Underfunded? Or Unpopular?

This week’s question in the Ask a ScienceBlogger series is:

What’s the most underfunded scientific field that shouldn’t be underfunded?

The first and obvious answer is, of course, “my field“, whatever it is.
But then….


But then I thought about my own field of chronobiology and I think that its funding goes as overal funding goes. When there is a lot of money to go around, clock researchers get their fair share. When everyone is suffering, so does my field. After all, circadian field is deemed pretty “sexy” – it was a runner-up in the year-end popularity lists of the Science magazine at least a couple of times over the past few years. But I’ll come back to my field later.
What does it really mean “underfunded”? Is it the total amount of money given for a particular line of research, or is it the proportion of proposals that get funded within each field? It depends on a number of factors, including the number of people working in that field and the number of grant proposals they submit (and how much money they are asking for).
A comparatively small proportion of money is a priori earmarked for particular projects (e.g., cancer, AIDS). Most of the distribution is decided by the peer reviewers. The funding agencies have their own priorities, of course, in line with their purpose. NSF, NIH, USDA, NASA, the Army, etc. each have different kinds of studies they need to support. But within each agency, it is largely up to reviewers to decide who gets funding for what.
And who are the reviewers? For the most part, they are active researchers in their own fields, evaluating the proposals of their colleagues, friends and peers. How are they going to make decisions? When the money is aplenty, they may be more likely to fund huge grants by superstars because they can also fund additional smaller grants by other people at the same time. When the money is tight, they are probably more likely to try to spread the money around more, fudning a larger number of smaller proposals rather than one huge grant.
The composition of the reviewing panel is likely to reflect the composition of the researchers in the field. Thus, a “bandwagon effect” produces a positive feedback loop: more people work on the same stuff, more of them will become reviewers and more likely they are to fund proposals within the bandwagon area, thus forming an atmosphere in which it pays for new people to also jump on the bandwagon, and so on.
Jumping on the bandwagon is not neccessarily a bad thing. Often it is sparked by a new idea or invention of a new set of techniques. This opens up the field and energizes it. The new ideas and techniques are useful – one can accomplish stuff not possible beforehand. Old unanswerable questions suddenly become answerable, so of course people will try to do it. New questions appear and of course people will want to try to answer them.
The bandwagon also has two negative effects:
- One, it makes a glut of people doing the same thing, each writing a grant proposal that is similar to a dozen other proposals, making it difficult for reviewers to make choices. It promotes a climate of intense competition that, in turn, motivates some individuals to cheat. Even those who do not cheat may rush to publish semi-baked results, just to see them trounced by subsequent findings from competing labs.
- Two, not jumping on the bandwagon is even worse – the reviewers may not understand or value the research at all and be disinclined to fund it. It is hard to find students willing to go into research that is not “in” at the time. The courses on the topic shrink in size and dissappear, leaving the next generation of researchers ignorant of a chunk of existing knowledge (how many people in the world today know anything about earthworms, one of the best studied, yet completely forgotten organism on the planet?). On the other hand, there is no pressure to publish fast so the studies can be big and good. Also, doing something unusual makes you stick out of the crowd which can be useful: “Let’s invite the platypus guy to give the plenary talk – it’s bound to be fun!”
One example of this is something I addressed back in 1999 (during the Race For The Human Genome) in my written prelims, responding to the question “In the age of Molecular Biology, will Physiology survive?”. I have edited and inserted a part of my response into this post a few years later, but my answer can be summmurized thusly: “Once the molecular biologists figure out what the genes do, they will have to go up the levels, from genomics, to transcriptomics to proteomics, etc., until they discover the organism and call the study of it Organismics. Hopefully, someone wll politely tell them that such a science alsready has a long and distinguished history under the name of Physiology” Here is a short excerpt from that post (keep in mind it is from 1999, thus out-dated, and biology as a whole has moved on sicne then, pretty much in the way I predicted: leaving genocentrism largely behind):

