It's the Science That Drives Us
BY RANDY MCINTOSH
I got an email notice on Friday morning saying that I should check the CIHR site about my Foundation grant application. I still get nervous when I see these emails. I logged into ResearchNet and clumsily navigated to the appropriate page to find that my application was not funded, again. Rejection is a part of academics and of science. It’s expected that you get used to it. Most of the time I take these rejections in stride and use it to help come back. But this one bothered me, particularly because this was my fourth try for this program, which has now been cancelled. In the #ScienceTwitter activity that developed over the day it was clear that I was not alone. By the end of the day there was a handful of us commiserating over wine (and maybe a few sour grapes).
It’s been rough since CIHR reorganized its grants program about 5 years ago to the Foundation and Project scheme (or scream as it has been tagged). There is a great blog on the history of the CIHR reorganization by Jim Woodgett that is worth a read. I was one of the “lucky” ones whose grant renewal fell right in the middle of the change, so I had to participate in the first Foundation pilot. The process had two stages of evaluation. I made it through the first but not the second. The standard deviation for the reviewer’s ranking was 50% of the average for my grant (this is not a good thing). The reviews were all over the map, ranging from the highest possible rating to one that basically said, “Burn this and we shall never speak of it again.” I assumed the discussions about my grant were equally divisive, then we learned that there really weren’t any discussions per se, but rather something like a chat room where no one chatted.
With the introduction of the Project Scheme, I decided to hedge my bets and try both. Sadly the state of the Project pilot was worse than the Foundation and a lot of investigators lost out, including me. Both of my applications did not make it. I won’t belabour you with the woes from each subsequent competition. I have been funded continually by MRC/CIHR since 1996, but at this moment I do not hold a CIHR grant. It has affected the lab, no question. Fortunately, we have an NSERC, and a few private foundation grants and some generous support from donors to keep us moving. My collaborative network has also been very supportive. But it’s tough when the main funding source for your research is no longer there. I take some solace in the fact that I’m not the only Canadian scientist who is facing this crisis. But, it’s the science that drives us.
Who do we blame for the current challenge in supporting science? The Fundamental Science Review (aka the Naylor report) lays out a pretty strong case that the financial support for science in Canada is no where near where it should be, even with the small adjustment from the last budget cycle. The problem isn’t so much due to cuts, but rather a lack of budget increases over at least a decade and fragmentation of science support across a number of “boutique” programs. Maybe the politics are to blame to a degree. One could point fingers at the previous president of CIHR who initiated the two schemes that have failed so magnificently, but it’s hard to know whether the problems were in the vision or the execution. Maybe it’s also we scientists and our culture, where we are taught to be critical and competitive. It may be good for peer reviewed papers but can be devastating in grant reviews. Perhaps I’ve gotten complacent and am no longer doing things that are cutting edge or relevant for the CIHR mandate, i.e., my grants just suck.
It’s a complex situation we find ourselves in as Canadian scientists. The support for science has been slowly decaying and we are feeling the impact. I try to avoid the blame game because it seldom helps in finding a solution. No single source can be blamed. It is our collective responsibility to do something to remedy it. Initiatives like #MarchForScience help, but the issues it covers are so broad that the message can get lost. #SupportTheReport was a rallying cry that focused the issue. Let’s take the opportunity of this coming Federal election year in Canada to breath new life into it. It’s the science that drives us, but we — the royal we — need to do better in our support for science.
I’ve been successful as a scientist, but maybe I should take these failures as a sign that it’s time to move on. I could, for example, become a handyman doing odd jobs at people’s homes. There’s a great market for it in Toronto, where there are a lot of old houses that need just a little tweak, a touch of paint, a little plumbing work, etc. Of course my track record as a handyman may suggest otherwise, such as soldering my fingers together and assembling several pieces of Ikea furniture inside-out.
Or maybe I could try my luck as either an author or musician? Those of you who follow me on Twitter or have read my other blogs know that I do both as a hobby. But, as a 50-something new artist, my chances of success in either of these is about as good as… well, getting a CIHR grant.
But doing science is a rush like no other. I know that sounds incredibly nerdy, but it’s true. The joy of discovering something new and wonderful, the energizing discussions about what the discovery means, the light that sparkles from my student’s eyes when we share the insight — these feelings are irreplaceable. We are motivated to do good science and we are motivated to make it better. I really can’t imagine being anything else other than a scientist. I will persist. We will persist. It’s the science that drives us.