In my experience as a referee, both write-in and on panels, the quality of the writing, the exposition of the proposal, made a substantial difference in whether or not the proposal received favorable reviews.
[Response: Indeed. We may put to together a post on tips to get your proposals funded – feel free to make some suggestions. – gavin]
Thanks for this. In my experience, the granting process is one of the murkiest aspects of science in the public mind. I think one additional point I would emphasize is that those reviewing a proposal (or a journal article for that matter) are often passionately interested in advancing understanding of the field. The ultimate motivation for all of this unpaid work is curiosity, so it makes sense to allocate funds in the way most likely to advance the field. In an ideal world this not only satisfies curiosity, but is most likely to open new avenues for the growth of the field.
People need to realize that even when it comes to money, science is still works best as a curiosity-driven enterprise.
Your description matches my experience in a completely different field exactly. The one thing you didn’t mention is the enormous amount of work that has to be accomplished before the panel gets together. Maybe it is all online now, but it used to consist of a large box of applications in the mail that had to be read. This substantial extra time is considered to be a part of ones job. There is no pay for reading multiple grant applications night after night and dodging teaching responsibilities and important experiment timelines, which are much more important to the home institution. Steve
I largely agree with your summary, but I saw cases when a single panel member wrecked a proposal. Since, only two or three rapporteur read the full proposal the rest of the panel is often left to rely on what others said. I witnessed, when a single panel member relatively easily set the mood against a proposal. At 10-20% hit rate, it is enough, if a couple of panel members downgrade a proposal so it falls to the lower part of the top third and no vehement support from other panel members can offset that.
I find that putting proposals to three bins (good, mediocre, and poor) is easy. Ranking the top one third when only the top 5-10% gets funded is difficult and mostly subjective or the outcome is almost random at best.
Actually, I see the low 100-200K/yr budget a major problem. I don’t think substantial work can be delivered at this funding level. NSF expects that money partly fund grad students (who are a toss up at best in terms of producing results). I don’t think self promoting in proposals happens too much, but over promising is quite common. Sometime, I wish if funding agencies put progress and final reports through similar evaluation as they do when granting awards.
The 10% or less hit rate is also highly limiting. I am probably not the only one, who saw on panels some old fart ranked first just because of reputation. I remember sitting on panel where the rapporteur literally said, here is mediocre proposal from a well know team that has a good track record so it should be ranked high. Out of the 4-5 proposal that gets funded from a pool of 50, if only the first two slots are taken up by these that leaves very little chance for truly innovative proposals.
I think, panels have a tendency to go by the flow, therefore proposals that are unusual for whatever reason have better chance to run into some devastating objection at least from one panel member, than enthusiastic panel support. I don’t think that the final proposal selections are purposely biased, but this tendency of going by the flow definitely makes the outcomes fairly uniform.
Thanks, Gavin. You say “No-one gets funded to demonstrate a specific result. People get funded to investigate questions.” This statement should be redundant but going by comments on realclimate.org and other places there is a belief by some people that scientific researchers somehow already know the answers and do research to ‘prove’ these answers. (This erroneous idea ties in with misplaced notions of ‘common sense’ always giving the ‘correct’ answer.)
I don’t know about what happens in the USA, but here in Australia the capability of the institutions themselves is a big factor in addition to the proven track record of the lead researchers. A less experienced lead researcher backed by a noted institution will rate more highly than a less experienced lead researcher from a lower profile research institute.
Collaborations are often sought to overcome this (eg a low profile institution seeks to team up with researchers in a large, established university or state government agency). Collaborative Research Centres have been set up over the past few decades here in Australia, many being Centres of Excellence – to help make sure the ‘critical mass’ (of facilities, equipment and people) is reached for good multi-institution, inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary research. Global collaborations are also looked upon favourably for the same reason.
Having sat on NASA review panels I have always found that sitting on a review panel is a great deal of exhausting work. After leading the discussion on 3 or 4 proposals NASA requires that the “lead” reviewer write a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal as well as the summary of the panel discussion. On more than one occasion I have found very compelling proposals competeting for the same very very limited funds making it very difficult to find recommend one versus the other. I have always felt it was something I should do for the good of the community, but dreaded all the very concentrated work effort that was required.
When I get the call from the program manager asking if there is away to reduce the proposal costs, I almost always end up cutting out my own salary entirely to afford paying for the graduate students.
This fall I taught a graduate level instrumentation course where I asked the students to write proposals to investigate urban heat island effects given a specific Request For Proposals (RFP). Essentialy I wrote the RFP as if we were going to run METROMEX all over again. Since it was an instrumentation course I recommended concentrating on the field portion and to concentrate on what instrumentation would be appropriate. The department faculty then acted as the review panel and I acted as the program manager. Not only was the response from the graduate students overwhelmingly positive, but the reponse from the junior faculty who had never sat on a review panel before was enlightening altering how the approached writing a proposal.
As a climate scientist, I’d say that
” if it is just for the money, then most climate scientists should have left from the climate research field”.
As Kerry Emanuel expressed in http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060717/full/news060717-1.html , ” Climate science is a very hard physical, chemical, mathematical, and now, to some extent, biological problem, and it requires people who are very talented in these areas.” If they were more interested in money, these talented people could be much richer as business-men, lawyers, or software engineers rather than as climate scientists.
My personal experience: I graduated from a top university in China: Most of my classmates staying in China becomes successful businessmen and they often feel curious why I am still doing research which can not make me rich; Almost all of my classmates except myself who have moved in USA becomes software engineers or are working in financial business, and they also feel surprised why I am still doing climate research which will never make me rich.
: ) As a climate scientist I can enjoy many beautiful things, but definitely not for money. Be proud of being a member of climate research community.
[Response: Nicely stated Jianhua, and I would add that it applies to scientists generally.–Jim]
The one way that the PI does financially benefit from getting a grant is that it counts for quite a lot (almost everything ;o) with university promotions committees. It isn’t true that the PI doesn’t benefit personally from grant getting, but it is very nearly true. Gavin’s observations are in good accord with my experience as a researcher and as a reviewer; it is the science that matters most (although good communication skills are required to make sure the reviewers appreciate what it is you want to do and why).
Comment by Dikran Marsupial — 8 Jan 2011 @ 4:55 AM
Good article. My world (that of a Program Officer at the NIH) mirrors what you wrote. The only thing that may be different is that the funding where I am is almost exclusively dependent on the scores from the peer reviewers. There may be some wiggle room at the boundary, but going by the peer review is the most defensible decision.
With the submitted-to-funded ratio the way it is, many worthwhile proposals do not get funded, unfortunately, which is why a track record in which the PI has demonstrated success (good results – being correct counts for something) counts.
And Jianhua Lu really captured why we go into science, to which I might add insatiable curiosity, the thrill of discovering something new and the joy of being surrounded by people with the same love.
Who sets the questions in’policy-relevant research? The policy-maker, the individual research or the research institution?
Climate research in UK and EU at least has long been regarded as policy-relevant and has been funded as such. When I was a researcher fully dependent on grants, the search for buzz words abnd policy-relevant proposals was continuous and time consuming.
In MHO climate research will only be trustworthy again if firmly separated from the ‘decarbonisation of energy supply’ agenda of governemnts keen to replace carbon fuels for a large variety of reasons.
In my experience, too much environmental research has turned into ‘environmentalist'(ideologically motivated) efforts because of this dangerous funding link to government or corporate policy (and hence money-making or competence enhancing).
[Response: Do you have any idea of what actually gets funded in climate science? Please look up the NSF grants on the subject and then come back. You may have thought that your proposals in social science needed to have ‘buzz words’ (though I doubt this is as widespread as you claim), but that kind of shallow grantsmanship plays almost no (or very little) role in science funding. – gavin]
Comment by Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen — 8 Jan 2011 @ 7:09 AM
Good to see a post about what your site is really all about – getting grants. You’re lucky in the US – the politics is only implicit – in that the peer reviewer’s will tend to support the status quo because that’s mainly the business they’re in also, and will not deviate too far from what they perceive the public will find palatable (because the public pays the bills).
Here in New Zealand the politics is much more in your face and certain people and certain ideas will not get grants, although occasionally something politically incorrect slips through.
PS is there any way out stuff like wasting $$BB of the taxpayers money on mini-reflecting satellites in the latest grant round?
