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Reflections on funding panels

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 January 2011

Despite what is often claimed, climate scientists aren’t “just in it for the money”. But what scientists actually do to get money and how the funding is distributed is rarely discussed. Since I’ve spent time as a reviewer and on a number of panels for various agencies that provide some of the input into those decisions, I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the real issues that arise and the real tensions that exist in this process. Obviously, I’m not going to discuss specific proposals, calls, or even the agencies involved, but there are plenty of general insights worth noting.

Scientists submit proposals to the various agencies mostly to cover a small part of their salary (summer months for most US university academics), or to employ postdocs, train graduate students, buy equipment or support logistics for work in the field. Some scientists are 100% ‘soft money’ meaning that they cover all their salary from grants, but it’s important to note that salaries are fixed by the home institutions – you can’t write a grant to pay yourself double what you got last year for instance. Many scientists get by without submitting grants at all (those with so-called ‘hard money’ positions – like university lecturers or government researchers), and if they do, it is often to support other people. For each person being supported by a grant, you have to budget for their salary, fringe benefits and the mysterious ‘overhead’ (some 30 to 60% of the total) that gets taken by the institution. Once you add in some travel and facilities money, most standard individual PI grants end up in the neighbourhood of $100-200K per year, and so for a 3 year grant, something around $300-600K. For fieldwork in Greenland for instance or for outfitting a new lab, the numbers can be substantially higher. This might sound like a lot of money, but the PIs never see this as a lump sum (it is a grant to their institution, not them personally), and as noted above, most of it disappears into the system (to fund necessary things of course) before it gets anywhere near the researcher.

Funding is highly competitive and, depending on the call, only between 10 and 20% of proposals will be funded. Choosing which proposals get funded relies on the good judgement of the program managers in the most part, but they are helped enormously by external reviewers and panels. Different calls can be very discipline-focused or rather interdisciplinary in nature, and both the proposers and the panel can have very diverse backgrounds and expertise. If used, panels consist of about 10 to 20 people (depending on a number of factors) who will meet for a concentrated few days of reviewing. For each proposal, someone on the panel is assigned to lead the discussion, and a few other people need to be able to discuss it in depth. There are also mail-in reviews from the wider community (anything up to 5 additional reviews). In typical cases, a panellist might take the lead on reading and analysing a few proposals, and have to provide additional in-depth input on a dozen more. That implies a couple of weeks of work to do properly. Over multiple days of deliberation, the panellists will review, perhaps less deeply, many of the other proposals as well.

In no particular order, here are a number of observations:

  • At no time (in my experience) does anyone even hint that someone’s political position is in the least bit relevant to funding the grant. It just never comes up.
  • Over-egging of the importance of their proposal by proposers is commonplace, and is generally poorly received by the panels. People who claim that their particular bit of the field was important for some goal when, at best, that is debatable and, at worst, completely irrelevant, do not enhance their credibility. Proposers do need to demonstrate some reason for why they should be funded more than anyone else, but there is a fine line between necessary self-promotion and overselling. Note that any overstatements are usually related to the importance of an idea, not on the drama of any implications.
  • No-one gets funded to demonstrate a specific result. People get funded to investigate questions.
  • Having someone on the panel whose expertise covered the specific topic of a proposal can be polarizing. That is, such a proposal was either more likely to shine or be dismissed than a proposal for whom no-one is as intimately knowledgeable. Those tended to fall in the middle unless a really good case was being made. Mail-in reviews are particularly helpful here.
  • Sometimes there are some real outlier reviews – either praising something clearly mediocre, or slamming something quite interesting. But panels do discuss this and it certainly isn’t the case that one outlier (for whatever reason) is the sole determining factor in a decision. Note as well that the panels are not the final arbiter – the program managers are.
  • The discussions about science during the panels can be really good and are great at helping contextualise specific contributions.
  • Reputation of the proposers as people capable of good science goes a long way to judging the feasibility of a proposal. Judgements are made all the time on whether the proposers can credibly complete the plan of work they had laid out. Someone can propose doing all sorts of wonderful things, but a demonstration that at least a big part of it is actually do-able by the people proposing is important. For newcomers to a field, that does put on an extra burden – but one which can be overcome with original ideas and sufficient proof of concept. It can help if collaborators are more experienced, but this isn’t essential.
  • Conflicts of interest exist – proposals can come in from a previous student of a panel member, or a current colleague or close collaborator. However, in all such cases, the conflicted person is asked to leave the room and not participate in the discussion on that proposal. This works well in avoiding “less objective” criteria in funding.
  • In interdisciplinary calls, there are a lot of single discipline proposals submitted (and they may rank highly in the reviews). But these proposals get reviewed very differently from truly interdisciplinary proposals and it is very hard to legitimately weigh the contrasting approaches. In my opinion, mixing up technical ideas with synthesis proposals in a single call is a mistake – synthesis projects need to be funded separately and on a level playing field.

