Monday, January 14, 2013

Monday, Monday.


Last week was a scary/nervous/jangly time for science geeks like me.


Because we were all waiting for grant results from the big federal agency that funds most of the kind of work we do to be released.

This time around the agency received 2,333 grant applications from across the country and, given the way things are going, they plan to fund approximately 400.


If I can still do that new fangled math all the kids are talking about these days (i.e. long division), that's a success rate of ~17%.

Which scares the beejeebuz out of all of us.

And that includes all 2,333 'principle investigators' (PI's) like me and, perhaps even more so, the 4-6 other folks per grant application (at the very least) whose training and/or livelihood depends on not being in the 'bottom' 83%.

Of course, no one group adjudicates all 2,333 applications. Instead, they are doled out in packets of 50 or so to individual 'panels', each of which is  made up of a dozen or so fellow science-geeks working in the same field as the PI. These gaggles of geeks then peer-review each grant and rank them within that individual panel.

Which means that, with a 17% success rate, each panel will fund 8 or 9 grants, maximum.

Thus, twice each year, in June and January, PI's with grants wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and begin banging the lever looking for that darned Email from Ottawa that will tell them where where they rank this time.

And last June the ranking for one of the grants that funds half of my lab was not good at all.

In fact, we were so far down the ladder that after I was able to shake off the nausea and dread enough to tell the people in the lab, I seriously considered abandoning the project altogether.

But, instead, after my head had been cleared during our early summer driving holiday to Northern California, (which may have been the last one of its kind with both of our kids given that our eldest will soon be 20) I talked to everyone in the lab again, made the rounds to our collaborators, and then decided to take a big step that might take us off a cliff or maybe, just maybe, might take us in a new and potentially important direction.

Because, here's the thing...

I'm a 'fundamental' biomedical researcher, which means that mostly my group works on very basic problems where our goal is to figure out how certain kinds of molecular teflons and velcros on the surfaces of cells actually work to be either adhesive or slippery.

Sounds esoteric, I know, but how cells stick to and/or slip by each other is really, really important in helping to regulate how tissues form during development and are altered during disease.

Anyway, it was a fundamental grant, on a very specific type of teflon, that the panel really, really hated back in June.


Because they concluded that we had already done enough basic work on the problem. Thus, they recommended that what we really had to do next was develop a 'translational' (which is a code word for 'clinically relevant') project.

So, for the remainder of last summer I pushed everybody really, really hard to develop new tools and experimental paradigms* that would allow us to generate a small amount of preliminary data with that new, very different, translational bent.

Then, right around about the time I shot this, I began locking myself in my office everyday for three weeks and banged out a brand new grant application wherein I proposed a three-pronged approach to develop non-toxic compounds that could, potentially, be used to block the function of the teflon which we think is important in a number of pathological situations.

Weirdly, the soundtrack to this grant was Green Day's 'American Idiot', the only explanation being that I have to music that I know like the back of my hand as background noise blasting in my earbuds when I do these things.

Finally, in mid-September I sent the thing in and did my best to forget all about it while I started to scrimp and save and worried about how long we could go before I would have to start laying people off.

(As an aside, this was also much easier in the beginning, back when I started my lab and everybody was a kid....but now, half of the people working with me have families and mortgages and all those things that really make me sweat, because the grants, not the University, funds everything that goes on in a basic science lab like mine).

And then last week came.

And finally, early, early on Tuesday morning the Email popped up.

And, long story short, we did very, very well.

But that did not mean that I went to work whooping and hollering.


Because, given the percentages, most of my colleagues did not get such good news.

Which is the nature of the beast.

The folks in the lab sure were happy, though.

And enthusiastic as heck about trying to scrape that teflon off cell surfaces.

I'll let you know how it goes.

*I also pushed everybody hard last summer to get papers out the door as these, which are also peer-reviewed in a somewhat different way (I'll explain that another time), are important 'proof-of-principle' building blocks that grant panels use to gauge whether or not you can actually do what you say you will do in an application...
Image at the top of the post is of a frozen and slightly frazzled swordfern that was taken during my very, very late morning (early afternoon actually - you can slack off a little when your grant comes in) ride in to work one of the Pacific Spirit Park trails yesterday...All snark aside...Why did I have to go in on a Sunday?....Well, there was gardening to do (tissue culture), so that I could help get a bunch of cell lines with various levels and variations of teflon on their surfaces ready so that we can use them to test the efficacy of a bunch of antibodies that a collaborator has made against the molecule...