[Response: Since this is a science site, perhaps you’d care to provide some actual evidence for you claims? I have seen absolutely nothing in my experience that would support your claim that peer reviewers of grants pay any mind to what the public thinks is ‘palatable’ – they are there to assess the plausibility, tractability and usefulness of the science. – gavin]
#10 Pattaya Girls: Funding all proposals would be a bad idea. Back in the dark ages when there were significantly fewer researchers and much higher success rate, about half of the proposals did not deserve funding–mostly they were good ideas but had not been adequately developed.
The ideal success rate in my experience is between 30 and 50%–this sharpens the proposed research but does not turn getting funded into a lottery activity. As many people above have noted, we are throwing out important research proposals that should be awarded at the 20% funding mark. This unfortunately has discouraged some very good scientists.
I was speaking mainly about what happens in my country. However I do know from my field (biomedical science) that the NIH wastes billions of dollars following hoax and quack leads in seeking medical cures – they wasted over a $1B on trials of shark cartilage to cure cancer even though it was well known to be a scam.
[Response: Sorry, I’m very sceptical of this. $1 Billion dollars is a substantial fraction of the whole NIH budget. Reference? – gavin]
It didn’t take long to find evidence from your own link: $147,946,598.00 on “Climate change education”. I would sympathize with your colleagues in the non-“social sciences” if they were more than a bit pissed about that if they missed out on really good grants. And I bet not a cent of that goes on “teaching the controversy”.
[Response: Again, you are making assertions based on your own prejudice, not actual evidence. You need to do better than that. – gavin]
A recent gem from my country is the $800K that got awarded to a researcher to see if breakfast is a useful meal. (no prizes for guessing what the answer will be).
These are bones that the funders feel they must throw to keep the public/politicians/lobbyists on board so they can go on handing out money for real science as well.
Come on you guys, you’ve been around for a while – you must know this goes on – funding in one small defined area may seem transparent and corruption proof but funding in general is obviously fairly political in your country/ies also.
[Response: It’s pretty clear at this point that you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.–Jim]
I can’t resist on commenting on response posting#13 from Sonja. I don’t make statistics about what gets funded, but I have hard time to believe that a thorough evaluation of the grants that were funded in the last ten years would support your argument. I saw many proposals primarily focusing on some specific science question with respect to land surface hydrological processes peppered at the end with some bogus exercise using \downscaled\ GCM output. These \add-ons\ are often there to satisfy policy relevance and broader impact.
[Response: I’m certainly not claiming that every proposal is perfect or that people don’t graft less interesting ideas on top of quite good ones – that happens all the time. I strongly disagree that using downscaled GCM output is necessarily bogus (where does that come from?) – it will depend completely on the context. ‘Policy relevance’ is not a required factor for science proposals, so that’s irrelevant, and ‘broader impact’ can encompass anything from real-time data websites, to high school projects, to graduate student education, to lesson plans, to input to large-scale assessments. None of these things are ‘bogus’. – gavin]
Just out of curiosity, how many funding do you have, which does not have climate change mentioned in the project plan?
[Response: Currently, I’m a co-PI on the GISS model development proposal (which is most of my money), I get a small amount of funding for museum climate science education projects, and I fund a programmer and other colleagues to study isotopes in the present day water cycle. Historically, I’ve had grants to look at Holocene isotope variability, understanding 10Be in ice cores, carbon cycle modelling, the sensitivity of the NAM to various forcings. All of them are related to climate, but why wouldn’t they be? That’s what I study. – gavin]
Sonja, if you’d ever done science or even bothered to actually look at how it is done, you’d realize that it is curiosity driven. No, one cannot count on the wisdom of governments to choose the right areas to fund, but science itself dictates to a large extent the problems that can and must be solved for progress to occur. I have actually seen requests for proposals be under-subscribed when researchers deemed the prospects for meaningful progress to be dim, or when they were not sufficiently “interesting”.
The thing you need to understand (but which I have little hope that you will) is that the trajectory of a scientist’s career depends to a great extent on his or her record of working on problems that are important to the discipline. This is one reason why “directed” research tends to be inefficient.
The most successful publicly funded research efforts are collaborations between funding agencies that ensure the research benefits the public and scientific advisers who understand what is important and feasible in the field.
And your contention that policy is driven by an desire for “decarbonization” is absurd on its face. The basic science that tells us we are warming the planet by burning fossil fuels is over a century old. Do you contend that Arrhenius was driven by a “decarbonization agenda”. Here’s a hint, Sonja: How about going out and looking at actual evidence rather than looking around and cherrypicking little bits that you can fit into your pre-existing, post-modern theory.
Excellent piece. I’m an experienced NIH reviewer, including chairing a review panel (Study Section), and I think that Dr. Schmidt captures the essential features of the review process very nicely. The NIH Office of Extramural Research has some nice educational features about peer review at their website (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/peer_review_process.htm) and I particularly recommend the Youtube video at (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfgzdLe92c0) which shows a dramatization of how a review panel works.
I want to underscore a couple of points made in prior posts. First, reviewing is a lot of work. Reviewers take their responsibilities very seriously and devote considerable effort to review work, often to the detriment of their other responsibilities, including their primary research work. Second, reviewers are very aware that they are influencing the expenditure of the public’s money and are very concerned with making sure that the taxpayer gets good value for their money.
Finally, I want to second (or third or fourth) Dr. Lu’s comments.
Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen admits in an article published online that “the journal I edit has tried to keep this debate [climate scepticism] alive” She also states elsewhere I’m following my political agenda — a bit, anyway,” … “But isn’t that the right of the editor?”
Nearly $148M for “climate change education?” How was this number arrived at? Over what time scale is it relevant?
I searched the term at the NSF link Gavin provided, and found a list of grants going back to 1989. For 2011, I found a total of about $17M, if my mental addition can be trusted.
Moreover, the titles of proposals make pretty clear that they are not ONLY doing “climate change education.” For example, the biggest grant I noticed for 2011 is a large study of water quality in the Great Lakes–nearly $5M. From the description, the intent is to study multiple factors impacting water quality, but especially phosphorus loading, with a primary focus on the western Lake Erie basin. One of those factors is climate change.
They are listed under the “education” rubric because they plan to involve students in the research at various levels, from high school to postdocs. But as far as I can judge, the main focus is going to be studying phosphorus loads in western Lake Erie.
As a biomedical scientist with close to two decades of experience on NIH review panels (called Study Sections or Scientific Review Groups by the NIH) I’d also like to say “well done” to Gavin. The general public (well at least my friends and relatives) have little understanding of how research grants are awarded and the work that goes into (writing and) reviewing them; the NIH does “pay” reviewers but it’s such a token amount that my wife refers to me as a volunteer for the government when I’m on a review panel. But it’s a service that is important not only in helping select work most deserving of funding but as a grantee I feel a responsibility to add any expertise I have to support a system that, while not perfect, has made considerable contributions to human health and to be quite frank, my career.
I think all grant reviewers can point to situations where the process has fallen down either because of forceful reviewers supporting a less than stellar application or an excellent grant failing to receive unanimous support because of a dispute over the science between reviewers. But these are usually quite unusual situations, although I suspect that as funding levels tighten even further these types of problems will become more common.
In terms of Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen’s #13 question of who sets “policy-relevant research? The policy-maker, the individual research or the research institution?” The answer is all of the above. The NIH funds investigator initiated projects (I believe the largest area of funding) as well as Request for Applications (RFA) which are specific (usually one time) requests for applications in a very specific area/question. Then there are Research Programs which are usually multi-investigator projects that address larger questions and may continue to be funded as long as a renewal application is competitive against all other applications submitted for funding. Plus there are organizations that lobby for increased funding either in general (like FASEB) or for specific areas (patient groups/associations), and yes there are legislators who have and are strong supporters of science. And institutions themselves can influence funding. The institution I work for is an extremely large non-profit focused on biomedical research in specific areas – if it didn’t exist the NIH funding we have would be distributed almost certainly among overlapping but different areas of research.
Also Kevin’s #17 comments that “the NIH wastes billions of dollars following hoax and quack leads in seeking medical cures” is really uninformed. I might cite the specific example that use of the NOD (non-obese diabetic) mouse in diabetes research has been very unsuccessful in finding therapies that can be translated to the bedside as an example of “waste” of what probably has been billions of dollars over many years. But in reality all that research has been of tremendous help in understanding not only animal and human diabetes but autoimmune diseases in general as well as in training pre and post-graduate scientists who have gone on to make their own discoveries in diabetes and other fields. (FYI: My research is in autoimmunity but not diabetes.)
