Sunday, April 14, 2013

Adventures In Tiny Science

Approximately a year ago, I learned I had lost my major source of research support. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada decided that it was not interested in funding my latest research proposal.  It had provided me uninterrupted funding for about a quarter of a century, including over $30,000 annually over the past 5 years.  I thought that I had put together a solid research proposal to extend this project, which had been very productive – 3 books and over 20 journal articles in its lifetime – and felt that the worst-case scenario, given the NSERC budget, would be a reduced grant.  I was wrong.  Without warning, my NSERC funding vanished.

After a week of being in shock, I pondered my next move.  The rational action would be to tweak my proposal and enter the next competition.  I decided not to do so.

Instead, I interpreted my sudden bad news about grant support as a liberating event.  I decided to continue to do the research that I am interested in, but do it without the pressure that accompanies seeking and administering funding.  In short, I decided never to apply for federal funding ever again. I now conduct tiny science.

This decision was completely rational.  After losing my grant, I asked myself serious questions about what support I really needed to carry out my research.  Repeatedly the answer was that a grant was really a ‘badge of honour’ and not a necessity.  My lab’s primary resource is my brain.  My research niche does not require expensive equipment, animal care costs, pricey technicians, and the like.  My version of cognitive science can be a frugal science.  It will have to be!

In all likelihood, given the current provincial and federal financial situations, more and more questions will arise about the return of investment in Big Science.  Big Science involves pouring huge amounts of money into targeted research projects.  However, there are growing questions about the success of Big Science.  For instance, a recent article in the National Post questioned whether the successes in research on cancer treatments were significant enough to justify billions of dollars of funding.

Well, I certainly was never getting enough grant money as it was to do Big Science.  NSERC’s funding decision pushed me in exactly the opposite direction.  Fortunately, I had a year to access surplus funds remaining in my grant.  I reflected on my research needs, and used remaining money to meet future lab needs.  Most of my work involves theoretical analyses and computer simulations.  I obtained lab resources that would support my future work (new computers, printers, etc.).  They will have to last a while!  As of the first of this month, I have no more grant money available.

The pursuit of tiny science is adventurous, though, because it carries with it a palpable degree of risk.  Our modern age of academia is money driven.  University and Department websites usually describe how much grant money they pull in, because this is a presumed measure of excellence.  In our academic culture, the amount of external funding that a researcher attracts reflects one’s quality as a researcher.  In pursuing tiny science, I ask to be judged by the quality of my research, and not by the quantity of its financial support.

This is not going to be a popular position.  A university has a financial motivation for its employees to attract federal grants.  The federal government runs the Indirect Costs Program; its homepage points out that the goal of this program is to help “Canadian postsecondary institutions with the hidden costs of research. By alleviating the financial burden of expenses, such as lighting and heating, the program ultimately helps researchers concentrate on cutting-edge discoveries and scholarship excellence. After all, it is easier to achieve a eureka moment when the lights are on.”  Presumably, the amount of funding an institution receives from this program is a percentage of the total amount of federal grant funding awarded to its researchers.  For 2011-12, the University of Alberta received $16,878,176 from this program; it obtained $16,945,028 the preceding year.  My pursuit of tiny science will not help my institution’s pursuit of indirect cost money.

Furthermore, my pursuit of tiny science carries the real danger that it will not help my career either.  Being a university professor, there is an annual evaluation of my performance (research, teaching, and service).  This year will be the first time ever I do not include grant support in my annual report.  Such support obviously is valued in academia; its absence lessens my worth.

Thus, the pursuit of tiny science makes strong demands.  I have to maintain (and most likely elevate) my level of research productivity to compensate for the lost grant support when I am evaluated.  Can I do so?  Will my research productivity receive the same kind of reviews when it is unfunded?  I am not sure of the answers to these questions, which is why I view tiny science as an adventure.  For the record, I am very proud of my career as a researcher, teacher, and supervisor, and I have no problem being accountable by making my CV available on my website.  I am confident that I can rise to meet the demands of tiny science.  I have no doubts, though, that it will be a challenge.

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