It was important for me to get a grant to support my research because the politics of higher education and research are an amalgam of the altruistic scientist who wants to do the greatest good for humankind and may put his or her life at risk to expand human knowledge, and the empire builder in the field for personal gain. There are stories of scientists injecting themselves with compounds at great personal risk, to test those compounds and prove a point. Groundbreaking research on ulcer drugs was demonstrated when a research gave himself an ulcer to prove a point about the cause and treatment. The first clot busting drugs were self-injected by one of the developers to prove them safe. As with any discipline, there are also the politicians who crave power and prestige. There are scientists who reuse their own data to obtain additional publications or funding. Some who become chairs of departments and redirect departmental funds for their pet projects or department chairs who insist that their name be put on all the papers coming out of their department in their field. This is a phenomenon known as ghost authoring.

An unfortunate aspect of higher education and research is that it is managed and controlled by the federal government. How many doctors and scientists a country will have is determined by how much the government decides to spend on educating those people. With more scientists you will have more discoveries. Students are recruited to scientific disciplines for their Ph.Ds. based on the educational funds that are available. During the race to the moon there were many new astronomers and engineers because the money was going there. During the AIDS crisis a large amount of federal and foundation funding went to that research and the result was a lot more scientists trained in immunological disciplines.

On the other hand, one can lose entire generations of scientists when funding dries up. The scientific community had stopped training protein chemists in the late 1980s because funding was diverted to other things. The older scientists trained in that discipline were not getting students and were often relegated to administrative posts or teaching with no research funding. When new technologies were developed to look more closely at proteins, that suddenly became an issue with a huge demand and effectively no one training new scientists in the field, a situation made worse by all the former experts having been sidelined due to lack of funds to support their labs. The politics of higher education suffers or benefits enormously based on the dictates of the politicians. What research is done and who goes into that research is somewhat of a popularity contest where researchers follow the money.

Some may even argue that downturns in funding are a natural part of the life cycle where the weaker scientists are “culled” from the field. The concept of survival of the fittest does not apply here. So, if you have a period of difficulty in funding or a drop in popularity of a research area the scientists who remain at the end or the students who receive degrees in it are not the fittest. The smart scientists will have options and go elsewhere. The dynamic, groundbreaking scientists will follow the money and be where the action is. Economics and finances teach us to diversify and the smart scientist will have a varied research or income portfolio. If one research avenue dries up, he or she will go into another one or go into teaching, administration or corporate research. Generally, those who remain in an unfunded research field are those who have few or no other options for work; the strongest have moved and the remaining scientists may not be the best in the field.