Academia: research funding

As described in a previous blog post, most of the jobs in academia are temporary positions. Only the person in charge of a group, the principal investigator, and sometimes the technicians have permanent positions and thus only their salary is paid for by the institute or university that they are working at. All other positions are funded by grants.

The types of grants
Grants come in many different forms and are awarded by many different institutions. There are grants for visiting a lab in a foreign country for a short period, grants for an entire PhD or postdoc project and grants that supply enough money to pay several PhDs or postdocs. Grants in the Netherlands can be paid by the NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research or by the European Union, such as the Marie Curie grant for a Postdoc abroad or the European Research Council (ERC) grants for researchers aiming to start up their own group. Grants can also be (partly) funded by charities, such as the Hartstichting, which supports cardiovascular disease research, or by companies, such as the many breeding companies in the Netherlands that support plant research. In all cases, scientists judge the applications and decide which of their colleagues get the money. Care is taken that the people in the decision committee are as objective as possible, for example by not letting them judge people they have worked together with. In this way, at least in theory, the grant applications are judged solely on the quality of the researcher and the proposed project.

Who applies for the grants?
The visiting scholar and Marie Curie grants are personal grants, which means that they are written and defended by the person who will do the work. These kind of grants also exist in very small numbers for PhD projects – that is how I got the money for my project. In general, though, most grants are written by the principal investigator of a lab. Once the money is granted, the PI will interview people and hire someone to perform the work described in the grant.

Critique on the system
Without grants, research cannot be performed in the lab: while there is money for the salary of the principal investigator and a technician, there is generally no money for research supplies. Moreover, without PhDs and postdocs there are simply too few hands to get anywhere. Thus, to keep a lab going, principal investigators spend a lot of their time writing and defending grant applications to hire new people. In addition, they spend time to review the grants of other people. This is part of the reason that there is quite a lot of critique on the current funding system. Another critique is that it doesn’t always select the best science. People who have already gotten grants in the past have a higher chance of getting grants again because of those previous grants on their CV. Likewise, people with one or two papers in great journals are much more likely to get grants for a long time afterwards. This leads to vicious circles with those lucky enough to have received grants or a good paper early in their career getting more and more money afterwards. Currently no good alternative has been found yet, though.

Further reading
Since there is much more to be added to this discussion, but I do not want to make this post way too long and do not know everything myself, here are some sources for extra reading:
More about the procedure of deciding which grants get funded (in this case by the National Institutes of Health in the USA)
More about who pays for research, again in the USA, and how that might influence how the research is carried out
More on why it’s sometimes hard to see immediately why certain research, especially fundamental science, is ultimately beneficial for society – and thus to convince the public and politicians why funding is needed
More about the critique on the current EU funding system
More on a recently proposed new funding system in the Netherlands

Academia: the academic career ladder

PhD, postdoc and PI are terms that have two things in common: 1) most people have little to no idea what they mean and 2) they are all names for jobs on the academic career ladder. Okay, and 3) they all start with a ‘p’.

The first step: doing a PhD
I am currently at the first step of the career ladder in academia: doing a PhD. Apart from some shorter PhDs in the medical field, most PhDs take (at least) four years. As discussed in several other articles on this website, doing a PhD is mostly about doing research. Apart from doing research, the tasks of a PhD candidate generally involve some teaching and student supervision tasks. Those latter things do not contribute to the final evaluation of the PhD candidate, though. A PhD project is judged on the PhD thesis that is written in the end. This thesis is a book containing an introductory chapter, two to many research chapters, a discussion and a summary for non-scientists. While it is not strictly required, it is better for future career possibilities when at least some of the chapters of the thesis have been published in a scientific, peer-reviewed journal before handing in the thesis. After approval of the thesis by a committee, it has to be successfully defended in front of a group of scientists before the doctor degree is awarded.

Postdoc time!
The new doctor can now move on to the next step in the academic career ladder: doing a postdoc. A postdoc – short for postdoctoral researcher – is also a temporary position, which generally last two to three years, there are also people doing much longer postdocs. The main responsibility of a postdoc is still doing research. However, more responsibilities can be required. Postdocs might partly supervise PhD students or give lectures, for example. While postdoctoral research can be in the same research field as the PhD was performed in, this is not necessarily the case. In general, people at least go to a different lab, and often even to a different country.

Moving towards a permanent position
After about two postdoc postitions, the next step is a tenure track position. A tenure track is a job for four to five years and often comes with money to pay a PhD. At Dutch universities, tenure trackers are generally placed in an existing lab. This is in contrast to the situation in the US and at Dutch research institutes like the NIOO and the Hubrecht, where people with a tenure track position almost always start a new lab. In the five years of the contract, the  person needs to prove that he / she is ‘worthy’ of a permanent position. In practice, this comes down to publishing enough papers in important enough journals. If these requirements are met, the person will get a permanent position as ‘principal investigator’, or ‘PI’. At research institutes like the NIOO and the Hubrecht, principal investigators are often not connected to a university and thus not Professors. At universities, principal investigators are generally either assistant, associate or full Professors.

Apart from the PhD candidates, Postdocs and principal investigators, most labs in the beta-sciences also have technicians. Technician positions are generally permanent positions, thus ensuring continuity in a lab where most people leave again after a few years. Technicians are part of the support staff: they help out with experimental work and make sure that everything works smoothly by ordering supplies, keeping track of stocks, arranging lab cleanings, etc. From my experience in different labs I learned that good technicians are vital for good research.

Advancing on the ladder
As already mentioned in several of the interviews on this site, permanent positions are hard to come by in academia. The following graph, published in one of the major journals, illustrates this well.

Since 1982, almost 800,000 PhDs were awarded in science and engineering (S&E) fields, whereas only about 100,000 academic faculty positions were created in those fields within the same time frame. The number of S&E PhDs awarded annually has also increased over this time frame, from ~19,000 in 1982 to ~36,000 in 2011. The number of faculty positions created each year, however, has not changed, with roughly 3,000 new positions created annually

Even when someone reaches the highest level of the career ladder, that of principal investigator, that does not mean that he / she can relax and focus on research from then on. In fact, people in those positions in the beta sciences, generally do not carry out research anymore at all. Instead, they spend their time managing the lab, supervising PhD candidates and postdocs and applying for money. Money, more specifically research funding and grant application, is worthy of a post itself, though, so I will go into that in a later post.

Figure and supporting legend from Schillebeeckx et al. (2017) The missing piece to changing the university culture, Nature Biotechnology 31: 938–941. Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature biotechnology, copyright 2017.