Sunday, January 08, 2006


Dear Reader

Anyone of you connected with scientific research in any capacity will already know what a bind it can be to secure ones salary through funding agencies. For those of you who don't have to go through the regular nightmare of applying for your own salary let me fill you in on the details, and tell you my own tale of how I recovered from a potentially disastrous failure in funding early in my career.

Most university-based research groups nowadays have a leader (who may be permanently employed), several post-doctoral researchers and as many students as can be crammed under the benches. The money to support everyone under the leader will almost inevitably come from what is known as 'soft money'. This is apt, as like the very, very soft loo roll sold by supermarkets, 'soft' money eventually runs out. Unless you have some more in the airing cupboard, things can get very messy very quickly.

So basically what that means is that every few years grant applications must be submitted to one or more funding agencies. Sometimes the reply is favourable, sometimes it is not. I have seen established researchers with an excellent track record suddenly without a research dollar to their name. For the leader, the worry is that their group may shrink faster than a monkey's nuts during a snowstorm, but for the underlings it is far, far worse. They may find themselves unemployed and without any real prospects of employment in their field. It is a cruel system, and a rapid publication rate is no guarantee of success. It may just come down to one mad, bad referee.

In our case it was not a referee per se who killed the group, but one Prof Sir Dr D....... G...... (name withheld for legal reasons) who finally put the boot in on the group I was in, two years ago. It was a prestigious group in a leading university and I was about to start my second post-doc. One day the head of the lab staggered in, drunk as a lord, and told us he had no choice but to let us go. It then quickly emerged that his last ten grant applications had failed, and that he had kept the group going by hiring out his semi-detached holiday home in Bangor to ladies of the night. Now the police had moved in on the operation, and his accounting practices had been noticed by the above Professor, who had been drafted in to audit the group after a period of poor publications. In short, it was curtains.

I was kicked out of the university, but my firey passion for parasitology had not diminished. I was fortunate to have a wealthy background, and a few begging letters to Uncle Jake brought me enough money to start a small diagnostics business. It was then that I came across the name of Prof Ebeneezer McCumbernauld, an eminent Victorian parasitologist who founded the Cumbernauld Institute of Parasitology. I saw that perhaps my money could be used to revive the Institute, which had fallen on hard times due to malicious activities of its own staff. I sold off the diagnostics business for a health profit, wrote again to Uncle Jake, and rehabilitated the institute. Since the day I opened the new Cumbernauld Institute of Parasitology headquarters, I have never looked back. We now obtain funding entirely independently of the state (by various means including endowments, business profits etc) and each member of staff has been guaranteed a job for life. Not many employers can make that promise, eh?

1 comment:

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