It does matter what (and who) gets funded. I recall as a grad student, if I’d had my way, I would have done a model of an ice sheet. But, our institute had a researcher who was very successful at getting funding in seismology, and thats where the research opportunities were. So thats what I did. There really are a chain of stakeholders, who are usually not involved in writing and evaluating proposals.
I am simply amazed that people can discuss the money – climate connection without even mentioning the coal and oil companies. Actually, I’m stupefied.
In the last three years alone Exxon had well over $1 trillion in revenue and over $100 billion in earnings. Their SGA expenses, which includes all advertising, PR, and lobbying, runs over $50 billion annually. Then there is the rest of the coal, oil, and gas industries. And their trade associations. And their think tanks.
Does anyone doubt that industry’s PR and lobbying operations are vastly superior to those of the climate science community?
Why do I never see these funding sources compared, even by scientists themselves? Maybe it is just hard to compare an ant to an aircraft carrier battle group.
I did not mean that all GCM downscaling are bogus, but when you see a 15 page proposal devoting 8 pages to something that the authors really want to do and a half a page lip service discussing some experiments with future forcings, it is hard to take that seriously.
I am sure that you are aware of growing number of literature showing that the differences between different GCMs are way bigger that the differences between IPCC or Millenium Ecosystem Assessment scenarios. Growing number of people are saying that GCMs are not ready for primetime. I actually have deep respect for GCMs, because I regard mathematical description of the world around us as the highest degree of understanding.
I am absolutely on your side that science and climate science in particular is not an endeavor to make money. There are way better means of getting rich instead of hunting for a few $k here or there. I also agree that there is no wide conspiracy forcing scientist to adhere to the “consensus”, but scientist are not immune to sheep mentality to go by the flow.
In reaction to Daniel Bailey’s posting #21, I suppose, somebody should dig out that Sonja even believes in intelligent design and affiliated to the Tea party movement, which are obvious disqualification for taking her seriously. I personally don’t think pressing the political divide between alarmists and deniers is particularly productive.
Good article & discussion.
I think it is worth mentioning that the grant review process is, largely, an intrinsic component in the full peer-review process.
Many recent discussions of PR only concentrate on processes for publication and neglect that papers are mostly the output of funded research… let alone that it will, normally, by peer-viewed at conferences, seminars, PhD/MSc viva, and by the grant commitee of the reseachers next application.
#17 Kevin: The total appropriations for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medecine from 1999-2010 is $1,064.5 million. If we deduct 1 billion for shark cartilege research….
As for the idea that scientific research is funded only when it reinforces government policy. I have difficulty with this concept. Listening to the 122 congress I haven’t heard anyone who I would think might have a clue as to what holocene isotopes, 10Be, or carbon cycle modelling is about. Mind you we all know what modelling about. OK if you have a thing for skinny women. Am I to believe that in a dark corner of a Washington warehouse Republican political operatives are reviewing the finalists for 2011 funding? That scenario would have scientists living out of their briefcases as every 2 years a new directive, 180 out of phase with the previous, is issued to review boards everywhere. That didn’t even work in the Soviet Union but it could explain why 1930’s forecasts of daily living in 2010 hasn’t come true. I really could use a nuclear furnace in my basement.
I love it when deniers talk themselves into a corner.
We have “Kevin” at #17 arguing that too much money is spent on research that ultimately failed. Yet the common denier theme we hear is that “sceptics” don’t get enough money, that ideas that go against the standard view are somehow de-funded. Well, Kevin has given us a great counterexample.
Apologies for leading the discussion away from climate science but since its about grants, and whether they are politically determined …..
The point is money spent in one place is then unavailable for good research in another place.
The diabetes and shark cartilage examples are poles apart. Yes science should go up dead ends (diabetic mice) but not when the road is blocked off and signs say do not enter (shark cartilage).
Yes you can argue that all research is useful research but not in the same breath as saying you are a reviewer and that your job is important – because then you get back to the ludicrous suggestion above that all research should be funded and hence as a reviewer you will have no job to do.
[Response: Your points are much better when you don’t extrapolate to ridiculous rhetorical positions. No-one thinks that ‘all research is worth doing’, and reviewers and panellists are scathing about research they think is silly. And the less reviewing we have to do, the happier we’d all be. Part of the low funding rate is because people are writing too many low quality grants – which they do because the funding rate is low. – gavin]
Over the 15 years or so I am sure the US taxpayer has spent at least a billion dollars. Again you could argue that it is money well spent – the heroic NIH/NCI has saved us from a non-efficacious and potentially dangerous remedy. But I could have told them that if they’d made me a reviewer and paid me the paltry stipend mentioned… in fact I would have done it for free and perhaps suggested the money was better spent on climate research :).
The best reading on shark cartilage is
Ostrander GK et al (2004) Shark cartilage, cancer and the growing threat of pseudoscience. Cancer Res 64: 8485-8491
Finkelstein JB (2005) Sharks do get cancer: few surprises in cartilage research. J Natl Cancer Inst 97: 1562-1563
Two phase III publicly funded clinical trials (and they are expensive) are…
Lu C et al (2010) Chemoradiotherapy with or without AE-941 in stage III non-small cell lung cancer: a randomized phase III trial. J Natl Cancer Inst 102: 859-865
supported in part by a U10 cooperative agreement as part of the CCOP program (Public Health Service Grant CA48509…)
Loprinzi CL et al (2005) Evaluation of shark cartilage in patients with advanced cancer: a North Central Cancer Treatment Group trial. Cancer 104: 176-182
conducted as a collaborative trial of the North Central Cancer Treatment Group and Mayo Clinic and was supported in part by Public Health Service grants CA-25224, CA-37404, CA-35113, CA-63849, CA-63848, CA-35195, CA-35272, CA-35269, CA-35103, CA-35101, CA-60276, CA-52352, CA-37417, CA-35448.
Re climate change education – yes you can find good examples and I can find bad examples. For example surely most rational people would consider that climate change education has no place in the K-5 curriculum when we struggle to produce literate and numerate 15 year-olds, at least down here we do.
[Response: Huh? I don’t why you would think that. You don’t think that kids shouldn’t learn about what makes the weather? the seasons? that it was hot in the time of the dinosaurs? or cold in the time of the mammoths? – gavin]
Frankly, the idea of climate scientists (fresh from a beating on the grant trail because most of the money was allocated to spurious feel-good research) running around the great lakes with high school students telling them that global warming is the most clear and present danger to humanity scares me somewhat I have to admit.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is certainly an example of funding being driven, at least in part, by politics. This is really how political influence on the funding process is executed–by creating specific pots of money for specific areas. However, if you look at the list of National Centers and Institutes, they define broad-based areas of public interest.
NCCAM has been controversial, because they often fund clinical trials of “treatments” that are used by the public, but for which no plausible scientific rationale exists. It is thus hardly surprising that studies funded by NCCAM often yield negative results (e.g. the recent trial of the cold “remedy” echinacea). Whether this is a waste of money depends upon the value you place upon providing accurate scientific information to consumers who are subjected to a wide variety of claims about “complementary/alternative” (which is frequently a synonym for “quack”) cures. NCCAM has been criticized both by scientists in “non-complementary” fields (who would rather see that part of the NIH budget applied to more science-based questions, ideally the ones addressed by their own grant applications), as well as by some of the Congressional advocates of establishing this center, many of whom were alternative medicine zealots who expected the NCCAM to produce data supporting their beliefs (the fact that NCCAM has failed to do so tells you something about the limits of political influence on science: politics can influence to some extent the areas of research that get funded, but it is hard for Congress to influence the outcomes, because peer-review panels of scientists will not approve funding for projects that are do not adhere to valid scientific methodology).
#27 Mark Shapiro err? There is a massive industry around carbon and climate. And of course because governments are involved the numbers are so huge they’ll dwarf your puny little Exxon. We’re already getting fleeced here. Good opportunities for protectionism as well – which is your protectionist party?
[Response: Oh please. This is just nonsense. Fossil fuels dominate almost every economy in the world, the idea a few carbon offset firms or a consultant for the CDM is on the same scale is fantasy land. – gavin]
Didactylos #31 Denier of what?
# 30 w kensit
You are able to study your holocene isotopes, 10Be because the politicians and bureaucrats believe it is important (and you get a good review of course:)). But if your interest is in collaborating with Egyptian scientists on the holocene fauna of Egypt you’d better have the words “climate change” and “effect” in your grant application.
