a lottery system for grant proposals

I read a series of commentaries a couple of weeks ago in Dutch newspaper ‘de Volkskrant’ on the functioning of national research council NWO. As science funding generally works the same across different countries, most of the discussion could be of interest to people outside of the Netherlands too. Lamenting the lack or arbitrariness of grant allocation is of course a common theme and tends to be relatively boring, but thinking about how ‘the system’ could work in a better way is of course always an interesting and worthwhile endeavor. Professor in Public Policy and Governance Willem Trommel at the Free University in Amsterdam wrote a short opinion piece in which he outlines some suggestions for a better way of funding research grants which I found interesting (article in Dutch here).

Very briefly, funding money is down and only a small percentage of proposals get funded. As a result, scientists spend more time on writing more grants and less time on actual research, often playing it safe and proposing less exciting projects (that cannot be shot down by reviewers) and getting demotivated because even very good grants only have a relatively small chance of getting funded. A single grant can be crucial to a researcher’s career: it might allow a person to start a lab, get another job (or keep a job) or not having to let lab members go because there is no money for contract renewal. Also, there is a bit of a downward spiral effect, as not having had a grant will make it more difficult to get another grant. In short: it is all about grants. Having a process in place that rewards the best grant proposals is crucial to promoting good science and necessary for the fair treatment of scientists.

Stupidly, Unfortunately, I have lost the link, but there is evidence that grant reviewers are pretty good at sorting out the crappy proposals from the pretty good (top 20%) proposals. However, this is not so relevant, as there is only money for only a few of the very good grants in the pool anyway. What matters is: are reviewers good in ranking excellent research proposals? Differences in valuations of excellent grants will get increasingly small and increasingly prone to all types of biases. Whether a grant will get funded or not, could depend on the opinion of only one of three reviewers (it could be rated excellent, say an A+, A+, A rating, or just very good, say an A+, A+, B rating).

Grant writers might not write perfect grants, but grant reviewers might not write perfect grant reviews either. Reviewers sometimes misunderstand an experiment or interpretation. They might not be a fan of a particular research area. They might want to see research that is more safe. They might want to see research that is more daring. They might have a grant deadline themselves and not have taken enough time to properly read and assess a grant. More sinister, they might actively dislike the grant proposer or be worried about competition and slightly, but significantly, mark a grant down. Even if I am exaggerating, and grant reviewers are generally unbiased, knowledgeable, unrushed and fair, there is evidence that they still are not very good at their job. (Remember, grant writers and grant reviewers are generally the same pool of people and so I am not specifically dissing grant reviewers but scientists in general.) A study by clinical scientists, eloquently discussed in a post by Jalees Rehman at his SciLogs blog, measured whether there was a good positive correlation between the ranking of grant proposals that had been rewarded and the scientific impact of papers coming out of the same grants. The conclusion was that reviewer ranking was not a predictor of subsequent scientific success.

Trommel proposes to have an initial reviewing round to separate the top grants from the not-so top and outright bad grants, and then use a lottery to decide which ones of the top grants gets funded. I think this is a brilliant idea for several reasons. First, it saves money and time; researchers lose time by writing grants but also by assessing grants. Also, it will speed up the funding process. Second, I reckon that in general, researchers would be less disappointed with having written a top grant that did not get funded through random bad luck rather than through a *&%^%£ reviewer wrongfully shooting it down. You would be able to report back to the university that you were in the top bracket as a measure of scientific excellence (although note that this also could be done in the current system). Third, this system would promote more daring research proposals (a very good proposal could not be downweighted by risk averse reviewers). Fourth, there would be less other forms of personal reviewer biases. The one negative aspect I can think of, is that doing away with a more detailed reviewing process would minimize useful reviewer criticism, because, let’s be fair, there are plenty of constructive reviews too.

For a discussion on some other ways of potentially improving the grant allocation system see this post on the Dynamic Ecology blog by Brian McGill. Note that I have not researched other blogs on which earlier and better posts on this same subject have appeared; please let me know of any relevant posts and I will link to them. I am interested to hear what you think!


