Thursday, July 7, 2011

Do Whatcha Wanna*

While some PIs eventually learn to take pride in their "grantsmanship," I doubt anyone is happy with the grant system.  Nominal scientists spend their time trying to raise money rather than doing actual science.  We award grants based on people's paper trail, and then go tell them to teach, train, proselytize, and, oh yeah, publish.

I don't have a well thought out solution to the problem, but I do have a half-baked one: treat scientists like start-up companies.  My idea comes from two strains.

Cause it makes you smile if it sounds dope
When I read The Double Helix, the biggest surprise to me was that Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA as a side project.  They both were working on other projects - I can't remember what, but I think it had to do with invertebrates - and would sneak off together to try and piece together the crystallography data.  And Watson kept having to appease his advisor that his main project was indeed moving along, and apply for fellowships.

The lessons I took from this (and this is simplistic) are that people work best on things their interested in, and trying to make them work on a specific project is counterproductive. This may be my experience, but I know many people who toil away on mediocre projects when they yearn to do something else.** Yet, when we apply for grants, we make people write up specific projects that by definition may not yield interesting results. So what do we do if we stop writing grant proposals?

Scientists and startups
One of my favourite essayists is Paul Graham.  He's an angel investor (venture capitalist) who biannually runs a startup bootcamp to identify and train tech entrepeneurs.  When he decides whether to invest in a company, he almost ignores their business plan, because nascent companies constantly change plans.  What he focuses on are the founders, and he looks for specific traits: determination, flexibility, imagination, naughtiness, and friendship. Founding companies is extremely demanding, with a high failure rate.

Entrepreneurs and scientists share a lot of similarities.  They're both trying to do something new, which means exploring a lot of idea space, and modifying the plan as results come in.  They both have to overcome failure, whether it's experiments not working, or users not signing up. The rewards are asymmetric, with the best projects doing orders of magnitude better than the average. The best scientists and founders are not necessarily those that are the smartest, but the best hackers and hustlers.  And both groups waste a lot of time trying to raise money.

Ten years ago, venture capitalists evaluated startup companies the same way we evaluate grants today: they'd ask for a business plan, and then fund based on that.  But they've realized another model has better yield: ignore the business plan, and fund the founder.  My proposal is that scientists do the same.

Rather than have people spend weeks writing a fellowship, filled with scientific justification and wedged-in hyphotheses, let's run a scientist boot camp.  Take a month, send people off to Woods Hole (or wherever), and have them slap together a project.  See who stays up late.  See who tries something spectacular, fails, then whittles it down to something manageable.  See who hacks together a solution to a problem.  And fund them, for whatever the want to do, proposal unseen.

In the end, I don't think the cost is that high: some flights, a month's pay for the students, and a couple supervisors.  You'd save a lot of grant reviewers' time.  You'd build camaraderie between the students that may last as they venture back to their home institutes.  And you might end up funding successful scientists rather than people with good credentials.

(Having slept on this, I am downplaying the logistics  here.  For example, working with mouse models would be difficult in a one month course. But there are pretty common, useful mouse lines like Thy1-GFP/ChR2, and you could even try a BYOM system if the mouse quarantines were modified for the unique situation.)

*In honor of Treme.

** I realize even mediocre projects need resolution.  Sometimes its better, though, to just pull the plug.

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