[Response: No. No politicians had any interest in isotope variability in Holocene speleothems. None. Not one. *Scientists* thought those things were interesting – there is a big difference. – gavin]
“political operatives are reviewing the finalists for 2011 funding” Do you study a different planet? Of course there are analysts, lobbyists and bureaucrats counting where each bean went to make sure they got their share – that’s what politics is all about – who gets what.
I think you think there is a bigger difference between Reps and Dems than you think. You may have bigger swings that us [the bureaucracy doesn’t change with the government here :(] but I’m sure its basically business as usual there too.
Finally I don’t know about the 1930’s predictions for 2010 but a fascinating read is this article where prominent US citizens predict the world in 1952. One prediction that stood out and has certainly come true was that the government would become an ever increasing influence on our daily lives :)
CANTRIL H (1943) The world in 1952: some predictions. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 38: 6-47
[Response: Let’s not get off track here. You want a country with no government influence on your life? – try Somalia. – gavin]
trrll, What do you call alternative medicine for which there is valid scientific evidence?
NCCAM ain’t science. It was an earmark by Congress. Some scientists draw funding from it. Some even do valid research. But it is not science, because effort is directed by decree rather than by curiosity.
Here is an article by someone in the next echelon down than most of the commentators here (IE younger and/or less part of the “establishment”) which tells another side of the funding story. Its worth a read, although much has been said before ad infinitum.
Ray, I read trrll’s post as making the point that even if congress *tries* to influence scientific outcomes by funding by decree, they’re unlikely to succeed, and NCCAM serves as an object lesson that supports his claim.
Oh Gavin were those grants for “climate education” or “climate change education”? There is a world of difference between the two. Once students have had a good dose of chemistry, physics, biology, geology, and climate education, they are equipped to deal with climate change. If under the banner of “climate change eduction” your teachers teach “climate education” I take my hat of to them.
Re “You want a country with no government influence on your life? – try S****.”
– I see we can both use reductio ad absurdum arguments but I get told off for it.
The first clinical trial you list started in 2000. The second ran 2001-2003.
The earliest of the two papers you cite refuting the efficacy of shark cartilage wasn’t published until 2004- postdating the beginning of both trials, and obviously their initial funding, by several years. The second trial had already been concluded by that point.
While it’s possible that the NIH should have known shark cartilage was useless prior to funding the trials, the papers you cite as evidence can’t possibly support that premise. In fact, if you RTFP you see that there were multiple in vitro studies and at least two small-scale trials that showed promising results prior to the 2001-2003 trial that showed negative results.
Furthermore, you’ve still not provided a source for the claim that the NIH wasted $1 billion on the topic.
NIH funds a great deal of clinical research. NIH’s mission is to improve the health of Americans. A criterion applied commonly in evaluation of clinical research proposals is “will it change clinical practice for the better?” Negative trials of some interventions, either medications, surgeries, or alternative therapies, are important in improving patient care by reducing patient risks and waste of money on deadends. In some cases, trials are undertaken with the full recognition by investigators and reviewers that the actual scientific justification for the therapy is slight. These are usually treatments that have become established in practice or embraced by patients without good evaluations. Shark cartilage is an example but not all of the interventions in this category are alternative therapies. Knee arthroscopy for osteoarthritis pain and the Extracranial-Intracranial (ECIC) bypass surgery are examples of 2 common surgeries whose validities were undermined by well conducted negative trials. ECIC bypass has almost disappeared (there are still a couple of valid but unusual indications) and knee arthroscopy for osteoarthritis pain is on the way out.
There was a vogue a number of years ago for gingko preparation treatments for dementia. The scientific rationale was zero. Proper trials were done, and to the surprise of no one, including the investigators and the reviewers who were responsible for funding the trials, the outcomes were negative. This was useful for practicing clinicians (like me) in advising patients not waste their money on these preparations. I see significantly fewer patients taking gingko than I did a decade ago. These negative trial results have saved a lot of people a lot of money and the investment in trials has probably repaid itself several times over. This is also a patient safety issue. Supplements like gingko and shark cartilage are not regulated by the FDA and there is minimal oversight of manufacturing. There have been some fortunately rare episodes of supplement contaminants causing serious problems.
I, and virtually all the physician-scientists I know, would prefer that interventions not be used without good evidence of efficacy and safety. This is not, however, the reality of clinical practice. Trials for things like shark cartilage may not justified on scientific grounds but they are often well justified in terms of potential impact on clinical practice.
I don’t think anyone contends that government funding of science is perfect or that there are no aberations. However, in most cases, there is an advisory body of scientists that assists funding agencies in determining the interesting questions as well as the relevance of those questions to policy and public interest.
It is not surprising that the reality of climate change and its effects on ecosystems, agriculture, infrastructure… are among those interests. They are not the only such criterion in any RFP that I know of.
I do not know whether your argument is based on a bad personal experience in some other field or whether it is based on your own personal conviction. I am sure, however, that it isn’t based an a broad assessment of the facts wrt climate research.
The point on reputation (second last in Gavin’s list) is both understandable but at the same time has a problematic side to it, which Gavin mentions: For newcomers, the bar is in effect set (a lot) higher than for well known researchers in the field. The same goes for one’s chances of getting a publication in Nature or Science: Without a well known name on the authorlist, chances are smaller to make it (though of course it’s still possible). It’s understandable, because a name is a convenient shorthand for the quality of a piece, but it’s problematic because it keeps a hierarchy intact which isn’t necessarily conducive to good science.
The argument of how much government is the right amount of government is a good one, but belongs in another forum.
The argument that the politics of climate change are evidence of an intrusive government is absurd. On the other hand, if the world ever had a situation which required some degree of coordination and unity — not one world government, or invasive government, but merely enough cooperation and direction to accelerate the evolution of the world’s archaic and ill-advised energy infrastructure — then this is it.
Interestingly, the way we got into this military industrial complex world that seems to both so frighten and enamor people of a particular political persuasion was through the advent of World War II, the last great challenge which faced the peoples of the world, and required collective unity, coordination and personal sacrifice.
Sixty years ago, I wonder if you would have been one of those Americans arguing fiercely that the U.S.A. needed to stay out of what was a European problem?
Kevin, I was taught about the greenhouse effect in school. I must have been about 12, and that was long ago now.
Education is key.
Also, Kevin, you seem a little hung up on having a “rationale” for research. That we have to know how or why something works (or doesn’t work) before we study it. But that makes no sense! We do the research so that we can answer these questions. And, in the case of drugs, sometimes we end up with a product that is effective, but we still don’t know how it works.
It’s all very well picking out one case that particularly annoyed you, but to deny the general principle is to stop research dead.
The issue of “newcomers” having a tough time getting grants from NSF and NIH (one’s that I am familiar with) is not as bad as you think (Bart 44). I think that some reviewers (including me) and some program directors try to give promising newcomers a chance. Let’s say that someone published 2 or 3 promising papers as a part of their PhD or postdoc research and this leads to an interesting line of research. Such a person, recently hired as an assistant professor has a good shot at fundiing, most likely on the second round. Such a person will usually be asking for less money that someone with a large lab that includes postdocs.
When scientists insist on their love of what they do, they may think they will thereby defuse public anger about funding. Thing is, though, what a lot of people resent about scientists is precisely that they get to spend their lives doing meaningful work. The widespread dislike of teachers has a similar rationale: how dare you ask for pay commensurate with your qualifications if, as you say yourselves, you’re doing what you want to do. We don’t get to do that!
This discussion of the mechanisms of funding is valuable in itself and touches on many serious issues, but public resentment about science has emotional roots that have nothing to do with the fairness or unfairness of grant proposals.
Gavin it is too bad you and Your boss suffer so poorly in the FY2011 budget for Climate change study NASA 438.1 million, NOAA 437 million.NSF 480 million. I belive this proves alarmist work not science.
[Response: Actually it proves that satellites are really expensive. But if you’d rather not know what is happening on the planet (weather, deforestation, pollution, etc.), I can imagine that you’d think that wasn’t worth paying. Congress (and many others) disagree. – gavin]
Without a well known name on the authorlist, chances are smaller to make it . It’s understandable, because a name is a convenient shorthand for the quality of a piece, but it’s problematic because it keeps a hierarchy intact which isn’t necessarily conducive to good science.
I agree with this completely!
Gavin, it is not that these things are not important to better know and understand but the claims of any “global warming” arising from greenhouse gases is a fact and will most likely be catastrophic in the future cannot be known. There simply is not enough robust and direct empircal data. The math used to establish climate sensitivity is also not very solid either, especially over long term timescales. Reducing pollution is fine and continued funding to study climate and weather is also well and good but the planet will still be here with humans thriving even in 2100 minus a world war, catalclysmic volacanic eruption or meteorites and even then we would most likey be here. In addition I am not saying you are not educated and trained with years of experience but many of the people who defend a position of AGW, inlcuding on this site exaggrate what we do know and what the GCM’s can project or what we can predict with such great certainty.
