Friday, May 01, 2009

25% Solution

A recent article in about biomedical researchers scrambling for stimulus funding caught my attention because of this statement:

At the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, for instance, faculty members normally spend about 50 percent of their time working on grants, .. in March and April, however, faculty members have spent more like 75 percent to 90 percent of their time going after stimulus dollars.

The first part of the statement didn't surprise me at first, perhaps because the phrase is ambiguous. I interpreted 'working on grants' to mean 'working on grant-related activities', including writing proposals, but the second part of the sentence strongly suggests that this statement actually means that med school faculty typically spend 50% of their time writing proposals.

That's huge. It doesn't surprise me that the % time is higher than that of physical sciences faculty members, but I wouldn't have guessed that it was 50% (if that number is, in fact, correct).

The amount of time I spend working on proposals varies a lot from month to month, and in some cases from year to year, but it is definitely not 50%. If I spent 50% of my time writing proposals, I wouldn't have time to do the research that was funded by the grant. Yes, much of the research is done by graduate students and postdocs, but not all of it.

I like writing proposals, but I would not want to spend so much time attempting to acquire grants, leaving little or no time for doing science. For me, a reasonable % proposal planning and writing time that can potentially provide me with enough funding for research, not take over my life, and still let me enjoy both proposal-writing and science-doing is probably somewhere around 25% (±5). That number includes time thinking about proposals and thinking about thinking about proposals, not just the writing.

Has my proposal writing been affected by the appearance of stimulus funding? Only a little, mostly involving a request for some snazzy new equipment, as part of a large interdisciplinary group of scientists and engineers who all want the same snazzy new equipment.

Owing to the fact that I spend a lot of time doing various other professor things (for example, teach and write things other than proposals), there is no way that I could spend 90% of my time (or even 75%) on proposal writing, no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars were in the offing.


Fernando Pereira said...

Those numbers don't surprise me. I was involved in several NIH proposals with Penn Medicine colleagues, and they have to work much harder to fund their labs than we computer scientists had to. In part that's because they have to bring most of their own salaries, as they do not have undergraduate teaching duties or income, in part because medical research is extremely expensive in personnel (large labs with many postdocs and technical staff), equipment, and materials. NIH funding was flat for quite a few years, with the result that many proposals had very good scores, well in the traditional funding range, but they were not funded. This happened with NSF as well, but it was much more brutal for large NIH-funded labs. So, there's a big backlog of potentially fundable proposals sitting in every PI's computer, so they must be rushing to update them for resubmission now.

John Vidale said...

Those number just don't work for profs. Between teaching, committees, seminars, and browsing FSP posts and writing self-referencing comments, discretionary time is limited. I spend < 10% time on writing proposals, maybe a day every other week. That's crazy to spend longer writing the proposals than working on the grants.

Stimulus funding has perhaps 25% of our attention at the moment, but we're anomalous (I think) on the high side. It is definitely a time to invest some work to take advantage, however.

Maybe these med schoolers just write grants and farm the papers and work to people in their group, but as you note, that sounds miserable.

Anonymous said...

I'm at Penn. From my observations, the article is probably close to the truth. In my department, for the last 1 1/2 months, nearly all lab meetings, committee meetings, student progress meetings, departmental presentations, etc. have been canceled or postponed as a result of writing stimulus grants. In fact, I've delayed my defense as everyone of my committee members said "not until after the grant deadlines."

DrDoyenne said...

When I formerly worked at a university in a soft-money research professorship (non-tenure track), I spent more than 50% of my time writing proposals. If I wanted to keep my job, I had to bring in enough $$$ to cover my salary and that of students, technicians, etc.

This type of position was common at this university, and I spent 20 years at it.

In my area (biological sciences), I had to write, on average, about 10 proposals per year to maintain 2 or 3 funded projects (I couldn't get my entire salary on a single grant). As you might guess, the remainder of my time was spent doing the research with little time left over to write it up. It quickly became a losing game, with me falling farther and farther behind in publishing my research findings, with negative feedback on grant success.

This was a primary reason I left to take a job as a government scientist. Within five years, I was making double what I had made at the university and will shortly bypass my husband who is a full professor at my former university.

By the way (harking back to earlier discussions about tenure), the type of government (US) science position I'm in (called a "permanent appointment") is comparable to a "tenured" university position. If you measure up after 3 years (to a ridiculously low standard), you become "permanent". They can't get rid of you unless you commit a heinous act (and even then you are likely to be promoted) or they implement a RIF (reduction in force), comparable to a university declaring a state of exigency.

We have LOTS of "dead wood" in my agency, drawing enormous salaries and with no incentive to retire early. But there are also really good scientists who publish a lot, do a lot of service for the agency or for science societies, etc. Not much different from the university in that respect...

Ms.PhD said...

Yes, but I think many of these are faculty who were already having funding problems.

Med school faculty typically have to cover their salary plus research costs; research costs have been going up (especially if you work with model organisms); and these labs are generally larger than labs in any other department.

In addition, many postdocs who came with fellowships received less money, or anticipated getting fellowship money and didn't get it this year. The only other option is to pay them off of grants.

Or have them write your grants. I think some PIs like to claim they're writing grants when they're actually just nagging their postdocs to do it for them!

Amber Lynne said...

I am an undergraduate (only for another week or so!!) and I want someday to be a female science professor. I went to a research conference this spring and realized to run a successful lab you really have to spend alot of time writing proposals. I was talking to a woman who ran a very successful lab and her and her students talk about how she spent most of her time outside of class writing proposals and all her research was done by her large team of students and post docs. I LOVE the benchwork. That is why I am pursuing my PhD. The professor I do research with now does not apply for money, she teaches and has a very meager budget every year for our research but spends alot of time mentoring me and working in the lab herself. Our department was hirng a new faculty member and one of the candidates was in a very large lab at Harvard and as a post doc was already giving all his research duties to graduates and undergraduates while he wrote proposals. I want to best of both worlds, I want to be able to afford nice equipment but also work on my research and with students.

Anonymous said...

i'm in a med school campus of a major research university. some labs are scrambling for their take, but mine is not. why risk losing a renewal of a major P01/R01 for small funds that are not going to last? at least with the challenge grants, that is the situation.

and normal grant time for my PI is not 50%. maybe 25%. he does no hands-on experiments, and this is the case in 90% of the labs around me. the joke the PIs make is always, "you guys can work the word processor and I will go do experiments for a change."

Anonymous said...

A question to answer might be what level of funding is required to fund a "top" research lab in your field? I calculated that in my field, 300-400K/year was a minimum, and that would go up to 500K/year, if one were required to keep 100% of one's salary on the grant.

A "well-funded" lab probably costs 1M a year.

At those levels, a substantial amount of time could be spent writing proposals, but the 50% number would only work if one also counted all the research activities that serve grant writing (i.e. analyzing data, supervising people collecting preliminary data, . . . .). I think it pretty unlikely that 50% of the time could be spent directly on activities that could not be justified in any other way than for the grant (even writing introductions/reading summarizing background/writing methods also serve another purpose, project development, writing papers, etc.).

And, as someone else said, these proportions change when things are bad -- when someone is not getting funded.

John Vidale said...

This discussion has a problem.

Writing a good proposal IS doing research. No proposal in my field is going to be published without a look at the data or the methodology with close to the polish of a draft of a paper.

The budgets and facilities description are a minority of the work in proposal preparation, and usually are common to many proposals, even if the page count is high.

If someone is spending the bulk of their time on non-research proposal preparations, no wonder they are having trouble attracting funding.

Alex said...

Amber Lynne,

There is no perfect academic career where you can do most of the benchwork and be the professor, but undergraduate institutions are probably the closest you'll get to that ideal. The price you pay is a lot of time in the classroom. If you like teaching, it isn't a very steep price (it's still a price, no matter how much you like teaching, because those experiments are sitting there unfinished while you're lecturing to freshmen....).

OTOH, if you want to be a professor because you like basic research, but teaching is not high on your agenda and neither is proposal writing, then maybe professor is not the career you'd be happy in. I don't mean to be discouraging, but the reality is that very few professors spend a lot of time in the lab. We're either writing proposals or teaching classes, depending on the type of school we're at.

Kevin said...

As someone whose funding ran out a year ago, the idea of spending 50% of one's time writing proposals does not sound so far out of line. I can't do it---writing proposals is the most awful part of my job (worse than grading) and as the stakes get higher, the pain level goes up.

I am seriously considering shutting down my lab and working just by myself, so that I can go back to actually doing research and not rehashing stuff for proposals.

The feedback I get on proposals seems to alternate between "too risky---not enough preliminary data" and "too incremental---not enough innovation", for essentially the same content!

My lab is mainly computational, and I've been running on computers surplused from other projects for the past 10 years, so the only expense is grad students (well, summer salary, but I haven't taken that in many years, so that I could continue to pay the grad students). Sometimes I wish that NIH and NSF would take 50% of their money and use it to fund grad students directly, so that professors could spend their time doing the research and attracting students by the quality of the research experience, rather than by how much of their time and soul is spent on grant-grubbing.

DrDoyenne said...

Time spent on proposals (or more accurately, grant-acquisition activities) can involve:

1. reading new literature or specialized literature to address specific research priorities announced in an RFP.
2. acquiring and summarizing preliminary data to include in the proposal (and to see if the proposed ideas/methods are feasible).
3. searching and perusing funding announcements.
4. talking to and visiting program directors at funding agencies; developing/maintaining other contacts at federal, state, and private funding sources); participating in workshops to help agencies develop research priorities (and get some insight into what is on the horizon)
5. discussing ideas with potential collaborators.
6. writing proposals
7. routing proposals
8. submitting proposals (including learning whatever online system is used to upload files)
9. interpreting reviews of unsuccessful proposals and revising
10. writing required interim and final reports to the funding agency (if you want continued funding).
11. serving as reviewer or panelist (leads to understanding where the bar is set at a particular funding agency and other insights helpful in grant writing).