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Introducing BSc student Abigail Colclough

Bachelors student Abigail (Abi) Colclough started her year long placement in the lab in July: high time for an introduction! She has written a first blog post here and will write more on her project on a blog she has just started (see below). MV

Mick is currently supervising me on an exciting project: ‘A wide-scale screen for antimicrobials in native seaweed’. The year-long project is sandwiched into my degree, giving me valuable experience before I graduate. Next year, I will go back to studying for my final year of BSc Medical Science at Exeter University. Medical Science tries to bridge the gap between the laboratory bench and the patient bedside by combining traditional bioscience subjects with modules provided by the medical school. During my year at the ECEHH, I will also be completing modules set by the university, which will involve writing a report about the project and reflecting on my professional development. The project itself is very exciting- seaweeds have been noted for their health benefits and are frequently eaten around the world (notably in Asia). Seaweed may have antimicrobial activities, by either killing, inhibiting growth or stopping bacterial communication. The plan is to extract these antimicrobial compounds and test them against pathogenic bacteria. We are discussing a number of research questions, such as whether resistance to antibiotics used in the clinic is correlated to resistance to seaweed antimicrobials. I will be collecting throughout the year, both with the Cornish Seaweed Company, as well as rock pooling at local beaches. Mick has also been diving and rock pooling for seaweed, further adding to the number of species collected so far. I am currently writing a light-hearted blog aptly named ‘A year on weed’ to keep track of my experiences throughout the year- but mostly just for fun! AC


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Lab Visitor: Ina van Beveren

We have the pleasure to welcome medical student Ina van Beveren of the University of Cologne for a two-week lab experience project. Specifically, Ina is working on phage transduction and has been busy preparing media, autoclaving, pouring plates, pipetting, counting, chloroforming, centrifuging and reading up!


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New science minister announces ‘war cabinet’ to tackle antimicrobial resistance on all fronts

*after much haranguing, finally another post from Will Gaze!*

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a hot topic at the moment and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently issued a press release giving details of a cross-research council initiative to tackle the problem. On their website, they give seven case studies as examples of research funded by UK research councils. Work by both our lab and collaborative work at the University of Warwick makes up a significant part of the research showcased in the NERC press release. This demonstrates the importance of our work and more importantly the significance of the environmental dimension of antibiotic resistance.

Research in Will Gaze’s group, carried out by Dr Lihong Zhang (photo below, right) and PhD students Aimee Murray (foreground) and Anne Leonard (middle background), was used in the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences research Council (BBSRC) case study. Aimee is jointly funded by AstraZeneca and the BBSRC and is studying whether environmental concentrations of antibiotics excreted by people and animals can select for antibiotic resistance in polluted river catchments.penryn10

Lihong and Anne’s work was also mentioned in this section even though it was actually funded by the European Regional development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund. They have shown that there is a significant human exposure risk to AMR bacteria in coastal bathing waters in England and Wales, including to clinically important genes that confer resistance to front line drugs. Andrew Balfour who is currently studying for an MRes in molecular microbiology at the University of Bath was also involved in this research during a summer voluntary work placement. He will be co-author on two publications which shows the value of voluntary lab work!

The NERC case study is also work connected to the group. Lihong and I used to work at the University of Warwick in Liz Wellington’s lab and the research discussed was done by a former PhD student, Greg Amos, who I co-supervised and Lihong mentored. Greg has done really well and has made some important discoveries on the impact of waste water treatment plants (WWTPs) on reservoirs of antibiotic resistant bacteria in rivers (Amos et al 2014). He is currently revising another paper submitted to ISME Journal, one of the top ecology / microbiology journals, which models the drivers of AMR reservoirs in sediment on a river catchment scale. We show that 50% of the prevalence of a molecular marker of resistance is associated with size, type and distance from WWTPs.The NERC case study been picked up by the press and is the subject of a NERC Planet Earth Article.