You should know by now I have read your work and the RC in total. Population control seems to be on the agenda list of many politicians and AGW’s. Is this your position too? Over at Tamino some are making very extreme claims that even 2 billion people (or perhaps 2 billion more) cannot be sustained by the environment, which ofcourse they can be. Engineering enhances adaptation and with the uncertainty of how much warming and to what degree it is abnormal still apparent in your (and others) work, are we to rush to make unsustainable changes? Sure get funding for scientific research, but having followed your intrerviews and commentary in the various science publications, do you not think that paleoclimate data shows great warming in the past and cylces very closely mathced today when looking at timescales of 450,000 – 1,000,000 years, keeping in mind the various uncertanties of course. I am not being a wise ass here or uninfomred either. Your thoughts and commentary?
[Response: For the record, I have zero idea what my other colleagues at RC think about ‘population control’, but it is certainly not our ‘position’. My own position is that population control as a solution to the world’s ills is a very bad idea. So I think we’re in agreement there. As for the ‘paleoclimate data’, umm.. yup, we’re aware of those data!–eric]
N/A Bob@50 Sorry about your tax bill Bob, but don’t blame it on climate research. NOAA’s budget is in the order of 4.5 billion, so your figure would be just over 1/10 to “climate change” study, a lot of which is actually directed at the fishing and marine transport sectors. NASA’s budget is nearly 19 billion, meaning the cited climate change allocation would be around 2.5%. Somehow I don’t think Gavin and “his boss” get much of that even for their projects, never mind personal benefits. And isn’t the NSFs job to encourage all scientific research? Is the bio-med, information systems, nano-tech, etc. research they fund “alarmist”?
Jacob Mack: Certainly some people are guilty of exaggeration, but at least most people don’t deny reality altogether like you do. It’s impossible to have a sensible discussion about anything when you reject the fundamentals, based on… what?
I’m struggling to see what anything you said has to do with the topic….. (Dear moderators – if you move posts early, then you won’t have to move so many misdirected followups. If you allow a post, it sends the signal that the post was close enough to on-topic.)
The remedy for exaggeration is a cold dose of reality, not swinging wildly in the opposite direction.
JM 52: the claims of any “global warming” arising from greenhouse gases is a fact and will most likely be catastrophic in the future cannot be known. There simply is not enough robust and direct empircal data.
BPL: The empirical data would fill libraries. It goes back well into the 19th century. I don’t think you can be very familiar with the field if you can post something like you did above.
And never mind the buffering capacity of the world’s oceans and the fact most of the planet’s 02 comes from there as well. Look at how well the BP oil spill which did concern me was well buffered. Any ways: I do support research on weather and climate but not false claims that we are headed into certain or near certain disaster from greenhouse gases.
[Response: Note that this research on ‘atmospheric cleaning’ does nothing to suggest the atmosphere ‘cleans itself’ any better than we thought it did. All that is claimed in this particular research is that, the hydroxyl radical (OH) probably won’t respond as much to atmospheric pollutants as much as some (but by no means all!) might have thought. This has little to do with ‘weather and climate’. –eric]
I was curious where bob’s mysterious 438.1 million dollars for “NASA climate change study” really came from.
It’s actually NASA’s entire Earth Science Research budget for 2011. It does exclude the actual satellite missions themselves (satellites are waaaay more expensive to design and run than that). However, it is far more wide-ranging than climate, as stated in the budget:
“Earth Science research areas, including biodiversity, ocean salinity, hurricane and precipitation science, remote sensing of water quality, atmospheric composition, and interdisciplinary science.” […] “the Research Program develops and tests experimental techniques and algorithms that contribute to future Decadal Survey missions. The FY 2011 President’s Budget will enhance support for interdisciplinary science and NASA contribution to observational and model-based contributions to national and international climate assessments as well as support increased investments in scientific computing and space geodesy.”
Earth Science Research pays for IceBridge, too.
Gavin’s only mistake was assuming that bob’s figures were actually correct. Right number, wrong description.
49, Jim Harrison: This discussion of the mechanisms of funding is valuable in itself and touches on many serious issues, but public resentment about science has emotional roots that have nothing to do with the fairness or unfairness of grant proposals.
Is that known?
I think that most citizens would have more respect for scientists if they understood the competitive grant process (grant proposals are essentially competitions for contracts to investigate problems deemed important), and understood that the investigators are held to high standards (not to imply that citizens do not respect scientists.) The investigators have to demonstrate mastery of the field intellectually, demonstrate an ability to carry out the research, and then they have to deliver the products (quarterly or annual reports, as well as publications in peer-reviewed journals.) For the successful investigators I have known the work-week has almost always exceeded 70 hours, and they have other responsibilities besides the research that they love — such as volunteering time to review the papers and grant proposals of other scientists.
For what it’s worth — As an attorney I’ve represented a city seeking grants under the DOD’s ESTCP program, for a groundwater perchlorate remediation project. While we didn’t get all the money we wanted, I reviewed the grant applications of some of the prevailing parties as well as some of the losers. I felt that the program manager was (a) extremely hardnosed and (b) fair. But the process was very much as Gavin described it.
I’m aware that there is grant money in ESTCP for climate change research. I’m curious if anyone here has obtained funds from that program and whether the involvement of DOD changes the process at all.
Regarding funding of new investigators…there is actually an attempt to spread funding around to young researchers who write promising proposals. There is a box you can tick on the NSF proposal coversheets if you are a “First-time PI.” I am told very sincerely by people who have worked at NSF that that box plays into ranking of proposals once they are deemed fundable. Of course, whether a proposal gets deemed fundable is itself a function of the seniority of the researcher.
I also take some umbrage at those who point to language about climate change showing up so frequently in proposals as evidence of some political imperative. In my field, ecology and biogeochemistry, the fact that we often study climate change is a scientific imperative. It reflects the fact that climate has a real effects on many of the systems we study, and many of those effects are poorly understood. Biogeochemical systems can feedback on climate in unpredictable ways. Now that climate has changed and will continue to do so, predicting the consequences is a massive challenge that tests the limits of our understanding.
Another factor is that often proposals mention climate change even when it is not the major focus of the proposed work (which is for the large majority of proposals). The Great Lakes P loading work cited above being a good example. That’s because climate change often needs to be accounted for even if the primary object of research does not concern it directly. Its existence influences data in measurable ways that would lead us astray if we did not account for it.
As an example, I am funded by NSF for a project that doesn’t deal with climate change explicitly, though it is relevant, and there is an educational outreach component that mentions climate change along with other things. I wonder if it would get branded a climate change proposal for having that brief mention. I’m guessing it probably would. That indicates how some of these estmates of government contributions to climate change research can become so inflated compared to what we as scientists see.
Also, when the public considers the cost of funding, I wonder if they also consider the conutervailing cost in terms of paid, well-educated scientists writing (and reviewing) 5-10 proposals when on average only 1 will get funded. It’s not like you can take these things out of a freezer, unwrap them and heat them up in the microwave. They take time if they’re going to be competitive – a lot of it.
I would like to underscore the point Gavin made in the article about salaries that come from grants (at least for university-based researchers, although I imagine this could apply to other settings as well).
Any money paid to you from the grant _replaces_ that same amount of salary from the university–it doesn’t add to your total salary. If you’re getting $70k as a professor and then get a grant approved that has $35k budgeted for your salary, that means you’re expected to spend half your time on the grant (for which the grant pays you $35k) and half your time on your university duties (for which the university pays you $35k). And you cannot budget a higher salary out of the grant money than your existing pay rate. There’s no way to use the grant to get your total salary above the $70k you were already getting.
It kind of undermines the idea that researchers are motivated by their greed for grant money, doesn’t it?
[Response: Well, to be precise, most academics in the U.S. have a 9-month salary from their University, and have to raise the other 2 or 3 months from grants, so the financial incentive isn’t non-existent. What you cannot increase is your monthly salary, but you can increase your annual salary (but by at most 30%) with successful proposal writing.–eric]
Ah, thanks Eric. My grad school (large US state school) did 12-month salaries as far as I know, so I was speaking from experience with an exceptional case, without realizing it. I appreciate the correction.
