The blogosphere has recently echoed with discussion of whiny experienced professors, like me, who suddenly cannot get their grants funded. Both Drugmonkey and Odyssey have rung in, the latter most recently:
In my experience, those who complain the most about being unfunded are also those whose work just isn’t fundable. Despite countless reviews telling them that what they’re doing is just not worth pursuing, these individuals persist. ‘Cos they know better. It’s always the reviewers who are wrong. Always. These PI’s know they are right, and they’re going to stay wedded to their ideas. Til death do they part.
Some (likely very, very few) of them may be right. But that doesn’t matter if the reviewers and funding agencies can’t be convinced.
I agree that some investigators get to attached to an idea, a particular hypothesis or technique. It can be ugly if they haven't considered other interpretations or alternative directions, especially if their pet project fails at the clinical level.
However, I have a particular peeve with competitive renewals. The new improved scoring system at NIH puts a premium on innovation and novelty. To get a project funded for the first submission, it must open new doors and present potential paradigm shifts. But after a few years of experiments, even though the questions aren't all answered, the idea may not seem as innovative. Yawn... same stuff you told us last time with a few new data points thrown in. Where is the novelty now? It seems that finding a good question and examining it in a systematic, incremental way over your career is no longer acceptable; as a PI you must be ready to jump on a new bandwagon with every renewal to keep those reviewers intrigued! Standard techniques and the next logical experiments in the same organ and cells? Why haven't you done that already?
Science advanced over the ages with baby steps. Only over time can the impact of any single study or experiment be determined. Yet we expect every project to provide that "Wow!" factor every funding period.
It would also be nice if study sections would provide a stationary target. Proposals get reviewed, get revised, and then get a completely different review the next time in, one that suggests undoing all the changes promoted by the first reviewers. No wonder scientists drink!
I recently heard an NIH study section member stand up at a national meeting and state that his own hypothesis was clearly the mechanism in a certain major kidney disease. Those of us with a different view of that disorder shuddered at the thought he might review our proposals. In the current funding climate, one mediocre reviewer is sufficient to drop you to the unfundable range, especially if the other reviewers have any reservations at all.
I have no issues with policies that favor new investigators. I want us all on a level playing field.
But the pressure to perform only science with a "Wow!" factor, rather than working on long-term systematic problem solving is wrong. Did my questions, felt to be important by the initial reviewers, really become outdated in a few years? They certainly weren't answered.
Lucky for me, I have other outlets for my career and energies.