Friday, November 26, 2010

Research income is a good measure of ...

While on the subject of money .... Research income is a good measure of .... research income, and not much more. Consider the following:

Obituaries and Nobel Prize citations do not mention how much research income someone received.

Grants are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Sometimes they are necessary to do good research, either to hire people to do the work, or to purchase or build equipment. But, grants are not a sufficient condition to do good research.

Many significant discoveries, especially experimental ones, come from people doing "tabletop" science with small budgets. The discovery of graphene is a significant example.

A distinguished elderly colleague expressed his disappointment to me that his department newsletter was always trumpeting the grants that people got. He asked, "Why aren't there any articles about what discoveries they make with the money?"

I find it easier to get grants than to do really significant and original research. As I have posted before, the latter is very hard work. I doubt I am alone in this.

Grant writing involves a different skill set from actually doing the research. Most people are more adept at one than the other.

A more interesting metric than research income or total number of papers is the ratio of the two quantities. Citations and the h-index are better. But, in the end there is only one meaningful and worthwhile measure of research productivity: creation of significant new scientific knowledge. Don't forget it and get distracted by endlessly chasing money or comparing your income to others.


  1. Very well said, Ross!

    I've been endlessly dismayed at the attitude that is seems to be descending on the scientific community -- I see a significant number of scientists around me who are concerned mostly with such appearances rather than actual work. But I don't think this is a personal trait. People chase grant money because that is how the system is set up. A PI needs to hire assistants (grad students, postdocs) but to fund one (at least in the US) one has to write ~ 5 or more proposals, many many pages each. That's a very time consuming task and as you noted requires a very different skills set than doing research and discovering truth.

    Do you have some thoughts on how to improve the system?

    - Babak Seradjeh

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