Still–I’ve known some academics who got a lot of grants, but the very few academics I’ve ever met whom I considered “rich” got their money through means like inheritance or marriage–never through their grants.
One thing that struck me about the whole “in it for the money” claim about the motivation is that you don’t even need the facts about the grant process to understand that money was unlikely to drive the sorts of behaviors that the deniers has said it does.
Somehow so many people have ended up believing that money is the one and only one motivator that drives behavior – even though there are tons of evidence that such is not true.
I could see someone arguing that if you want time with the best tools, to work on the cutting edge then your grant proposals etc will need to be in the area that is catching the attention of some particular area of science. So maybe that makes more proposals/research in the area of something like climate change. The other edge of the sword though would be that, if there were a problem with the data/research etc, then having more eyes looking at it would result in the problem coming to light.
I would also tend to say that some on the other side of the issue are also wrong in their claims about what drives the motivations of various aspects of the denier community. Some may be chasing money but its more complex than that. Even some that may be making billions off carbon intense uses now may not be ultimately driven by the money. If you assume that the money is the main/only driver then you will likely never figure out a strategy to deal with the issue.
I respectfully submit that some of the dismissive and disparaging comments about the NCCAM are rather ill-informed, in some cases surprisingly so, in that they come from regular commenters who have so often found themselves defending climate science against comparably ill-informed yet heatedly opinionated views.
Someone suggested, for example, that the “scientific rationale” for carefully controlled scientific studies of the effects of herbs like ginkgo and echinacea is “zero”.
The scientific rationale for studying herbal medicine is (1) we know from experience that many plants contain biologically active substances which have proven to have important medical applications; (2) we have huge amounts of empirical data “from the field” suggesting that some herbs have specific efficacies; and (3) we have clinical and epidemiological research from other countries (e.g. Germany) which seems to support such efficacies.
In short there are very good reasons to fund scientific research into such questions, as well as into other healing modalities outside the mainstream of modern western medicine.
I would urge readers to go to the NCCAM website and learn about the actual research funded by the organization. There is much of value — including, in some cases, the negative results obtained.
65, Secular Animist: I would urge readers to go to the NCCAM website and learn about the actual research funded by the organization.
Let me second that recommendation. The sources of the ideas are not mainstream (I helped to write some proposals based on a school of yoga), but the research is conducted to the same standards as other medical research, and in most cases there are at least plausibility arguments (i.e. more than merely folklore) in favor of the research. Actual findings (e.g. immunosuppressant medication) have resulted from less a priori information.
I think that most citizens would have more respect for scientists if they understood the competitive grant process…
Actually, I think that most citizens always had that respect for scientists without even thinking about where their income comes from, until certain people started clamoring about how much extra money they’re making by pretending that their research proves that the world is going to be destroyed.
This was never an issue before. Most people never even stopped to consider how scientists are funded, or else simply assumed the actual truth of it, which is that many of them a paid salaries by Universities.
And even now it still has never occurred to people that scientists have the worst of both worlds — an effective cap on their income based on their position and field, and the need to constantly “hustle” and prove themselves and fight for grant money, like those of us who are self employed.
The difference is that I can make a killing, as well as have a bad year.
A minor point for the younger folks: volunteer to do reviews, basically you can do this when you talk to the program officer who is most relevant to your work. You cannot review in the cycle where you propose, but the POs are desperate for people to do letter reviews and to sit on panels. (NIH panels are filled in a different way, and you probably can’t get on them until you have a track record). Do the review on time and well.
Developing a relationship with the Program Office helps you when you are in a “tie” for funding
You get to see a variety of proposals which will help you when you write your own.
Esp. on panels you learn how they function and how to pitch your proposal.
@ Bob (Sphaerica) #68. I deplore the bagging that scientists get from some people. And I believe a three year or shorter grant process is not the most efficient – more assured longer term funding depending on milestones and targets can be a better option.
I don’t think scientists are saints (except for some climate scientists, of course :) ). And nor do I think they are in a very different position from many in the workforce who earn similar money. Most people in positions of responsibility in any business have to constantly prove themselves or be shafted sideways, down or out. At least scientists in a tenured position (eg many government jobs, some university jobs) have a base salary akin to a retainer (albeit larger than a normal retainer). Those without tenure rely on grants and contracts and are more akin to the self-employed.
I’m not denigrating scientists. They make an invaluable contribution to society. Neither should they be sanctified – with notable exceptions I have to add. In my experience most scientists in research posts are not aware of the work pressures of those who work in senior management, for example. (We had a rotating senior policy position where I worked some years ago, and when a new scientist took on the role each six months or so, they would invariably comment on the work pressure – exciting but gruelling!)
Having said that, work pressures in some scientific roles, in particular universities, have increased enormously in recent decades, bringing them more in line with the more demanding roles in other fields.
There appears to be a false assumption here that all climate research is focused on global issues. Far from it. Much (including satellite) research is concerned with physical processes, meteorology, and regional and local issues. Where the balance lies depends on the department. Just look up the faculty at a university near you and their research interests.
70, Sou: At least scientists in a tenured position (eg many government jobs, some university jobs) have a base salary akin to a retainer … .
Even tenure does not guarantee a salary in medical school any more.
68, Bob(Sphaerica), well maybe. Nevertheless, ambiguous characters like Dr. Frankenstein, Dr Strangelove, the scientists in E.T. and many other such depictions in popular media strike a resonant chord. The positive characters in Numbers also struck a resonant chord.
A good piece, and there’s little I would disagree with. Peer review is not the world’s best system, but it’s better than any other that has been tried, to adapt Churchill.
I looked for, but didn’t find, any reference to what I called the ‘mafias’ of peer review, the cheer-groups or boo-groups that you have be wary of. I wrote the following twenty years ago, after my first ten years in the business. Nothing that has happened since has made me want to change it, and I’ve now worked in Canada as well as Australia, and studied the systems in the UK, Sweden Germany and the US.
‘[We — the then ARGC, now ARC of Australia] nonetheless played a decisive part in deciding who was funded and who was not. We learned to discount assessments from particular individuals, and to recognise ‘mafias’ of both the positive and negative kind. In some research fields no application, however unimpressive, would get less than star rating from the external assessors; in others, damning with faint praise was their norm. We had to learn to make an appropriate correction. One Oxford assessor remarked that ‘if this project were worth doing it would be being done in my department’ (we funded it). Another British referee thought that although a given project was not in the mainstream of the discipline it might well be appropriate for the colonies. Americans were rather more generous.’
It is a very human process, as other posters have remarked in their various ways.
#72 Septic Matthew – Even tenure does not guarantee a salary in medical school any more.
Thanks for the update. I wasn’t aware of that development.
I should point out that in Australian universities, tenure (job for life or retirement) is now mostly replaced by renewable contracts (not always renewed), and ‘temporary’ or non-contract positions are more common, especially in more junior roles. All this increases the competitive aspect.
Mark Shapiro talks about big oil/coal funding? Do anyone have direct experience of research funding or failing to get funding from big oil/coal or similar – not necessarly warming related? Assuming it is not funding from the publicity department, how does it work? Do they reserver the right censor afterwards eg block publication?
Sean, to my knowledge, Big Oil doesn’t do research on climate change. They just pay people to lie about the research other people do. Big Oil does do research in a variety of fields from seismology to petrochemicals to renewables.
To say I agree with you that funding panels are transparent, honest, and non-political but the allocation of resources for those panels to distribute is highly political and getting worse is neither off topic nor disruptive. Why has it his such a nerve with you to say that scientist (especially those high up and on panels) should be allowed to (and definitely should) criticize ludicrous funding decisions when they are robbing real scientists of funding?
[Response: Because your allegations are ridiculously broad brush, undocumented and seem to be a product of your own pre-determined position rather than any objective evidence? – gavin]
Kevin, it got so bad in Brittan that at one point a researcher got a 100,000 pounds to watch mold grow on bread.
[Response: So, are you arguing that we know everything we need to know about airborne spores? That mold is an irrelevant part of the natural ecosystem? That research into food preservation is irrelevant? Probably not. This kind of simplistic ‘oh look at how stupid scientists are for studying something obvious’ claim is a big favorite of rhetoricians everywhere – remember the french fruit flies in the 2008 campaign? but whenever they are looked into, you actually find that there is a real issue that has just been caricatured. Please try and keep the conversation here a little more substantive. – gavin]
Great description, Gavin.