Will Gaze

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Paper out: Improvement in Staphylococcus and Bacillus strain differentiation by matrix‐assisted laser desorption/ionization time‐of‐flight mass spectrometry profiling by using microwave‐assisted enzymatic digestion

Quite a mouthful this title! It is in general a bit of an outlier paper for me, but I am very happy to have been involved. I have been interested in MALDI-TOF (matrix‐assisted laser desorption/ionization time‐of‐flight mass spectrometry) as a tool for bacterial identification for quite some time. Basically (VERY basically), this method involves zapping a colony with a laser, catching the molecules that come flying off and creating a peak chart based on their velocity and charge, see the pic below. (This analysis focuses on the level of proteins, and so is an example of proteomics.) Different bacteria consist of different molecules and produce a different peak pattern. Specific peaks can be compared among strains, or overall peak patterns similarity can be compared by making a dendrogram.

MSA main reason why I became interested in MALDI-TOF, is that in theory, you could process a large number of samples for little money in little time. The standard way of typing a bacterial isolate is to sequence a marker gene, almost always 16S rRNA (sometimes a different gene, see also here). This approach takes time, as it involves performing a PCR, sending it out by mail for a company to do the actual sequencing, followed by manually checking sequence quality. It is also relatively costly: around £5 per isolate and ususally projects involve at least dozens of isolates. However, MALDI-TOF machines are very expensive, you need a good reference database (i.e. a collection of isolates that have both been sequenced and ‘MALDI’d’ to compare any new isolates with) and in general it might not be quite as quick, cheap and simple as manufacturers would have you believe.

I came in contact with Ondrej Šedo, Zbynek Zdráhal and colleagues in the Czech Republic quite randomly as is usually the case, and they very nicely to offered to type some strain collections for me. (It is in a way weird that you can collaborate and publish with people you have not even met btw.) Using a bit of internal funding from CEITEC (the Central European Institute of Technology) at Masaryk University in Brno, we followed this up by typing Bacillus isolates from two collaborators of mine in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Ines Mandić-Mulec and Polonca Štefanic. (I need to write a post about the work MSc student Anja Pecman from their lab has done in Penryn last year some time soon!) These Bacillus isolates are very closely related ecotypes (see here) and it would be very useful to be able to tell them apart using MALDI-TOF instead of checking a handful mutations in a marker gene or doing loads of phenotypic assays. The experiments done on these isolates suggest that it is indeed possible to delineate different strains belonging to the species level using relatively easy fixes to standard protocols.

Balážová, T, Šedo O, Štefanic P, Mandić-Mulec P, Vos M and Zdráhal Z. Improvement in Staphylococcus and Bacillus strain differentiation by matrix‐assisted laser desorption/ionization time‐of‐flight mass spectrometry profiling by using microwave‐assisted enzymatic digestion.” Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 28.17 (2014): 1855-1861. link to free download

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two visitors

Last week, we had the pleasure to have Gabriel Perron (University of Ottawa) and Pål Jarle Johnsen (University of Tromsø) over for a visit. They both gave super seminar talks and took their time to interact with lab members. We also spent time discussing plans for a NERC pump priming grant with Amy McLeman on experimental evolution that has just started (see this old post), partly in the office and partly in the beautiful Gyllyngdune Gardens:


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I have had the pleasure to be involved with a small internal grant application that has now been rewarded, enabling the purchasing of an underwater robot! This particular Remotely Operated underwater Vehicle (ROV) is the ‘maker‘ community kickstarter project OpenROV. Leading the grant is BioSciences colleague Chris Lowe and we are lucky to have colleagues from Falmouth University‘s MAKERNOW digital fabrication lab involved: Justin Marshall, Andy Smith and Adam Stringer. We will first assemble (when I say ‘we’ I mean the makernow wizards…) and try out an openROV kit and based on this experience we aim to build another, improved version built from parts made from scratch and selected ordered parts. This will offer fantastic opportunities for student projects, outreach to the people of Cornwall and hopefully some marine biology research too. The ROV goes up to 100 meters deep, which is a good bit beyond recreational diving and so will allow a unique look at organisms up close in their natural habitat. As this work is out of the remit of the Medical School I hope to post updates on my rock pooling blog An Bollenessor (not affiliated with my work) later in the year.

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