A lousy piece of advice

“He said he likes it but that it’s too ambitious”.
This is how Professor in Training describes the review of her grant proposal application offered by a senior colleague.
It is obviously difficult to strike a balance between innovation and realism, when writing a grant proposal. Ideally, of course, fantasy, breadth, fresh and unconventional approaches ought to be rewarded. However, a research plan that is very broad, too “ambitious” (to use the word of PiT’s mentor), may come across as lacking focus; in some cases, a reviewer might legitimately worry about the applicant’s inexperience, or judgment. After all, nobody wants to see money go where it is less likely to produce results, and an effective Principal Investigator (PI) must be able to allocate judiciously her limited resources, if her research effort is to go beyond the stage of “white paper”.
Still, I would rather see more young scientists err on the side of ambitiousness than on that of prudence.

This is science, for Pete’s sake. If one is not going to be encouraged to try something bold, even risky, but with a large potential payoff at a young age, when energy and ideas abound, when is that going to be possible ? Right before retirement ?

Maybe it does not have anything to do with PiT’s situation, but on reading her post, together with the ensuing comments, memories came back of a conversation I had a few years ago with a senior colleague at another university. Expressing to me his serious worries about the tenure prospects of a junior faculty in his own physics department, he said to me:
The man won’t follow my advice… He keeps trying to make a big splash by working on hard problems… where he has to compete with a lot of smart people, at prestigious universities and with bigger groups than his… the likelihood that he will be the one to crack the code is slim to none. He would be better advised working on subjects that are maybe less “hot”, not so fundamental, less crowded, where he can make incremental contributions and get a lot of papers published. That is what administrators look for, these days…[0]

I am sure that he was right, in some sense. Quite likely, his junior colleague was trying out some “crazy” ideas, and was obviously not getting anywhere. Quite likely, much like the overwhelming majority of us he is incredibly stubborn and will keep on trying the same ideas, and retire at the end of his career having accomplished nothing worth being mentioned on a textbook, much less a prize — again, much like most of us.
But the thing is, this is what science is all about. Nobody has ever said that scientific research is an efficient proposition. In fact, what renders it so fascinating is precisely the fact that great discoveries occur by serendipity, sometimes by trying out stuff that seemed “crazy”, and that following the path that everyone thinks is right does not always result in success. In fact, if an obvious route to obtaining a result can be easily identified, and it is just a matter of diligently and methodically applying “tried-and-true” technology, then there is a pretty good chance that the project undertaken is not very significant.

As usual, it is all a matter of balance. I am certainly not advocating doing research by “random walk”, each day starting a new project on a whim. On the contrary, having a research plan is a good idea for many reasons, and there is something to be said for “incremental contributions” [1]. There is a reasonable place for productivity even in the evaluation of the activity of a scientist, and the fact that one is working on a challenging problem cannot be utilized ad infinitum to justify one’s paucity of publications. Yes, in some cases and for many of us, starting small and proceeding one step at a time may be a good idea. And yes, even though stubbornness is the most precious quality of a scientist, there is also a lot to be said for being able to accept defeat, at some point, and move on to something else.
All of this is true.

Still, there is something depressing about the notion that a young scientist should be discouraged from pursuing an “ambitious” program, and it seems to make as much sense as telling an aspiring artist not to experiment with new concepts, for there is a pretty good chance that they won’t be well received — better to keep doing what others have already done instead.
Is there no more space for creativity, or risk taking in science ? In physics, for instance, have we really gotten to a point where it is all about pursuing “the next decimal digit” and no more, as lamented by Nobel laureate P. W. Anderson in this op-ed a decade ago ? How are we going to attract younger generations to scientific research, if we are going to take away from it the thrill of the fundamental discovery ?

What about our younger colleagues who will be applying for tenure ? It’s up to my generation to provide the appropriate mentoring, on the one hand by helping junior faculty strike a proper balance between originality and productivity, but first and foremost by being strong and effective advocate of basic science (the risky type) with university administrators. If they keep trying to reduce everything to “bean counting”, we should be relentless in fighting that.

[0] In the course of the entire conservation my interlocutor kept trying to shift the blame to the “administrators” (or “bean counters”), but it soon became quite clear to me that he himself fully endorsed that argument.
[1] In my experience, however, pursuing something really important and potentially ground-breaking is the best way to make many incremental contributions.

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5 Responses to “A lousy piece of advice”

  1. Professor in Training Says:

    I think Prof Big Cheese was talking more about the amount of work in the grant rather than the idea itself as my preliminary data certainly supports most of what I have proposed. His opinion was that there was too much work for a 2yr grant … one of the reviewers from last year was adamant that I needed to generate my own transgenic animals AND add an experiment looking at xxx (that would have taken 2yrs in and of itself) IN ADDITION TO the work I had already proposed. I’ve just expanded the second aim to provide more of a mechanistic approach and realistically, the project will take 3-3.5yrs to complete … which is why it’s going to be rejigged and submitted as an R01 asap.

    In terms of what you were driving at in this post, I do agree that nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  2. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    I think Prof Big Cheese was talking more about the amount of work in the grant rather than the idea itself as my preliminary data certainly supports most of what I have proposed

    In this case I find his concern out of place. Reviewers may recommend that the PI narrow her effort somewhat, but seldom will they recommend that a proposal not be funded because the applicant proposes to do “too much”.
    I understand that the grant is for 2 years only, but does that mean that the project should be doable in 2 years ? Seems restrictive. It seems to me that a good proposal should be rather comprehensive, and give a sense of how the project can evolve in time — obviously you will apply for funding with other agencies, and you are confident that in 2 years your progress will put you in a strong position to seek a renewal.

  3. Professor in Training Says:

    I understand that the grant is for 2 years only, but does that mean that the project should be doable in 2 years ?

    Agreed. Two people could probably knock out the work in 2yrs but in reality it would only be one person working on it.

    A similar argument could be said for the budget as the studies in this proposal are clearly going to cost 3-4X of the (tiny) maximum $$$ when you factor in salary, consumables etc.

  4. Doug Natelson Says:

    I think it is a good idea to have a realistic sense of how much can be tackled per student per year in a grant. This doesn’t necessarily mean cutting back on risk taking – it means not proposing to do something like, e.g., synthesize and completely characterize via several different techniques 50 new materials in one year. That’s not scientific ambition; it’s a misestimate of how much work even a great student can possibly do in a given timeframe.

  5. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    Doug, of course I agree but, as a reviewer, are you going to reject such a proposal, if the underlying science is solid and interesting, or are you simply going to urge the investigator to be more realistic and focus on fewer, more easily attainable goals ?

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