I’ll second the depressing power of low funding rates: I got really irritated when I realized that a panel for which I’d spent many hours preparing was only going to be able to recommend two of the 100 or so proposals we’d read. We at least used the time to talk up the other proposals we’d liked to the attending civil servants, hoping they’d remember the PIs the next time they applied.
@77 Kevin, in my experience scientists feel very free to criticize decisions of the higher-ups on funding allocation; it’s a constant subject over beer. And the higher ups do hear these conversations and respond to them. I don’t know if there’s been a good write-up of the history of the NASA EOS program, but it would certainly illustrate the two-way street between science granting institutions and working scientists.
Comment by Dan Kirk-Davidoff — 11 Jan 2011 @ 10:38 AM
#77 I’m a “senior scientist” and I have questioned program managers decisions. I also have received explanations for the decision made. I may not have agreed with the decision, but there was a clear non-politics driven logic behind the decision.
Gavin, my comment on the other thread concerning 100,000 pounds to watch bread mold was to indicate the irnoy. I thought that it would be obvious I was talking about Flemming and his discovery of penecillian.
You don’t have to put this up. I’ve come here everyday for the past 5 years but I’ve only posted 4 or 5 times. I think it might be a good idea for me to just lurk.
Love what you do!
[Response: Sorry! Irony does not come across well in this environment…. – gavin]
Nice article. Having spent a good number of years as a PI, it’s good to see you detail for folks what happens to dollars that a PI (his institution) is granted. Also, I thought the discussions of panels was important as well.
The concern over “bought” research, however, is not really the concern that PMs pay for the answers they want. Although some skeptics clearly and wrongly think this. The concern was best expressed by those who investigated the “funding effect” in medical science. Funding effects the questions asked, not so much the answers given. (see david micheals doubt is their product). That said, I think a piece that addressed this aspect of the funding effect would be a good addition. What questions are not being asked?
Finally, the last corner for corruption is collusion between PMs and PIs. From my experience if a PI could make friends with a PM they could pretty much direct how the RFPs were written, thus ensuring their selection. That’s a hard one to prevent, but if you want to build institutions that are resistent to corruption, it’s an area to consider.
> Ray Ladbury says: … Big Oil doesn’t do research on climate change.
But as Ray points out after saying that, they do a lot of research — and as others have pointed out here over past years, the successful petroleum companies do have excellent climate models.
That’s how they figure out where large basins of organic sediment were created during warm periods and covered over during later climate changes — and where those have ended up after continents drifted — so they can drill there.
I just tried to send a comment on this post, but forgot to use the Captcha function and the comment was filtered out as spam. I now can’t recover it in order to post properly. Could you recover and post, or return to me somehow.
Sorry to bother you on this!
[Response: No such comment appeared, so unfortunately we can’t. Always do a quick copy of your comments before submitting.–Jim]
Climate scientists have it easy. Thanks to decades of political support for wide-ranging and critically needed meteorological, oceanographic, geological and space-related scientific research, there are established funding programs and research divisions that date back to World War II and before. NOAA, NASA, the USGS, and the NSF have all funded the basic data collection, compute model development, and paleoclimate research for decades, and there is an established peer-review process run by largely independent panels (with some nepotism, however) that has ensured high-quality research via the process of peer review.
However, if the logical conclusion of climate science results is that we need to get off fossil fuels and switch to renewables, than similar programs are needed in the energy research area – and here is where massive problems arise.
It’s pretty easy to sum it up: the Department of Energy is not an independent scientific panel, and their research programs are not subjected to any kind of independent peer review. The latest incarnation, ARPA-E, for example, is modeled along the lines of DARPA, which is a military funding agency aimed largely at classified work in the weapons-surveillance areas. Funding decisions are not made by peers, but rather by bureaucrats who typically have close ties to industrial interests whose primary goals are economic, not scientific.
This is clearly why the nonsensical “clean coal” and “zero-emission combustion” programs have been maintained at the DOE for over a decade in the absence of any evidence that they will ever work. Indeed, there are solid physical arguments as to why such notions will never bear fruit. At the same time, development of realistic renewable energy programs remain woefully underfunded, as can be seen by looking in any university research department.
This means that renewable energy scientists really have nowhere to go in the United States to find reliable funding sources, and universities are not interested in hiring scientists who don’t have any outside means of support (since 30-50% of external grants go to university overhead, on average). Some find state support, and some find corporate support, but those funding sources are ephemeral indeed, especially in the current economic climate.
Climate scientists should also play attention to some rather odd trends, which may end up putting them in the same boat:
Weather Monitoring Company Turns to Greenhouse Gases
By TOM ZELLER Jr.
Published: January 12, 2011
The company behind one of the largest networks of weather monitoring stations on the planet — and the purveyor of the ubiquitous WeatherBug application and Web site — is betting that providing greenhouse gas data will also prove to be a lucrative market…
Robert S. Marshall, the chief executive of Earth Networks, said he expected to market the data to many of the subscribers to the company’s weather information, which included governments, energy companies and media outlets.
This privatization of data collection should raise at least a few eyebrows – especially considering that some political – fossil fuel interests have been working hard to sabotage traditional data collection efforts. The NASA satellite Triana has yet to be launched, following the Republican-lead attack on the “Gore-satellite” and climate satellites and ocean monitoring programs in general remain underfunded. As a result, the ocean temperature data remain too sparse to test many aspects of climate model predictions – and now there’s a push to go to a private data-collection model? Will it be reliable? Will it be subject to peer analysis?
Those are rather important questions for anyone concerned with the quality of science in the U.S., let alone the future energy mix that the world needs to move to.
I noticed posts implying that it was clearly absurd to even consider the possibility that gingko could reduce the incidence of dementia or that shark cartilage could be useful in treating cancer. Why?
I don’t have a position either way, and perhaps both thoughts really are absurd.
But the claim that sharks can get cancer is not really the strong counter-argument that some might think it to be. What if they get cancer, but much LESS often? It appears there is some anecdotal evidence for it.
And while not all studies show an effect for gingko, some do, and overall there appears to be an effect.
Below are two links that the “skeptics” might want to look at (Remember–I am not taking a position, I’m just wondering whether there really is conclusive reason to dismiss those things as too absurd to consider):
I noticed posts implying that it was clearly absurd to even consider the possibility that gingko could reduce the incidence of dementia or that shark cartilage could be useful in treating cancer. Why?
I don’t have a position either way, and perhaps both thoughts really are absurd.
But the claim that sharks can get cancer is not really the strong counter-argument that some might think it to be. What if they get cancer, but much LESS often? It appears there is some anecdotal evidence for it.
And while not all studies show an effect for gingko, some do, and overall there appears to be an effect.
Below are two links that the “skeptics” might want to look at (Remember–I am not taking a position, I’m just wondering whether there really is conclusive reason to dismiss those things as too absurd to consider):
To put this into perspective, the FY 2011 budget request for NIH: $32-billion; NSF FY 2011 budget request: $7.4 billion. Naturally there are other budgets covering climate science (and big ticket items like satellites), but the NIH is not the only pocket of money for medical research – the total is over $100-billion. In short, if research grants make you rich, Gavin et al. are in the wrong field.
Or, to look at it another way, if denialists really think research funding is dependent on how alarmed society is about the problem being researched, the US public is obviously many times more terrified of dying of cancer than of climate change.
More here (though not the latest numbers) on US national priorities. Bob #50: nothing for you here, sorry.
Ray Ladbury #76: more likely, their own internal scientists have reviewed the literature, found it substantially without major flaws, and advised management accordingly. Some evidence here.
If they could seriously discredit the science, why wouldn’t they? If the consensus, which is an existential threat to their industry, is wrong, they have an obligation to their shareholders to demonstrate this conclusively. They could easily afford to fund a major study. Even if they do not attract top independent scientists who would not want the conflict of interest, they should still attract enough who would be good enough. The fact that they mostly fund lobbyists and cranks tells you all you need to know.
I strongly recommend reading Naomi Oreskes’s thoroughly researched Merchants of Doubt for those who doubt there is a conspiracy against inconvenient science.
Actually, I do not think climate science represents an existential threat to Petroleum or Coal interests. Even if we weren’t burning it, we’d still keep sucking it out of the ground as feedstock for organic chemicals. Once the Oil is gone, we’ll have to figure out a way to use coal as feedstock.
The only thing that is threatened is the obscene profits of these bastards. They are already moving into alternative energy. They’ll be just fine. The planet’s ecosystem…not so much.