Bill said...

A very interesting post on your work and also the grant process for scientific research here in Canada.

Appears that the vetting process is very stringent and carefully reviewed by knowledgable experts as it should be. I believe our country would be much richer (not just in financial terms) if there was a greater emphasis on scientific research, both basic and applied. More funding would pay huge dividends. Science vs F-35s, invest in the science.

Congratulations to you and your lab, and more understanding, insights and advances in your work.

Chris said...

This is a really good description of how the grant process looks from the lab floor. Thanks.

It's clear the issue is money; not enough means tough choices.

Stupid question maybe, but if you can tell from your experience, how many of the grants that get turned down would have been worth pursuing?

I don't mean in a "let's just spend wildly for every idea anyone has and see what turns up" kind of way.

I mean how much of what isn't getting approved are solid proposals, or developments, or whatever the right words are, that were clearly important to investigate -- but there just wasn't money?

I'm curious if we're missing 95 per cent of what we could do, or 25, or whatever it might be.

I suspect by the time you get to the proposal stage, most of this stuff is fairly solid. But then I don't work in anything remotely scientific.

Ian said...

I'm sure glad we have all those ads from the Harper government rather than your colleague's proposals funded. Makes me all warm inside, or is that the cancer? Oh well.

Congrats RossK. And this post explains why folks like you across the country are the real heroes.

Lew said...

Congratulations. One of your other passions also involves determining whether things stick (to political) teflon). Best wishes on both endeavours, which ultimately are done on our behalf.

karen said...

Oh my. I was very anxious for you through this post. I'm happy your project got its funding.

(Those government ads make me warm too, Ian - under the collar)

So, in addition to trying to learn important stuff, you have the responibilities of the lives, families, and mortgages of your employees and students. I wish that our elected officials felt that kind of responsibility.


RossK said...


Thanks a lot. It is a stringent process. And most of the time it works pretty well. However, when the success rates get as low as this (where they have been for awhile now) it gets difficult because lots of very good grants keep coming back for review after they are not funded



Man - you always get right to the heart of the matter don't you (and I've alluded to some of what you are getting at in my response to Bill above)...These are important questions and I don't want to slag the folks that are doing their best to make things work with what they have when I answer them...There's also the fact that I, of course, have a self-interest in how the thing works - I think maybe the best way for me to deal with this is to give you my views as longtime reviewer on a number of panels for a number of different granting agencies, both inside and outside of Canada. I'll do that in a future post - promise.



I hear you re: priorities....However, stepping back a bit, we Canadian scientists have to do a better job of lobbying in a positive way rather than just going to gov't with our hands out...In the States science geeks are much, much better at this (although there system is more amenable to it as it is possible to have an positive effect by getting even minority support given the horsetrading that goes on around budget issues)...Towards that end, I've never been able to understand why we don't also pitch what we do as a great jobs program as well...

As for the monicker...In all honesty I can't wear it... I don't work directly with patients (tissues and cells, sure, but not real people)...Thus, I really am a basic researcher who gets to muck around in the lab about half the time (the rest of my time is spent teaching, which I also enjoy, and being a smalltime academic)....So, the truth is, I'm really, really lucky to have the job that I have (and I was even more lucky to have received a really great public school education, all the way from kindergarten through grad school that made it possible for me to get it).


Thanks Lew!

Gosh, I've never thought of that weird duality.

In all honesty, I just refuse to be one of those people that pulls the ladder up behind them.



Sorry for inducing the anxiety...Truth is, I likely wouldn't have written about it if it hadn't turned out this way...

All that responsibility thing just kind of mounted with the passing of time...In the beginning my lab was kind of like summer camp because I ran it mostly on undergrads who came and went pretty regularly...Then there were a small number of graduate students who stayed for a few years before heading off to new horizons (which is as it should be)...But then I started to hire permanent staff and everything changed...


paul said...

Thought I posted this, but must have been impatient.
Great post. Science folks tend not to be great talking about what they do, how the process it works or why it matters. Partly because they would just rather do the work.
But it's important, and this does it well. Who knows, if people have a better understanding, there might be more money and the reject rate could fall to 75 per cent.
With a little tweaking, this could be a useful Globe oped piece.