There is one over-arching factor that feeds into all of the steps of the scientific method described in my last post– doing science costs money. Someone has to pay the bills for all of this activity. Reagents, instruments, lab space, researcher salaries all cost money. Numerous posts could also be written on this subject, but here is the general path in a nutshell.
At an early point in your journey into the scientific method, you have to identify an agency (NSF, NIH, DOE, USDA, The Gates Foundation etc) that will be willing to pay to support your work. This is based on how your specific research fits into the context of a larger problem the agency wants to address. If there is relevance to human health, go to NIH. For basic research with no clear link to medicine, go to NSF. For research related to supporting agriculture, go to the USDA.
Then you follow their rules for writing and submitting a grant proposal. Note, this is done with a specific deadline and purpose (aka ‘Request for Proposals’). You tell the agency how the important problem you are working on aligns with their goals and initiatives. You lay out your very logical experimental plan with promising preliminary data, explicitly mentioning the high likelihood of successfully producing the useful conclusions they want so badly. You lay out your credentials, your instrumental assets, your expert team of researchers, and your institutional support. You submit a detailed and justified budget, reviewed by actual accountants.
The proposal is the guidebook for the research you want to accomplish for the next few years as you see it today. You have to be as convincing as possible in your proposal, so you will get the money you need to carry it out. There is always the potential for failure, so the rest of the process is focused on minimizing the risk of a bad investment by the funding agency.
After submission, the agency scrutinizes the proposal for any procedural deficiencies in preparation before allowing it to move on to the next step. Woe to those using incorrect fonts and ignoring page limitations! I hope you remembered to upload all of those letters of support from your collaborators.
Months later, a panel review is convened. Yeah, those same jerks experts that have been reviewing your manuscripts now review all of the submitted grant proposals. Hopefully, you paid attention to their criticisms of your manuscripts and used that input to write a stellar proposal. Believe me, they will not think favorably of your proposal if they must again remind you of appropriate controls or previous works you should have cited. Now, you only have one chance to make your case or wait months until the next submission deadline. The reviewers scour all proposals for scientific flaws and merit, truly decipher all of the introductory information on your research as it relates to the greater good, and finally rank all of the submitted proposals for funding priority.
Months after that, the agency finally determines the amount of money they actually have to divide among the worthy proposals. Program directors are scientists in charge of the departments within the funding agency. They use the information from panel review to fund the worthy proposals. This is, at best, 20% of them (OK, really less than 10%). So, it’s a good idea to be noticed by your program director (i.e. meetings and other communication), but don’t bother them because at this point, they control the money you need.
If your proposal was near the top, congratulations! You have funding for about 2 to as many as 5 years before you have to do this again. If you want to expand your lab and do additional research, and you generally always do, then repeat the above process often. If your proposal was culled at any point, start over at the beginning, win the lottery, do some creative crowd-funding, or find a personal benefactor to support your research endeavors.
Needless to say, the funding process is a minefield, but the majority of scientists must learn to walk through it to fund their laboratories. In reality, real preliminary data and the immediate usefulness of forthcoming conclusions are generally uglier than they are painted in the proposal. That’s called ‘grantsmanship’! Here again, science has the built-in, self-correcting feature of peer review to ensure that the funded proposals are of the highest quality. The system isn’t perfect, but it does have its merits. It’s hard to say if newer funding models will take hold with better results in the future.
If you’re still asking yourself, “Well, why would you bother?!?” stay tuned for the next installment about why scientists do what they do. The answer may surprise you.