You mention ‘soft money’ positions. Now this means that the researcher is expected to earn their salary through grants, but their salaries are still fixed and you state they can’t increase their salary by obtaining more grants. Do they lose salary if they don’t obtain enough grants? Is their salary guaranteed but if they don’t obtain enough grants their employment is in danger for under performance?
[Response: There are no guarantees- so if you don’t have enough grants or collaborations, you don’t get paid. This is quite stressful and so people tend not to stay in soft money positions for any longer than they have to. – gavin]
Quoting Sou: “Thanks, Gavin. You say “No-one gets funded to demonstrate a specific result. People get funded to investigate questions.” This statement should be redundant but going by comments on realclimate.org and other places there is a belief by some people that scientific researchers somehow already know the answers and do research to ‘prove’ these answers. (This erroneous idea ties in with misplaced notions of ‘common sense’ always giving the ‘correct’ answer.)”
There is an assumption in the minds of some of these deniers (especially the ones at the bottom who are drunk on the kool-aid, as opposed to the masterminds on top) that everyone has an agenda to push, and people who work in this field are, well, either “with us” or “against us”.
Quoting Mark Shapiro: “Does anyone doubt that industry’s PR and lobbying operations are vastly superior to those of the climate science community?”
It’s harder to see what your side is doing, when you’re focused on what the other side is doing wrong, and especially when you’re thoroughly convinced that your side is right.
Quoting Balazs: “I personally don’t think pressing the political divide between alarmists and deniers is particularly productive.”
Not to mention that framing it as a political issue gives them legitimacy.
Quoting Didactylos: “I love it when deniers talk themselves into a corner.”
It’s one thing for deniers to talk themselves into a corner; it’s another thing for people to notice the stupidity.
Quoting Kevin: “#27 Mark Shapiro err? There is a massive industry around carbon and climate. And of course because governments are involved the numbers are so huge they’ll dwarf your puny little Exxon. We’re already getting fleeced here. Good opportunities for protectionism as well – which is your protectionist party?”
[especially needed, since Exxon Mobil is one of the biggest companies. Figures please.]
“One prediction that stood out and has certainly come true was that the government would become an ever increasing influence on our daily lives”
…Oh, you’re one of those anti-government nuts.
““political operatives are reviewing the finalists for 2011 funding” Do you study a different planet? Of course there are analysts, lobbyists and bureaucrats counting where each bean went to make sure they got their share – that’s what politics is all about – who gets what.”
As I noted earlier, it seems that some people have a problem with the idea that not everyone is involved in some sort of political agenda-pushing, and that there actually are a generous number of good, honest people in the scientific community, who’d like to have nothing to do with this political bullcrap but who have to put up with it.
Now, I’m a person who studied the sciences but became interested in politics, but I seem to be more the exception than the rule when it comes to science majors.
Quoting Roger Albin: “There was a vogue a number of years ago for gingko preparation treatments for dementia. The scientific rationale was zero. Proper trials were done, and to the surprise of no one, including the investigators and the reviewers who were responsible for funding the trials, the outcomes were negative. This was useful for practicing clinicians (like me) in advising patients not waste their money on these preparations. I see significantly fewer patients taking gingko than I did a decade ago. These negative trial results have saved a lot of people a lot of money and the investment in trials has probably repaid itself several times over. This is also a patient safety issue. Supplements like gingko and shark cartilage are not regulated by the FDA and there is minimal oversight of manufacturing. There have been some fortunately rare episodes of supplement contaminants causing serious problems.”
I’ll have to remember this line of argument the next time someone talks to me about “government waste” and cites the testing of quack cures and old wives’ tales: Well, if no one ever tested it, how would you know it wasn’t baloney?
Quoting Bob (Sphaerica): “The argument that the politics of climate change are evidence of an intrusive government is absurd.”
If you look at things through red-tinted glasses, everything will look reddish.
Additionally, no issue is an island, and thus all issues can be tangentially related to each other. That, of course, does not excuse the bringing-up of mostly irrelevant issues–a fact lampshaded by The Gregory Brothers at ??:?? in this Auto-Tune the News video.
Quoting Didactylos: “Also, Kevin, you seem a little hung up on having a “rationale” for research. That we have to know how or why something works (or doesn’t work) before we study it. But that makes no sense! We do the research so that we can answer these questions. And, in the case of drugs, sometimes we end up with a product that is effective, but we still don’t know how it works.”
Which is why we have microarrays and “shotgun” processing in biotechnology R&D.
My apologies for not noticing that there was a second page of comments. In my defence though this is my first time commenting here.
Quoting Stephen Baines: “I also take some umbrage at those who point to language about climate change showing up so frequently in proposals as evidence of some political imperative. In my field, ecology and biogeochemistry, the fact that we often study climate change is a scientific imperative. It reflects the fact that climate has a real effects on many of the systems we study, and many of those effects are poorly understood. Biogeochemical systems can feedback on climate in unpredictable ways. Now that climate has changed and will continue to do so, predicting the consequences is a massive challenge that tests the limits of our understanding.”
I really hate how “climate” has become a “dirty word” that elicits knee-jerk reactions from many politicians and politically-active ideologues. Then again, this isn’t the first time this has happened; the most notable example recently is “liberal”, and a more relevant example is “cap and trade”. I’m not talking what those words mean; I’m talking about the words themselves causing knee-jerk reactions, especially emotion-based ones, in listeners.
Quoting Donna: “I would also tend to say that some on the other side of the issue are also wrong in their claims about what drives the motivations of various aspects of the denier community. Some may be chasing money but its more complex than that. Even some that may be making billions off carbon intense uses now may not be ultimately driven by the money. If you assume that the money is the main/only driver then you will likely never figure out a strategy to deal with the issue.”
Personal survival/comfort/safety and personal pride are the ultimate drivers. Money is a useful medium for channeling these drivers, and is thus a useful (though not 100%-accurate) proxy for estimating them.
Quoting Dale: “Gavin, my comment on the other thread concerning 100,000 pounds to watch bread mold was to indicate the irnoy. I thought that it would be obvious I was talking about Flemming and his discovery of penecillian. ”
I am actually amused at what you did–I didn’t personally realize what you were writing, though I did detect a hint of sarcasm.
What you say, though, reinforces the point that the FRAMING of an issue may sometimes be more important than the issue itself, and this especially applies to any politically controversial issue–such as the topic of this blog.
“Personal survival/comfort/safety and personal pride are the ultimate drivers. Money is a useful medium for channeling these drivers, and is thus a useful (though not 100%-accurate) proxy for estimating them.”
The claims that money are the sole drivers link immediately in most people’s mind to greed. So if the claim that group x supports position y for the money becomes group x is a bunch of greedy etc.
But if the reality is that the group is not motivated by greed – take those in the petroleum industry – but others things like a refusal to believe that what you have been doing and making your living from over the last 30 years could actually be harmful, then any discussion that says money is driving the refusal to accept climate change is looking at the wrong cause and won’t lead to an effective response.
Its sort of like trying to treat colds with antibiotics. Assuming that colds are caused by bugs which can be killed by antibiotics has led to countless wasted dollars and the spread of superbugs.
Wrong cause, wrong response – futile and problematic.
Can largely be summarised as – things don’t always work out exactly as I want, therefore the whole system is completely broken.
[Response: I saw. I love the way that ‘good science’ gets interpreted as ‘stuff Gavin agrees with’ – as if I was the king of all climate science and on every panel that existed. Ha! The conflation of a funding review panel with the meeting at NAS to talk about whether a new report specifically on solar forcing was warranted is very confusing though – the two things have nothing to do with each other. Some discussion about that meeting is in the comments here. – gavin]
I have no position on the merits of shark cartilage for treating cancer, but why is it a ridiculous idea? Many successful anti-cancer drugs are based on chemicals isolated from plants or animals.
Also, that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on phase III drug trials that don’t work out is a logical consequence of how the testing system works. If we knew in advance which drugs would be successful there wouldn’t be any need to run trials at all!
The bottom line is still that grants will generally be made according to what is thought will most benefit the ultimate granting organisation. Those who select grants are themselves selected by others higher up.
Julia #102: the ultimate granting organization is usually a national government, occasionally an independent foundation. Of course there is some prioritisation and preference for funding specific areas, and some lobbying to set these priorities, but climate science is not a special case, and there are very powerful interests that oppose it at government level.
Before anyone echoes the shop-worn argument that it somehow benefits climate scientists to make things sound worse, that’s silly. If everyone really believed the worst predictions, we would cut funding of climate science and focus on clean energy research. The pressure to keep researching every trivial detail before doing anything is coming from the denial camp.