Archive for category: Funding

The ages of productivity

September 11th, 2010 by

The Undercover Economist, Tim Harford, has a good article in today’s Financial Times about the stages in life when different professions are most productive. For example, I did a quick Google/calculation: the average median age of a Nobel Prize winner in physics or chemistry is 55; in the literature and peace prizes, it’s 64. (Sorry, not going to do the full test for statistical difference today). This distinction makes some sense, as the great discoveries in the two scientific subjects are marked by innovation (something that may become replaced by habit with age) and excellence in literature and statesmanship benefits from vast amounts of experience.

But, in keeping with our recent discussions about reform in academia, perhaps the bigger question is whether or not we should be actively targeting funding to match these periods of productivity? A quote from the FT article:

Two of my favourite writers, Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer, are worried about this – but from different perspectives. Gladwell, a Galenson fan, worries that our obsession with youthful genius will cause us to reject future late bloomers.

Lehrer has the opposite concern: that funding goes to scientists past their prime. He says the US’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been funding ever-older scientists. Thirty years ago, researchers in their early thirties used to receive 10 per cent of NIH grants; by 2006 the figure had fallen to 1 per cent.

From my experience in the UK, I think both groups have good, but different, funding opportunities. Established researchers are well-versed in applying for traditional call-based research grants, whereas young researchers are catered for by a number of fellowship schemes. I haven’t seen much evidence of disciplinary-based bias and to be honest, I think anti-discrimination laws would make it difficult to explicitly exclude a group of talented researchers just because they’ve reached an arbitrary age barrier. Think of Andrew Wiles, who found a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem but just over the Fields Medal’s age limit of 40.

Ultimately the top performers in these disciplines are so unique that it doesn’t make sense to design generalized development or funding programmes for the rest of us. However we can at least take comfort that our best days may be ahead of us!

Portrait of the scientist as a bureaucrat

September 15th, 2009 by

tapsCambridge zoologist Peter A. Lawrence has published a thoughtful piece on the frustration of scientists (whether young or not so young) facing the ruthlessness of the research granting system (Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research). He suggests how a “drastic simplification of this grant-writing process would help scientists return to the business of doing science” and quotes a passage from a recent NYT column by Stephen Quake, who asks what sounds to me like a challenging question:

Could we stimulate more discovery and creativity if more scientists had…security of…research support? Would this encourage risk-taking and lead to an overall improvement in the quality of science?

I take this as a genuine question in search of a convincing empirical answer.

  • The full article is available in PLoS Biology.
  • CC-licensed photo courtesy of .

How do you evaluate your success?

June 13th, 2008 by

Nick Cohen has a provocatively titled piece in today’s Observer, “No one wins in modern-day academia”, examining the shortcomings of the .

If you’re a UK academic, you’ll know all about the RAE which, as it says on the tin, is an exercise to assess the quality of a department’s research and consequently determine future levels of government funding. My experience with this so far has been quite limited. In my old department, we measured success through policy influence, not journal publications, and my current work is just starting to yield results. But even if you are an active participant in the RAE, the question still remains: is this really the best way to assess our overall effectiveness and success? Academic life is about more than just research: we are also teachers, administrators and professional community members.

So setting aside the official funding role of assessment for the moment, I’d like to ask an open question. How do you evaluate your own success as an academic? (And as a relevant corollary, how does this affect how you choose to spend your time?)

Attention economy: ROI for your attention

December 6th, 2007 by

In the last month or so (sorry, we haven’t posted in a month!) I’ve been reading on and thinking about attention economy. I think it is the right paradigm to connect the different bits and pieces of productivity knowledge (we could call them hacks) floating around on the ‘net.

I could write a long intro to the attention economy ideas and how they affect the way we process information AND make decisions… but I have written a series of 4 posts on attention economy and I’d better redirect you there. So, ideally, before you continue reading this post you should have at least skimmed that series, and you should be comfortable with it.

The question I want to address on this post is this: Are we rational about how we allocate attention? This is an important topic because attention allocation to different scientific topics can make or break your career.


Eight tips for better academic writing

June 14th, 2007 by

  1. Good writing is a skill. I’m not saying I have it, and remember, this is a blog post, maybe the fastest form of writing and reading :) ). As a skill, it requires practice. And, as Graham says, “Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”In fact, writing posts like this one is helping me to review and polish ideas I didn’t know I had about writing till this very moment. I’ll start with the most obvious, and will get more subtle/interesting as the list grows.

  2. Get your relevant Manual of Style. (e.g., Chicago/APA). APA wants you to buy it in book form, but I think this is one of the resources that should be online.
  3. Get Oliver Strunk’s elements of style. It’ll recommend some rules of thumb that may well be obvious (e.g., avoid passive voice. Reduce the use of adverbs to a minimum) but overlooked. There have been several editions, and the older ones can even be found online.