Funding in Science

February 3, 2017 admin No comments exist

I see this topic pop up all the time: that study was funded by a _____ company so it must be compromised. Unfortunately, that is how some people fund their research questions. It doesn’t mean the study was rigged to fall in favor of a certain outcome. It also doesn’t mean you should ignore how studies are funded. If you look at how the study was designed you can usually tell if it was influenced or not. On the other hand, there might be a ton of negative or positive data that the authors left out on purpose. Sometimes scientists craft a story from the data they have then discard the rest. Not all of them, but it does happen.

Why? I have no idea. It drives students, interns and post-docs crazy when data doesn’t get published. They may have spent a whole semester collecting/analyzing that data – just to have it thrown out because it doesn’t fit. Some investigators are better about this than others, but I’ve seen it happen in every lab I’ve ever seen. From the standpoint of advancing science, it also doesn’t click because someone else may waste their time and funding on the same experiments that didn’t work. Publication bias has a lot to do with this. Yes, I just linked to Wikipedia and my sophomore English teacher lost a wing.

Funding for exercise or nutrition studies on healthy people isn’t very common. They definitely don’t get any big novelty checks. That makes sense. People who have a disease should be studied so we can better understand it, cure it, or reduce the symptoms. The National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) don’t really care about making healthy people bigger, faster or stronger. Some organizations do give out grants to study exercise or nutrition, but these are usually much smaller (20-100k total). Universities also have internal grants (10-60k) that can support research.

The lack of money can mean a smaller number of subjects in a study because scientists can’t pay participants. For example, a current study we’re running pays participants up to ~1k if they complete all the outcome measures (3x muscle biopsies over 16 weeks). If you don’t have the funding to pay people it becomes much harder to recruit participants which usually results in smaller studies (n<20) although there are always exceptions.

Ok, want a peek into the funding process for an academic? Follow this link. Click around for a while just to see the sheer number of grants. I’m currently supported by a T32 grant and am applying for an F32 this year.

Furthermore, to put it in perspective most NIH grants are 250-500k+ per year. There are numerous mechanisms (R21/RO1/F etc). They each have special call-outs and very long applications. Most people start writing grants 3-6 months before they’re due. It’s a huge time investment. Universities even have whole departments dedicated to making sure you do it right.

How hard is it to get a grant? Pretty damn hard. Most of the NIH funding lines are around ~20% right now. That equates to 1 in 5 grants getting funded. It used to be even lower (10%) when I was doing my PhD. Rough times.


The other issue in academia is that you need to have continuous money to have a job OR get your full salary paid. Yes, even if someone has tenure. You see – in most major research universities you cover some of your salary through grants. As much as 80%. So what happens when the money runs out? Your salary drops. Yeah, you still have a job…. but you went from making a cool 100k to 20k. Back to grad student status. Granted, this usually doesn’t happen but the threat of it can create a major stressor to young professors trying to establish themselves. At smaller schools not entirely focused on research this may not be a problem and sometimes you can pick up enough teaching to cover your salary (some professors can buy out of teaching with their grant money).


Let’s take a look at another problem, depicted best by the image from PhDcomics. You basically have to generate preliminary data for your grants. Therefore, if you don’t hit a grant you could have numerous publications backed up. This is part of the reason why research takes so long. If you’ve already completed all the work using leftover funds from a previous grant – why would someone give you money to fund that project?

There is a lot more information about funding, tenure, and academia in general that I’ll write about in the future. A major limitation of my perspective is that I have no experience with funding outside the USA.

I usually write more evidence-based with tons of citations, but I think Adam did an excellent job summarizing the literature on funding bias on his website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *