On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

What’s Behind the Data

DEAR READERS: I consult the scientific literature indexed at the National Institutes of Health (tinyurl.com/472npj) when seeking information. In this week’s column, I’d like to explain the process -- involving years of planning, research and analysis -- by which information like this is prepared for public consumption.

A study’s principal investigator is like the executive chef. Funding for studies is pivotal; it governs what gets done, who will be available to do the work and, in the end, how this particular “serving” of science will progress. Researchers at colleges and universities depend on grants from federal and private sources to keep their laboratories in operation. Grants will cover equipment and material costs, along with all staff salaries connected with the research, and often include a hefty portion for the research institution.

Competition for limited research funds continues to increase, and the situation shows no sign of improving. Applications get reviewed by selected scientists, and the agencies distribute their funds according to priority scores assigned during evaluation. If an application is assigned a low priority, the scientists will have to look elsewhere for research dollars -- if “elsewhere” even exists. Many turn to industry or grant-giving foundations.

Grant-writing takes up a big chunk of scientists’ time throughout a given year. Some take courses on how to write better grants. Others form collaborations with scientists who have a good track record on securing funds. Working in a “hot” topic area can improve the odds of funding; many scientists shift their research to go where the money is.

Often looming in the wings is academic tenure: the coveted achievement of secure employment at an academic institution. The progress of each new “tenure-track” faculty member gets reviewed annually, but the formal review takes place sometime between the fourth and seventh year after joining the institution. Teaching skills and the ability to train graduate students are important, but the ability to attract funding and publish results tend to be critical elements in tenure decisions.

If tenure is not granted, a faculty member usually has to leave; even the best instructors are often shown the door if their research programs are not productive. Finding a new job may be a problem, as the openings usually go to those showing promise of attracting funds.

This reality of research is rarely appreciated, and it helps explain the conservative nature of mainstream science. How can one justify pursuing ideas on the fringes of science when such pursuits have a lower likelihood of funding? Consider, also, that challenges to mainstream thinking may place an individual researcher at odds with senior faculty members, who will be presiding over their tenure decision.

Even if initial research dollars are received, tackling new concepts can yield unclear results in the opening experiments. “No significant findings” translates to “no publication,” which lessens the chance for grant renewals. Scientists might design their experiments to bring forth quick results, in the interest of increasing their odds for funding. Then there are those who are forced to call it quits and shift from academia to industry, where applying for grants is no longer an issue.

If you sense that the whole system can be oppressive, you are getting the right idea. It tends to be conservative and slow-moving.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Many research programs pick up steam, flourish and take on lives of their own. As with any career, the availability of experienced mentors plays a vital role. Using graduate students and recent Ph.Ds on postdoctoral fellowships, a faculty member can increase the output of their lab while helping to train the next generation of university scientists. Every week, there are new findings in the journals; some reinforce our concept of the world, while others open the door to change.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.