How much time you spend depends on your situation (soft or hard money), your field, funding sources, the competition, and typical funding cycles.

I now write one proposal every five years.

Eve said...

Assuming that some time is spent actually doing science, that means that they spend less than 50% of their time writing papers. Which means that they spend more time writing grants than writing the products of those grants. That blows my mind.

Anonymous said...

FSP, how much time would you suggest that soft money research faculty (in physical sciences) spend writing grants? As 100% soft money position, your salary - i.e. whether you can pay your bills at home and feed your family - depends entirely on grants. I was a soft money faculty until last year, when a major grant didn't get renewed and I lost everything that I had spent years building and maintaining. All of that evaporated in a puff as my institution refused to give me any bridge funding too so even though I had other grants under review that wasn't enough. I now work as an engineer in a company.

Anonymous said...

@DrDoyne: I tried to get a permanent appointment at the government lab where I did my postdoc. but I found that the government labs (or at least the one I was in) are extremely picky about hiring people into these positions because their focus is incredibly narrow and nepotism is rampant - in our department the last 5 hires have all been from the same group in the department head's alma mater. Hmmm... More common is the government labs are just making longtime postdocs into lifelong contractors whose contracts can be terminated anytime there is a momentary funding shortfall. So even though I'm working at a government lab, I still have to raise my own salary largely from external grants and if I can't, I will not only lose my salary but also be stripped of my position and lab access. So I do not recommend trying to get a job in a government lab either unless you can pull strings by who you know.

Anonymous said...

I think it is very rare for a professor/group leader in the bio(med) sciences to actually to hands on research. Also, writing it up will mostly be done by the students/postdocs with input/tips from the PI. This would definitely allow him/her to spend 50% writing grants I think.

DrDoyenne said...

Anon at 10:06 pm:

I agree that there are instances of government lab heads using inappropriate hiring practices. But I think this occurs outside government as well. Perhaps unfair, but who you know is sometimes a factor in getting hired.

The students, postdocs, and contractors who work in my lab are meant to be temporary. While they perform tasks for me, I try to help them develop the necessary skills to advance and get better positions elsewhere. My last post-doc is now an asst. professor at a university, for example (and we continue to collaborate on projects and papers).

I would love to keep some of these people in my lab permanently, but
that's not possible and not really fair to them. There are only a small number of permanent government positions. There are even fewer positions for PIs like me. I can't just create a Federal position, even if the funds exist to cover the salary.

Any employer (whether in government or a university) who encourages a post-doc to remain indefinitely in such a subordinate, insecure position (e.g., as a contractor or on soft money) is not looking out for the welfare of that person and is probably doing it for selfish reasons.

As far as recommending working for the government, I don't. It's not for everyone. Just as being a professor is not for everyone who receives a Ph.D.

It works for me because I've made it work.

Anonymous said...

I don't recommend government labs either, I did my postdoc in a government lab too and the slow pace of these "life-timers" drove me insane. Also the narrow focus was very strange as it seemed that no one talked to anyone outside their immediate group or division and thus no one was aware a world existed outside of their sub-fields. I suppose because there is less need for government scientists to write grants (since most are funded entirely internally and their jobs are very secure) there is less incentive to remain competitive by broadening one's horizons.

DrDoyenne said...

Yes, some gov’t scientists are narrowly focused and don’t publish much, but aren’t there tenured professors who fit this description?

Personally, I don’t understand why any scientist, given freedom from teaching and provided internal research funding, would not take advantage of such a situation and be highly productive. Makes no sense to me.

It’s up to the individual scientist to deal with their particular situation and challenge themselves, whether in government or academia.

If the bar is set too low, there’s nothing stopping you from ignoring it and setting higher standards for yourself (especially not male colleagues or “old-timers” complaining that you are making them look bad—-something I get all the time).

Anonymous said...

While the numbers may be true for the past month or two, when the stimulus money made all of us temporarily insane, no one spends 50% of their time writing grants nat my top 25 University. Could be true for soft money folks but not for people on the tenure track. That doesn't mean this never happens, but the times like these are interspersed with more normal times. Even in a year like two years ago when both my RO1's came up in the same year, I doubt I spent more than 15% of the year working on grants.

Mark P

postdocette said...

I got my PhD not so long ago at Boston University School of Medicine and was mentored by the most funded PI in my department (2 RO1s, a training grant as well as a program project). I can attest that at my medical school, in a lab the does a lot of mouse work, my PI spent well over 50% of her time writing grants.

The formula is simple, to produce high quality work that is publishable in high impact journals (JCI, PNAS, and beyond) you must be very well funded, and to be very well funded you must write lots of grants as more often than not they are rejected.

Alicia M Prater, PhD said...

My PhD lab advisor spent about 50-75% of his time writing grants (depending on the month), the rest of us did the science with his occasional interjection or meeting to tell us what we did wrong lol needless, to say, not much got published in journals, though a few things got written by a postdoc with the PI's edits or outlines. We were in molecular biology/genetics/pathology