Popular Young Scientist’s Post on Failure to Get Funding Goes Viral
Brad Voytek should be the poster child for neuroscience. He’s smart, charismatic, does a ton of outreach, sports an impressive soul patch and works on difficult problems of how the brain synthesizes, organizes and initiates behavioral tasks. Brad is a computational neuroscientist who studies how complex signals are generated and coded within the brain to generate everyday behaviors like reaching for objects. Brad is exception not just for his science, but also because he works diligently to help folks outside his field (like me!) understand how he thinks about science, how he interprets his data and what his group is excited about by posting blogs for non experts and doing press releases for the public.
Like most scientists, Brad is struggling financially, but this week he put a fine point to the extent of his frustration, and the amount of time he has spent writing grants unsuccessfully for three years now. His post was picked up by the San Diego Union Tribune and he agreed to let us share it here.
Another grant rejection today.
Time for some kvetching and academic honesty, if for nothing else than to clear my head.
Next week marks the end of my third year as a professor at UCSD. During these three years I’ve written two dozen or so external grants, both small and large. All but one small one has been rejected. This is incredibly demoralizing for me, and almost certainly for my lab as well.
Every single person in my lab is kicking ass. They’re brilliant, talented scientists who are publishing great research. By almost every academic measure we’re doing great. Every indication I get from colleagues here and afar is that our research is awesome–groundbreaking even.
Yet we can’t get funded.
*I* can’t get us funding.
Arguably that’s my main job as the lab head: to make sure I keep the lab in the black so everyone can keep doing their best work.
To be totally honest this has been a very rough couple of months. I’ve been ridiculously stressed because of this. I know it’s part of the process, and I know that rejections of my science are not *personal* rejections; hell this is something that I emphasize over and over again to my students and staff, and publicly on my lab’s website.
But even armed with this knowledge–and ample personal experience with failure–it’s still hard not to internalize it.
And it’s compounded by the baffling nature of some of the failures.
For example, UCSD is considered to be one of the top 3 neuroscience research institutes in the world. In my most recent NIH grant, part of which is scored based on the research environment itself, I received scores of 3 and 4 for UCSD (where 1 is best and 10 is worst). This is baffling to me and leaves me wondering what I can do.
When I left Uber to come back to academic research I left HUGE amounts of money on the table to chase a tiny probability of finding a professorship. To chase the dream of doing what I thought was important scientific work. People called me “fucking idiotic” for doing so.
I would be lying if I didn’t wonder if they were right. What would have happened if I’d just stayed there and made a ton of money?
I know we’ll be okay. I’m lucky to have incredible support from my family, friends, colleagues, and from UCSD.
Even the worst case scenario isn’t terrible, just stressful.
But wow did I need to get that off my chest.
And if anyone is friends with philanthropists who love neuroscience, hit me up. My lab would appreciate it
I applaud Brad’s honesty and bravery. He has gotten scads of support but none of this will help him maintain his lab and the research he loves if things don’t change radically at NIH and NSF. Every lab that closes, or trainee or PI that has to spend weeks or months revising and resubmitting grants instead of doing doing critical science for human health and discovery, is a loss. The New York Times’ depiction of the ground we have lost in billions of funding dollars needs stories and people that go with it to have impact.
I stepped up three years ago to talk about my struggles to maintain lab funding in an interview with JAMA. I hope more people will follow Brad’s lead in the month between now and the March for Science. Congress and the public need to know what you are working on in plain language. They need to put faces with these cuts and understand the work we desperately want to be doing instead of spinning our wheels in grant rejections. The public needs to know that you depend on NIH/NSF to be funded more, not less. That you work for your university only when you bring in those dollars. We even created a handy twibbon to help you let folks on Twitter and Facebook know you need these federal investments.
We welcome stories like Brad’s at The Edge for Scholars. We run a pretty straightforward WordPress platform, but for the newbies, here’s how it’s done.