Working Scientist podcast: How to beat research funding's boom and bust cycle
Julie Gould and Michael Teitelbaum discuss the highs and lows of funding cycles and how to survive them as an early career researcher.
In the penultimate episode of this six-part series on grants and funding, Julie Gould asks how early career researchers can develop their careers in the face of funding's "boom and bust" cycle and the short-termism it engenders.
Governments are swayed by political uncertainty and technological developments, argues Michael Teitelbaum, author of Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.
In the US, for example, space research funding dramatically increased after Soviet Russia launched the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957, ending after the 1969 moon landing.
Similar booms followed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, says Teitelbaum, a Wertheim Fellow in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and senior advisor to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York.
But he argues that they are unsustainable and can have a negative impact on the careers of junior scientists and their research. Will Brexit trigger a funding downturn, and if so, for how long? Watch this space, says Teitelbaum.
Sponsored content: European Research Council (ERC)
Retired Portuguese Navy Captain Joaquim Alves, a principal investigator at the Centre for the History of Science and Technology, University of Lisbon, leads the European Research Council project MEDEA-CHART, dedicated to the study of medieval and early modern nautical charts. He describes his career and the support he has received from the ERC.
Julie Gould and Michael Teitelbaum discuss the highs and lows of funding cycles and how to survive them as an early career researcher.
Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to the fifth and penultimate episode of our series on funding. In the previous episode, we looked at a recent major upheaval in the UK science funding environment, with the creation of UK Research and Innovation.
This time, we’re looking at some of the processes that determine how funding decisions are and have been made in the past, and what impact that these decisions can have on careers in scientific research. But before we go on, don’t forget that at the end of this Working Scientist podcast, we’ve got a ten-minute sponsored slot from the European Research Council.
Right, so funding – how do governments decide where to put their money? Professor Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, has studied how funding has been allocated in the US since the world wars, and he’s found that funding comes in cycles, and he calls them "alarm/boom/bust" cycles, and I asked Michael to give us a quick, simple introduction into what these cycles are.
Government funding for basic research often runs in cycles. Politicians and governments decide that there needs to be more funding for basic research and they often will raise the funding quite rapidly to show a significant effect, but then are unable to sustain that rate of increase. Sometimes the funding even declines subsequently. So, you get a cycle of boom followed by bust, over a period of perhaps a decade. My conclusion is that this is quite unhealthy for basic research, which is a quintessentially long-term kind of activity involving long study periods to become fully professional, followed by long careers in basic research. If the funding increases sharply and then doesn’t continue to increase or declines, that is very destabilising for both basic research itself and for career prospects in basic research.
And why do you think the governments react in such a way by actually putting quite considerable sums of money towards whatever basic research they’re aiming to fund?
It’s not universal, but it’s common that governments are convinced by industry or by academic institutions that they have been funding basic research insufficiently, and they tend to over-respond to that kind of representation by increasing funding at levels that cannot be sustained over the longer term.
Why would you say that these cycles are destructive towards the careers of researchers?
Well, the problem is that basic research and careers in basic research are fundamentally long-term propositions, and this kind of funding which is for a period of years and then disappears is destabilising to a system that requires many years of graduate and advanced study and research to become a professional in basic research. And research projects that take many years to develop, you can’t really achieve a great deal in basic research in only a few years, and if you study for 8-10 years or more to become a research scientist, you might find yourself, with these short cycles of funding, you might find yourself finishing your studies just in time to face a very poor career situation in those fields.
In his book called Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Michael explored some of these "alarm/boom/bust" cycles in the US from the past century. Now one of the examples he uses in the book is the shock of the successful 1957 Soviet Union launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1.
This led to what I would consider to be a near political panic among leaders of the US government, especially people such as Lyndon Johnson who was then majority leader in the US Senate, and led to an enormous increase in funding for space and rocketry and controls for catching up with the Soviet Union in space. That cycle ended with the success of John F Kennedy’s promise to successfully land humans on the Moon and return them to Earth safely by the end of the 1960s. When that spectacular achievement was achieved, the political system tended to lose interest in the massive funding for the space programme and there was a bust.