Overall, I feel this process does what it is designed to do. Given that there are far more good ideas proposed than can ever be funded, there is inevitably some subjectivity and different panels would have different discussions and a different emphasis. I’m confident however that almost any panel, given the same input, will have a reasonable overlap among the highly rated (and therefore most fundable) proposals. Clearly, these methods work best when the proposals are similar or in a similar field, and will not work quite as well when there is a lot of diversity (because the judgements in those cases can be more subjective, and thus more easily swayed by random contingencies). There could always be improvements (shorter proposals might be easier to get reviewed by outside specialists, calls can be clearer about what they want etc.) but none of the problems are anything like the contrarian imaginings of hysterical climatologists trying to outbid each other in who can come up with the worst case scenario.


104 Responses to “Reflections on funding panels”

  1. 51

    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!

  2. 52
    Jacob Mack says:

    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]

  3. 53
    flxible says:

    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”?

  4. 54
    Didactylos says:

    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.

  5. 55
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Jacob Mack, Wow, an astounding number of bald-faced assertions and not one shred of evidence. Congrats, Jacob, I think you’ve perfected the information-free post.

    I seriously doubt you’ve read anything Gavin has written, and I know from what you write that you haven’t understood it.

  6. 56

    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.

  7. 57
    Jacob Mack says:

    Finally:

    http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2011/20110106_atmosphericcleaning.html

    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]

  8. 58
    Didactylos says:

    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.

  9. 59
    Septic Matthew says:

    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.

  10. 60
    Francis says:

    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.

  11. 61
    Stephen Baines says:

    Gavin’s and Lu’s description is bang on…

    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.

  12. 62
    Kevin Stanley says:

    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]

  13. 63
    Kevin Stanley says:

    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.

  14. 64
    Donna says:

    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.

  15. 65
    SecularAnimist says:

    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”.

    Huh?

    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.

  16. 66
    gavin says:

    OT comments related to JM original post are now on the open thread. Please try to stick to the actual topic at hand.

  17. 67
    Septic Matthew says:

    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.

  18. 68

    59 (Septic Matthew),

    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.

  19. 69
    Eli Rabett says:

    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.

  20. 70
    Sou says:

    @ 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.

  21. 71
    Eli Rabett says:

    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.

  22. 72
    Septic Matthew says:

    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.

  23. 73
    Don Aitkin says:

    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.

  24. 74
    Sou says:

    #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.

  25. 75
    Sean says:

    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?

  26. 76
    Ray Ladbury says:

    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.

  27. 77
    Kevin says:

    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]

  28. 78
    Dale says:

    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]

  29. 79
    Dan Kirk-Davidoff says:

    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.

  30. 80
    Bob Pasken says:

    #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.

  31. 81
    Dale says:

    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]

  32. 82
    steven mosher says:

    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.

  33. 83
    Hank Roberts says:

    > 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.

    That’s climate change.

  34. 84
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Dale@80
    Poe’s law applies to denialists as well as creationists. There may even be an analog to O’Toole’s comment on Murphy’s law. Poe was an optimist.

  35. 85
    S. Molnar says:

    In defense of Dale, it was clear to me he was talking about Alexander Fleming, but I don’t have to wade through all the rubbish gavin sees.

  36. 86
    Sloop says:

    Gavin (or current moderator),

    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!

    Best Regards,

    Ames Colt

    [Response: No such comment appeared, so unfortunately we can't. Always do a quick copy of your comments before submitting.--Jim]

  37. 87
    Ike Solem says:

    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:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/12/business/12monitor.html

    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.

  38. 88
    Ken says:

    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):

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846949/?tool=pmcentrez

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/08/0820_030820_sharkcancer.html

  39. 89
    Jane O'Brien says:

    Ireland is continuing to protest against a new Climate Change Bill as farmers and businesses claim the legislation will damage the economy by almost €4bn. http://www.insideireland.ie/index.cfm/section/news/ext/climatechange004/category/9

  40. 90
    Ken says:

    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):

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846949/?tool=pmcentrez

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/08/0820_030820_sharkcancer.html

  41. 91

    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.

  42. 92

    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.

  43. 93
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Philip Machanik,
    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.

  44. 94
    Michael says:

    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]

  45. 95
    Derric Tay says:

    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?”

    [citation needed]

    [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.

  46. 96
    Derric Tay says:

    Whoops, I forgot to include the ATTN link and time. Here it is:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Psfn6iOfS8
    Listen to the beginning (Michele Bachmann’s…whatever) and then what the girl sings at 0:38.

  47. 97
    Derric Tay says:

    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.

  48. 98
    Donna says:

    Derric
    “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.

  49. 99
    SteveF says:

    Extended whine from Pielke Sr in response to this post.

    http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/candid-discussion-of-the-grant-review-process-by-gavin-schmidt-at-real-climate/

    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]

  50. 100
    Danny Yee says:

    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!


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