I recently returned from ScienceOnline, a meeting for journalists, scientists, artists, teachers, and others who discuss (and do!) science on the internet. This was my second time at the conference and, like last year, I came home with a mind full of ideas about effective outreach, open science, and teaching innovations. I tweeted something to this effect, to which @labroides responded, “Devil’s advocate: which of these things will help you get tenure?” I confess, the question gave me pause. One of the most useful parts of ScienceOnline for me this year was being able to ask a range of faculty for first-year advice, as I prepare to start as an assistant professor at the University of Maine next fall. That advice came cascading back to me: Learn to say no. Put enough–but not too much– effort into teaching. Protect your writing time, but be prepared to get little to no writing done.
I thought, too, about the sessions about scientific outreach and blogging, where inevitably someone reminds the room that many academics aren’t supported in their outreach endeavors. A common revelation is the advisor or senior colleague who says “time on a blog is time away from the lab bench,” or “How do you have time for science?” The implications, added up, are that podcasts, collaborative student blogs, and field-based live-chats with the public well and good in theory, but they should ultimately be jettisoned in favor of doing Things That Will Help You Get Tenure. Those things are 1) publications (in peer-reviewed “traditional” journals, of course) and 2) grants. This very blog is, by the rubrics of many tenure committees, not a Thing That Will Help Me Get Tenure. It doesn’t matter that I know that my blogging, Tweeting, and other outreach efforts are greater than the sum of their parts. I’m sensitive to the challenges I face in the coming years. So, I ask for advice, and I do what I can to prepare for next year.
Recently, the National Science Foundation (the primary funding agency for my research) started moving from two-a-year to one-a-year grant cycles, in part to reduce reviewer burden. The numbers are in for last year’s Division of Environmental Biology grants– the first year with the new one-a-year cycle– and it appears that early career researchers have about a 7% success rate, which is down from the previous year. Given that investigators are now limited to two proposals each per year (for DEB), I both have lower odds and fewer opportunities for funding than someone in my position would have had even five years ago. I’ve been told that it takes about three rounds on average before a grant is funded (if at all), which puts the funding situation in an even more sobering context.
And so, I ever since the holidays, I have been working on grants. Many folks have been surprised to hear that I’m already submitting NSF proposals, given that I’m stim a postdoc. My tenure clock may not start ticking until September, but I am keenly aware of its looming presence. If my DEB is rejected, which has a high likelihood, I won’t be able to resubmit it until January 2014. Even if that gets funded, my co-PI and I won’t see the money until January 2015, which means we can fund students to start in September 2015. Let’s give them three years to start cranking out papers, and we’re looking at 2018 at the earliest for that research to reach the broader community. 2018 is also happens to be the first year I can submit my portfolio for tenure.
One consequence of my foray into grant writing is that I have gotten very little science done since December. Instead, I have spent most of my time and effort on projects that likely have a <10% chance of being funded. Don’t get me wrong; I’m excited about these projects, and excited about the science and students they will fund. But the last six weeks have been time away from 1) writing about the science I’ve already done, and 2) doing new science, which means fewer papers in the pipeline (one of the Things That Will Help Me Get Tenure). I made a choice to invest in the long-term project of acquiring funding, and it may not have been the right choice. I won’t really know until I reflect back in six or seven years.
There are real barriers preventing scientists from being better teachers, doing good outreach, and effectively communicating our science to our peers and the broader public. But I can’t help but think, as I’m deeply embedded in grant-writing mode, that “time doing outreach is time away from science” is the wrong part of the activity pie to be focusing on. To me, teaching, blogging, and other forms of outreach help vitalize my research and make it relevant. Publicly funded scientists have a duty to make our research accessible to others, whether that’s as a resource to citizens via a university extension program, or bringing high school students into the lab. Outreach activities need to be recognized, incentivized, and rewarded by university tenure committees, and they rarely are.
In the meantime, though, when I hear “blogging is time away from science,” I can’t help but think “so is grant writing.” Which isn’t to say that scientists shouldn’t have to apply for funding; I’ve found grant writing to be a powerful exercise in both honing my thoughts on a topic while simultaneously broadening my knowledge base. But being at ScienceOnline while in full-time grant-writing mode has been an eye-opening experience for me. I hear a lot of academics say that they don’t have time to blog, or talk to the press, or volunteer to be a scientist liaison in their local communities, and yet many accept the enormous burden of grant-writing as part of the status quo. The irony of this is that outreach ultimately serves many more people than failed, perpetually unfunded grant proposals.
Instead of outreach, I’d like to suggest that the real effort bottleneck for scientists is funding. NSF can restructure its funding cycles in any number of ways, but it’s still the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. This year’s new crop of faculty are facing lower funding rates and fewer opportunities than ever before; meanwhile, many labs are turning to crowd-funding efforts like SciFund and iAMscientist, (which, incidentally, rely on strong social media networks to be successful). I worry about my faculty cohort, and the choices we are faced with as we learn the juggling act of the tenure track. It’s unclear to me how tenure committees will judge my faculty cohort relative to those that came before, when funding opportunities and rates were both higher. More time grant writing means less time doing and communicating about science, which are the things I really signed up for eight years ago when I started graduate school. We lament poor teaching, a lack of public science literacy, chemophobia, climate denial, and creationism taught in public schools, and so we continue to put the pressure on scientists to be better communicators, more innovative teachers, and multimedia experts. Which is all well and good, but if we’re not also calling for increased science funding, the outreach training and media initiatives are all for naught. We have to get that funding rate above 7%, period. Otherwise, all those ideas I’ve brought home from ScienceOnline will stay in the Broader Impacts section of my next grant proposal, instead of in classrooms, living rooms, and town halls.
For some numbers on US research funding rates, check out this useful LiveScience infographic here.
ETA: If you know of a specific initiative to increase federal science funding, please let me know in the comments! Otherwise, feel free to contact your elected officials.
ETA: NSF program officer Alan Townsend has some (unofficial) insight on why this first year’s DEB numbers might be a bit low, and we shouldn’t read too much into them yet. Check out his post here.