The third cycle in the 1980s was stimulated by then President Reagan’s so-called Strategic Defense Initiative - critics called it the Star Wars Initiative - which led to massive funding, but only short-term for that initiative. And then the final two cycles that I identify in the book were different in the sense that they weren’t military, they weren’t strategic in that sense. The first was the internet, the boom resulting from the internet becoming a commercial activity rather than a research or academic activity and the expansion therefore of the internet and other kinds of booms in the 1990s. Again, that was in the private sector not in the government sector. And finally, overlapping that was a decision by the US Congress and the presidential leadership of both parties to double funding over a five-year period for the National Institutes of Health. A massive increase for five years, averaging about 14% per year that then was followed by flat funding for subsequent years.
So, what cycle are we in at the moment?
One of the characteristics of a cycle like this is you don’t know it’s a cycle until it finishes, so we can’t be sure at this point that we’re in an ‘alarm/boost/bust’ cycle. We could just be in an alarm and boom cycle without a bust to follow – we will have to come back and talk in five years to see if there is a bust that ensues at the end. But the current boom situation is in information technology, in social media, in fields that are largely created by industry and particularly by firms in Silicon Valley and in the Seattle area, led by Intel and Microsoft in particular. In terms of their lobbying, they argue they cannot find the skilled personnel they need to remain competitive internationally, that there’s a shortage of skilled personnel in these fields. It’s not a new claim. It’s been a claim that was common in all of these other booms and busts over the previous half-century. But their goal is not to encourage a funding boom from the federal government for their fields because they are in the commercial sector and they’re profit-seeking firms. What they’re looking for – and they’ve been successful in their lobbying efforts – is large-scale access to temporary workers coming from low-wage countries, largely via visas with hot names like H1B and L1 and so on. They’ve been quite successful with getting these short-term, temporary workers – large numbers of them in the hundreds of thousands – claiming that otherwise they would not be able to continue to be competitive internationally. And then there’s also parallel lobbying from higher education groups. Their goals are indeed to increase research grant funding because it’s a very substantial source of revenue for them, but also to continue to have easy access to large numbers of international graduate students who pay full tuition.
How can early career researchers keep track of these cycles and see and feel what’s happening and learn to navigate them?
I think the key words would be pay attention and be flexible. If you’re an early career researcher or aspiring to be a researcher in one of these fields, you need to keep track of what we are discussing here in terms of increased funding from government sources or decreased funding, increased numbers of temporary visas or decreased numbers of temporary visas. All of these things will have some impact over time on your personal experience. So, you need to pay attention, for example, to the trajectories of key science funding agencies. I would say a way to do that is to pay attention to reports from credible publications that do report in an objective way on what is happening in the politics, if you will, of funding and of temporary visas. You would have to pay attention to the budget requests of key agencies and assess whether those requests are likely, if they are responded to positively, are they likely to be sustainable over the longer term, or are they likely to be short-term pulses of funding, which would be destabilising. And then those who are already doing research and are funded by government agencies need to be cautious in responding to requests for proposals that seem to be short-term pulses of funding or boom-type funding. They need to build a portfolio, I would say, of different funding sources, rather than depend on a particular source that seems to be flush with money at the moment but may not be in the future. In other words, the same kind of advice that any investment advisor would give to a client – that they should diversify their commitments and thereby reduce their exposure to risk in the future.
Speaking of the future, the impact that political systems have on scientific funding and thinking back on the previous episode with James Wilsdon on the UK scientific funding environment, I asked Michael what he thought might happen - or not - with Brexit - or not.
If that were to happen – I know there’s a great deal of concern in the UK among academic institutions in terms of whether they would be able to apply what has become quite a large amount of basic research funding from the European Union – I think that’s all up in the air now so I don’t think we can make any forecasts or projections about what will happen, but it’s an issue that I think should be watched. If I were a young scientist engaged in pursuing a career in basic research in the UK, I would be paying a lot of attention to this.
Okay, well let’s chat again in five years’ time.
Laughs. I don’t think we need five years for that one, that’s probably two years, but it’s not now – we can’t do it now.
So, what does this all mean? Well, the long and short of it is we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but what I think we can say is that the funding environment at the moment is a difficult one to navigate, so the more skills and tools amassed for writing grant proposals will be vital for survival in the scientific workforce. In the final episode of this series, we’ll hear more about some alternative ways of distributing scientific funding that may alleviate some of the pressures that researchers face in the current, very competitive climate. Now, that’s all for this section of our Working Scientist podcast. We now have a slot sponsored by and featuring the work of the European Research Council. Joaquim Alves Gaspar tells of his work in cartography and with the European Research Council project MEDEA-CHART. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.
