprised by how deeply they care about what they are doing.

Grant agencies don’t control your results
Perhaps the most common myth that I encounter about grants is the idea that granting agencies control the results of the projects that they fund. I constantly hear non-scientists assert that grants, “come with strings attached,” and people often seem to think that when you get a grant, you agree to produce a particular result.  In reality, in the majority of cases, grant agencies have absolutely no control whatsoever over your results.  You tell them what you are going to test, not what result you are going to find. Also, at the end of your project, when you write your paper, you don’t have to submit it to them for approval before sending it to a journal. You do have to give them a written report of what you did, but they usually have no control over what you do with those data. In fact, in most cases, you can submit your paper for review before even informing them of your results. Just to give one comical example of this, an anti-vaccine group recently became very upset when scientists that they had funded published a paper showing a lack of evidence that vaccines cause autism.

Now, you may be thinking, “fine, they can’t stop you from publishing, but if you publish a result that they don’t like, you won’t get funding from them again.” First, that argument would only apply to the subset of grants that come from corporations or biased special interest groups (more on that in the next section). Second, within that subset, yes, using a  Merck grant to publish a paper showing that one of Merck’s products is dangerous might prevent you from getting a grant from them again, but what is your incentive for getting another grant from them? Remember, in many situations, you don’t get to keep any of the funding. You don’t benefit financially from it. Your only benefits are personal satisfaction and the increase in your scientific reputation, but spending months working 60 hours a week on a project, then scrapping all of that work and falsifying the results is the exact opposite of personal satisfaction. Similarly, writing a crappy paper with false results is a good way to ruin your scientific reputation. So risking your career by falsifying results just so that you can get another grant for a project that you may also have to falsify is downright stupid.

To be 100% clear, within the medical literature, there are very real and serious biases that need to be dealt with. It is true that research that is sponsored by pharmaceutical companies is more likely to favor those companies, but there are several things to note there. First, pharmaceutical companies tend to either fund their own research or use contract research organizations rather than giving out grants to academics. In those situations, the scientists often do get their salaries from the companies, and the companies do have a very large say in writing the papers. So those situations are fundamentally different from what I am talking about in this post. Also, I do not mean to suggest that scientists are in no way biased. Of course we have biases, and receiving a large grant certainly can give you a subconscious bias towards the company that gave you the grant. That is, however, not at all the same as the type of deliberate collusion that many people assume takes place.  

Grants aren’t given out by politicians
This is a somewhat bizarre myth, but I run into it frequently. Many people seem to be under the impression that politicians control the entire granting process and they get to decide who does and does not get the funding. In reality, there are tons of different grants out there, many of which have no connections to governments. Further, even when the grants are from governments, the politicians generally have very little to do with who gets them. They may set general limits (like X amount of money is for human health research), but they don’t decide the actual people/projects that get the money. That decision is usually made by a panel of scientists (often independent scientists).

You can do research that disagrees with big companies
The final myth that I want to address is the notion that you will never get funding for a topic that opposes large corporations. Again, there are lots of grants that aren’t associated with companies, and corporations do not control the entire grant process. So this notion is quite ridiculous.

Other people modify this claim to make it more general and argue that you have to study whatever the grant agency wants you to, but that is backwards of how things usually work. You decide what interests you, then you write a proposal for that topic and send it to a grant agency that you think might be interested in it. If they like it and don’t have any better proposals, you’ll get the money. If they don’t like it, you won’t. They don’t tell you what to study, rather you tell them what you are going to study.

To be clear, getting grants is not easy, and you usually have to write lots of applications before you actually get one (my project received several rejections before a grant agency finally accepted it). Also, you often have to try to sell your project differently depending on where you are applying, but at the end of the day, the project is yours. For example, my project is a genomics project on the conservation of rainforest frogs. Some of the grants that I applied for were very conservation focused, so for those applications, I stressed the conservation implications of my work. Others were really interested in genomics research, so for those I stressed that aspect. Still others were concerned about rainforests, so for those I emphasized my study subjects’ role as members of the rainforest community. So each application that I wrote was tailored to the interests of the people that I was applying to, but it was the same project on each application, I just presented it differently. Also, it is worth mentioning that grant agencies do sometimes recommend that you change your methodologies if they think that what you proposed was inadequate, but those recommendations usually come from the scientists who reviewed the grant proposals, not from the actual source of the grant.

So yes, getting grants is difficult, and if you want to get one, your project is going to need to have a solid scientific basis. If you’re writing proposals for flat-earth research, you’re not going to get any money. Similarly, if you are working on a very boring topic with no real-world applications, you’re going to have trouble getting money, but if you have an interesting question with good scientific support behind it, you can get money somewhere. This is especially true if your research has implications for human health. If you actually had a compelling reason to think that a particular vaccine was dangerous, for example, you could absolutely get funding for it. If you don’t believe me, just look at the hundreds of papers on vaccine safety, many of which were not funded by pharmaceutical companies. The dozens of studies on vaccines and autism, for example, exist because scientists took the concern over vaccines causing autism seriously and invested heavily in studying it. The fact that there was a potential that the research would be negative for pharmaceutical companies did not prevent the research from going forward (again, just to be clear, many of those studies were not funded by “big pharma” so you can’t accuse them all of being corrupt without committing an ad hoc fallacy).

