Got that grant hamster wheel feeling?

Work in academia and on grants?

Then you might have been getting that grant Möbius strip, hamster wheel, Groundhog Day kind of feeling…

The funding rate for the key so-called “R01” NIH laboratory biomedical grant has never been lower. In the long run, R01s are crucial to the everyday running of most biomedical labs in America.

It might take 10-15 tries to get one grant if one assumes all other things being equal. Say you are better than the average PI, it still might take you 5-7 tries or more. Throw in a little bad luck and it could easily be even worse than one in 10-15 tries though.

It seems equally bad or even worse at NSF. Foundation grants are tough to get as well.

As a result today, unless you are a rare grant savant or something (and if you are, congrats!), it may feel like you are always writing a grant or two or three…kind of like the ants in Escher’s famous Möbius strip drawing below going around and around. Is there an end in sight?

Constant grant writing is not the historical norm.

When I was a trainee, PIs would write grants and then take breaks of months or even a year or two before writing another one. They had the needed time for other important aspects of their jobs.


Now the norm seems to be more of an endless grant cycle. Almost every PI that I know can only rarely step off.

Of course most folks are not looking to be going in the same circle over and over, but rather they are working very hard to improve their grant applications. Still there’s a super bad grant mojo out there right now.

Any words of wisdom out there?

3 thoughts on “Got that grant hamster wheel feeling?

  1. Hi Paul, It’s called resource limitation. It doesn’t hit everyone at the same time. On the biggest (global) scale, the evidence points to a slow downwards spiral since around 1980.

    In principle, the scientific/technical revolution can free up resources and time for all manner of satisfying intellectual endeavour. But, there are limits to what science/technology can do to improve the lot of a population which lives on a finite planet and condemns itself by practicing a Darwinian breeding strategy and mindless consumption. Our present political/economic system optimizes quantity of GDP. When one strongly optimizes for one variable, other things (eg well-being) become highly de-optimized.

    Ultimately, you will work night and day writing grants — which others will expend all their time reviewing and bureaucratizing about. It’s called growing the GDP by growing illth.

    The best historical account is “Fates of Nations: a biological theory for history” by Paul Colinvaux (1980). A rare history book that is solidly based upon scientific theory…

    • @Brian,
      Wasn’t aware of that Colinvaux book and the “illth” terminology. Interesting.
      I would say that the US is shooting itself in the foot by not investing more in life sciences even in a time of resource limitation. Or to put it another way, money invested in NIH has been argued to actually earn back America more than the investment in the long run so slowly decreasing the real dollar funding of NIH is actually a net loss for our country. Probably preaching to the choir here.

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