'Hopeless tide' of red tape threatens the future

October 15, 2009

The difficulties of securing grant funding as a young researcher are well documented.

But just how tough life can be for those at the start of their careers has been highlighted by a scholar who says the UK's grant-awarding system "turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them".

Writing in the PLoS Biology journal, Peter Lawrence, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge and emeritus scientist at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, describes the plight of an unnamed 39-year-old researcher.

He charts how the researcher has gone from being an "enthusiastic scientist" with excellent prospects to an "insecure bureaucrat", abandoned by his postdoc because he cannot secure funding.

Dr Lawrence says that his plight "illustrates how the present funding system in science eats its own seed corn".

Among the criticisms raised in the piece are the length of time it takes to complete grant applications; the way researchers are being asked to become "astrologists" by predicting the path their research will follow; and the "preposterous" demands on them to publish new and original work while simultaneously recruiting and training students.

"Applications have become so detailed and so technical that trying to select the best proposals has become a dark art," Dr Lawrence writes.

The piece has been downloaded from the journal's website more than 20,000 times, suggesting that it has struck a chord in the academy.

Dr Lawrence said that the piece, "Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research", had prompted about 40 young scientists to write to him with similar horror stories.

"Scientists, especially young group leaders, talk about almost nothing else," he said.

"Yet they do not publish their complaints (about the grant-awarding system) for fear of recrimination and a reduction of their chance of survival."

He added that many researchers felt "caught up in a hopeless tide of growing bureaucracy" and said that "someone had to speak for them".

The article can be read at: http://bit.ly/cZCWP

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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