Angels with dirty faces 

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Getting research funding is like playing a casino, but it’s not just the house that holds the aces.

For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (The Bible; Matthew, 25:29)

Robert K Merton was responsible for coining the terms “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophecy”, but arguably his most important research neologism was defining the “Matthew effect”. Taking its name form the Biblical passage above, it described a phenomenon gloomily familiar to virtually all scientists, and especially the younger members of the profession: the credit, and then the funding, goes to those who already have it.

Science often finds itself in conflict between its ideals and its actuality. It’s supposed to be an objective search for truth, and in the longer term its activity certainly results – and has resulted in – an unprecedented accumulation of factual insight into the workings of the natural world. In the short term though, and unavoidably (unless Artificial Intelligence comes of age sooner than even the most optimistic expectations), it’s a messy affair conducted by human beings and characterised by all the weaknesses that the flesh can inherit.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the allocation of research funds. It’s easy to find editorials, opinion pieces, and earnest conference presentations exhorting the need to ensure that the ranks of young scientists are continually refreshed, and that youth be given its chance. Fine words.

The response from on high though tends to be a bit more in the spirit of Charlton Heston’s address to the National Rifle Association in the year 2000 – you can have my gun, when you prise it “from my cold dead hands”. It’s absurdly, naively, optimistic to assume that the pyramidic power structure of science can be genially accommodating of a new influx of faces – things are run more like lions in a pride; the new leader kills all his predecessor’s cubs.

Regrettably, it’s all too easy to dismiss such concerns as sour grapes. Sure you’re bitter, but you didn’t get funding because your proposal wasn’t not good enough. Sure you’re bitter, but you couldn’t publish in high-impact journals (y’know, the ones that prostitute themselves to whatever’s in vogue) because your work isn’t good enough. Sure you’re bitter, but you couldn’t get support because your department/university isn’t good enough. It’s the cry of the beggars from outside the palace walls while those inside eat their cake.

The problem though, is how arbitrary that fate is, and the almost implausibly fine margins that can determine your career’s trajectory. No film captured this predicament better than the 1938 classic “Angels with dirty faces” – following a juvenile robbery, Rocky (James Cagney) gets nabbed and goes on to become a violent career criminal; his friend Jerry (Pat O’Brien) manages to run away and ultimately becomes a priest and a pillar of the local community. When Rocky finally goes to the electric chair, Jerry implores Rocky’s young acolytes to “say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could”.

A recent paper in PNAS (Bol et al) makes this “Angels with Dirty Faces” effect apparent. 

Land – just – on one side of the funding line for an early research grant, and your career goes one way; on the other, it follows a different path. If you get that first grant, you’re more likely to get more, and (worryingly) you’re also more likely to apply for more – a sure sign of demoralisation in the failed applicants. It doesn’t matter how far over the threshold you are, just which side of it you land. Even more troublingly, the acquisition of research grants actually doesn’t appear to have any bearing on the quality of work performed, only on likely future funding success rates and the probability of securing tenure.

So let’s hear it for all the Cagneys out there. Don’t give up, don’t be yellow, don’t forget you’re angels too – just with dirty faces. Keep running.

4 thoughts on “Angels with dirty faces 

  1. Nice post!

    Re: the role of randomness vs talent in general, see this preprint by Pluchino et al:
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1802.07068
    “Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure”
    Where they quantify (with simulations) the role of randomness and find that it has a bigger impact than talent (where some talent is always necessary).

    One has to concede, however, that this is true in all aspects of life, not just science funding. In my view, the thing that makes it different in science is that “success” is a bit all-or-nothing, especially nowadays (e.g. REF in the UK), where if you fall below a particular output level, you are out. So success means survival. Which is not true for most professions (and where it is, salaries are usually higher).

    In sports there are “repechage” matches to give a chance to those that were eliminated early in a competition to pass to the next round. There could be funding programs aimed at those who do not hold big grants, where track record might not be so important, to give a similar chance.

    The current distribution of funds is also not deemed to be wasteful of taxpayers money!
    See Wahl’s “The NIH must reduce disparities in funding to maximize its return on investments from taxpayers”: https://elifesciences.org/articles/34965

    Best!
    JQ

    Liked by 1 person

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