But is it really so bad? I suggest it is not. Advances in molecular techniques and the increasing number of people in the field resulted in an enormous amount of research being done at an astonishing pace. And, as the geneticists do their work, they bump into problems with their genocentric hypotheses. As they solve those problems, they become more and more sophisticated about molecular mechanisms. It is the geneticists who discovered and study epigenetic processes like gene imprinting and DNA methylation. They discovered introns, reading frame-shifts, protein folding. They are increasingly aware of the organism and are silently, but for PR purposes still not loudly, abandoning the genocentric view. Research is slowly shifting from DNA sequences to the study of spatial and temporal patterns of gene expression in various cells and tissues, to the study of proteins, and cascades of enzymatic reactions.
As much as the HGP spokesmen get media coverage, the small army of biologists is actively working on integration of molecular insights into many other areas of biology, including embryology, physiology, ethology, ecology and evolution. The result of this effort is not a general molecularization of biology. Quite opposite is happening: By adding another level of investigation, each of these disciplines becomes more integrative. Molecular data are becoming bridges between quite disparate disciplines. Molecular techniques have become a glue which holds together various parts of biology tighter than ever before. Biologists, trained in biology proper and not biotechnology or medicine, will never abandon the hierarchical and dynamic view of life. They were just handed the tools by which they can, for the first time, get a “handle” on the complex processes of development, physiology and behavior. Genes are the technically most convenient point of entry into the system, as well as most reliable markers of differences between organisms, so both the integrative and the comparative method have profited from inclusion of molecular techniques into their armaments.
The hype of the HGP and the race to perform the whole sequencing job as well and as quickly as possible led to fast improvements in the techniques. These techniques can be used for other types of research, too, as well as for sequencing genomes of other species – mouse and fruitfly today, thousands of species tomorrow (Kitcher 1999). So, I say, pour the money on genomics. Make them finish the job as fast as possible. Sooner they are done, sooner we can allocate the resources to more meaningful research (before organismal biologists die out and there is nobody left to teach students how life works).
I am willing to bet that molecular geneticists, the same ones who now proclaim Organismal Biology dead, will, in a few years, and upon their discovery of the organism, announce with great fanfare the dawn of a new paradigm in biology – organismal biology. What new paradigm? After a couple of centuries of health and prosperity, a temporary delusion will do no harm. The old mother Organismal Biology will lovingly take her rebellious molecular children back into her fold.

So, I would say that no particular field is “underfunded” or neglected. Instead, it is particular subcultures within each field that are. Not using molecular techniques, or not using model organisms is a spell of doom. But, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Cranking up your PCR machine may not be the most optimal method to answer every question in biology, but if that is all you know (and you can easily get funding for that approach), this is what you do. Questions posed at different levels require answers on different levels.
Also, research in biology is supposed to be a 2-step process. The first step is to work out the details of the problem in model organisms for which everything, from feeding, breeding and husbandry to research techniques have been developed. The second step is to take these findings and test how generalizable they are by replicating the work in non-model organisms. Getting funding for the Step 1 is relatively easy. Getting funding for Step 2 is notoriously difficult.
I am still working on the post about the findings about circadian clocks in honeybees in the wake of the recently published honeybee genome, but it, as well as some of the previous work in other insects, demonstrates that findings about the molecular underpinnings of the clock in Drosophila are not generalizable to other insects. You should really take your time and read this post as it is directly relevant to my answer to this week’s question.
It is very difficult to get a grant funded if one uses a non-standard organism and/or non-molecular methods. It is impossible to get a grant funded by NIH if one proposes to use two or more species within the same project. Thus, no comparative work is supposed to be potentially useful for health-related science!
NSF grants are much smaller, but at least one is able to work on unusual organisms. While I agree with John and Josh that taxonomy and systematics need to be done (and funded) much more, that is only a beginning. Just like the Human Genome provided only a tool for further research (the long string of ATCGs is meaningless in itself), the discovery, description, naming and classifying new species is just a tool for further research as well. What is woefully underfunded and underpracticed is the follow-up research on all those millions of species – their genetics, development, physiology, behavior, ecology and evolution, how they interact with other species and form ecological communities and how they respond to changes in the environment. I’d like to see much more basic biological work done on Archaea, Protista, Fungi, non-flowering plants, various phyla of invertebrates (other than Drosophila melanogaster), and non-mammalian, non-economically-relevant vertebrates.
Another unintended consequence of model-centered and molecular-centered biology is that the IACUCs (and IRCs) get all uppity. They know how to deal with mice (or with questionnaires for human subjects). If you work on anything else, they have no idea what your species requires, but they are surely not going to listen to you, although you are one of a handful of world experts on that species. Thus, they will try to get you, whatever it takes, to abandon your species or even better to abandon animal research altogether and move to playing with goo in test-tubes instead. That way, they do not have to deal with you any more.
While I understand that, being human, many humans are interested in other humans, I am a contrarian to this, believing that Homo sapiens is an awful laboratory model – slow to breed, unethical to genetically, pharmacologically or surgically manipulate, and with no clusters of close relatives to do comparative work with. But I have different interests and priorities.
Still, there are areas of human biology I would like to see researched more. One is human sexuality – many aspects of it, including physiology, medicine and behavior. How do upbringing, childrearing, schools, sex-ed, politics, religion, neighbors, peers and media affect a person’s sexual attitudes, sexual performance, sexual behavior, sexual health and overall emotional health and what broader consequences that has to the society at large.
Another area I’d like to see more work on is the effect of poverty and social standing on physical and mental health of people and how that effects the society as a whole.

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