Joaquim Alves Gaspar
My name is Joaquim Alves Gaspar. I was born in Lisbon, Portugal 69 years ago. I joined the Portuguese Navy when I was 19, and I served for about 40 years. In 2006, that is 12 years ago, I started a PhD programme on the geometric analysis and numerical modelling of old nautical charts, which I completed in 2010. In my thesis, I have proposed and tested a series of cartometric methods, that means geometrical methods of analysis and numerical modelling, aimed at a better understanding of how old charts were constructed and used at sea.
As soon as I got the degree, I was invited to become a member of a research centre in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Lisbon, where I am now and where I have been working for eight years, first as a postdoctoral researcher and now, after winning the grant, as a principal investigator.
Most of what I know about the technical and the scientific methods related to the history of nautical cartography, I learned it from the Navy. I am not only referring to the theoretical background which people can study from the books, but also to the actual experience of contacting a ship at sea, and using nautical charts for the planning and the execution of navigation. It was this knowledge and this experience that gave me the capacity to fully understand old charts, not only as historical artefacts, but images of the world, which is a traditional approach, but also and mostly as instruments to navigate. This is something that a traditional historian of cartography is not prepared to do. By looking into those charts with the eyes of a cartographer and of a navigator and with the assistance of the analytical and modelling tools that I have developed, I could establish a meaningful connection between the methods of chart construction in all kinds, of course, as described in the historical sources and the practice of navigation. This development has opened new and promising lands of research. That is what my ERC project is about.
I applied to and I won a starting grant in the section S6 – that is the history of the human past. It was at that time the first ever Portuguese proposal to be accepted in that particular section. It was the first ever grant that was considered to a project on the history of cartography and also, as far as I know, no one is using these kinds of techniques to study old maps. The total amount of the grant is about €1.2 million, to be applied during five years. The funding will be mostly used to pay the six grantees now working with us to cover travel expenses and to buy some equipment. We have a team of eight members: the PI (myself), a retired Navy officer, a senior researcher who is a physicist who converted to the history of science and he is now the head of the department of history and philosophy science, a postdoctoral researcher who is also a physicist by education, three PhD students, a junior computer expert who is developing our information systems and a project manager and she is a neuroscientist by education. Of these, only one of the PhD students is an historian by education. This tells us something about what I have called the multidisciplinary nature of my project.
The general objective of the project, as stated in my proposal, is to solve a series of questions which have, should I say, eluded historians of cartography for a very long time, pertaining to the birth, the technical evolution and the use of nautical charts during the Middle Ages and also the early modern period. For example, we want to clarify when, how, why and where the first nautical charts were constructed. This is a very popular subject among the international community of historians of cartography. Not only we have been very successful in bringing many of them to the discussion, but also significant progress has been made in the last year. For example, it is now consensual among us that the oldest nautical charts were constructed using navigational information collected by the pilot at sea. Certain distortions affecting the old charts were caused by the use of magnetic compasses to navigate, which as you know, don’t point exactly to the geographical north. The difference is the so-called declination, magnetic declination. The novelty in my project is that we intend to provide good answers to those questions by using what we call a multidisciplinary approach including a novelty of techniques of geometrical analysis, numerical modelling, carbon-14 dating and multispectral analysis of the old parchments, which will complement, of course, the traditional methods of historical research. So far, one and a half years after the project started, the results are promising.
Aim the highest possible and don’t just give it a try – do it using everything you’ve got. Don’t be humble. ERC grants are intended to be given to the very best researchers proposing the best projects. If you are confident that you have an excellent idea, one that will make the panel members raise out of their chairs, and that you are the right person to make it work, then don’t be shy. Go for it. However, having made the decision of proceeding to the next stage, you will now need a great deal of humbleness to be able to create the best possible proposal. The reason is that you will have to engage into an extremely competitive process with highly competent and motivated people. In other words, you will have to work hard and be professional. It took me a full year to write the proposal, despite my experience and background. Let me elaborate a bit on this. You know you have a wonderful idea, otherwise you wouldn’t have engaged in the process. The job now will be to organise each idea into a meaningful and visible project, and of course, to convince the evaluation panel that you are the best possible person to make it work. Don’t leave anything to fortune or chance, so that you won’t blame yourself for not taking into account all the variables. That’s all I have to advise.
One of the unwritten goals of the project is to pass the message. I won’t live forever and I want my methods and my techniques to be passed and to be used again by other people, and Portugal is the best place because I also want to give a push to the research on the subject of Portugal.
Originally posted on Nature Careers - 01 February 2019 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00403-7