Finally, just in case you aren’t convinced that corporations don’t control the process, think about the thousands of papers that have been published on humans causing climate change. If large companies were actually capable of preventing important research from moving forward, then surely multi-billion dollar oil companies could have prevented those climatologists from getting money.

via PhD Comics

via PhD Comics

Biases
I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture of grants. There are plenty of real problems with the system, and one of the biggest (in my opinion) is the biased nature of grants. Some topics are much easier to get money for than others. For example, within conservation biology, the vast majority of money goes to “cute and cuddly” animals. If you want to do conservation research on pandas, tigers, etc. there’s plenty of money for that, but if you want to study rattlesnakes, snails, lizards, etc., good luck and may the force be with you. For example, a recent review of the literature on Australian mammals found that 73% of the papers were on marsupials (kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, etc.) despite the fact that Australia is home to a great many bats and rodents. Getting funding for those “ugly” animals is much more difficult than getting funding for “cute” charismatic animals.

There are similar biases in the medical literature. Some diseases get way more attention than others even though the neglected diseases are often more important. For example, there is a mismatch between the burden created by different types of cancer and the amount that we spend studying those cancers.

Another huge and regrettable bias is the bias against replication studies. Grant agencies like to see novel research that is tackling new questions, but replication is (or at least should be) the cornerstone of science. Nevertheless, if you want to do exactly what someone else has already done, you are going to have a really hard time getting funding.

Summary
In short, there are very real problems with the way that grants work. There are enormous biases in their distribution, and some topics are very hard to get funding for. Also, conflicts of interest do sometimes exist and should be taken seriously; however, the way that many opponents of science characterize grants is completely false. In many situations, scientists do not get to keep any of the grant money for themselves, and grant agencies usually have no control over the final results of the project. Similarly, grant agencies do not tell you what to study, rather you tell them what you want to study. So this notion that you can’t get funding for a project that might negatively impact a large company is absurd. There are lots of grants out there and many of them are not affiliated with companies. Finally, many of the biggest grants are from governments, but those grants are usually distributed by panels of expert scientists, not politicians.

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8 Responses to Understanding grants in science: doing research without selling your soul

  1. Eli Rabett says:

    Eli hopes you are not located in the US, because much of what you write is not true in a US context. US faculty (except in the biomedical areas) are almost all on nine month contracts. Grants can be used to pay summer salary (usually only one month tho per grant is all that is allowed except for large projects, three is never allowed for arcane reasons).

    Grants can also be used to cover teaching relief during the academic year either part time or in full although this is very hard to get. A few institutions (MIT) demand that their faculty cover a part of their 9 month salary at least in the STEM areas.

    Research faculty (e.g. those who do not teach) are required to cover ALL of their salaries and are let go if they do not. Each place has a set of specific rules about how long such faculty can go without external funding.

    Medical school faculty are required to have grants to cover significant fractions of their 12 month salaries and this makes up a huge chunk of NIH grants. Go naked and you are gone. NIH also sets a maximum salary level for faculty support.

    If you have a couple of six packs Eli will explain the concept of Institutional Base Salary to you.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Thank you for your comment, and I apologize if anything that I wrote is incorrect (I have added an addendum to the post directing people to your comment). Most of my personal experience with grants is indeed from outside the US, where most of the grants that I have looked at or applied for have specifically stated that they do not cover salaries. I did, however, receive both my BS and MS in the US (not biomedical, btw), and both of the universities that I attended there had tenure, and at least the bulk of the salary for many of the professors was covered by the university. I did not think that those institutions were exceptions to the norm, but perhaps they were.

      Would you agree though that in situations where the grant covers your salary, the requested salary must be a reasonable amount and attempting to give yourself a raise generally won’t go over well?

      Also, you said, “much of what you write is not true in a US context.” What other aspects did I get wrong? To be clear, I am asking out of an honest desire to correct my mistakes, rather being argumentative.

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    • It sounds pretty accurate for me as a researcher in Germany. With the exception that if you are not (yet) faculty, you can apply for projects that include your own salary, rather than the salary of someone else, to do the research.

      That salary is about half of what a professor gets. And those salaries are already not stellar. When I did my PhD, one of the other students was bought by a company before the PhD was finished. The professor was not happy about that, but could understand given that that PhD student immediate got a salary higher than he had. He was leading a lab with several dozens of researchers.

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  2. Ailsa graham says:

    Congratulations on your grant. When I was a young just qualified medical lab technologist I applied for a job with a research scientist at the university where I trained. It was a barely a living wage. I wasn’t altruistic enough to take the job. Kudos to those that are willing to work in research. My hats off to you.

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  3. datadroid says:

    Under the heading “What’s the incentive?” the first sentence has the word “intensive” where it should again read “incentive.”

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  4. BioBrains says:

    When you say “does not pay for salary” do you mean the salary of the PI (i.e. the person writing/applying for the grant)? I agree that at least in my non-US country that is usually (some exceptions of course, mainly for early career PIs) not chargeable to the grant. But surely most (many) grants pay for the salary of a postdoc/PhD student (obviously not when the grant is quite small)? It’s quite difficult to get salary for technical support staff, which are supposed to be on permanent contracts of the university, but in reality those often don’t exist.

    Still, you are obviously right about the fact that there is no personal gain or enrichment to be had, other than that you can spread the word that you got the grant – for which YAY and congrats, of course!

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Yes, I meant the personal salary of the applicant (sorry for the lack of clarity). You are certainly correct that grants often cover salaries of post-docs/graduate students.

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