I have to admit to being  bit shaken by two recent events in UK academia – the tragic death of Stefan Grimm, a Professor at Imperial College, who had recently been told he was “struggling” to “fulfil the metrics” (grant income of £200k per annum); and the sacking of Dr Alison Hayman, a lecturer at Bristol University, for failing to generate enough income from grants.

Let me be clear – this post is not an attack on Imperial nor Bristol, and I am in no way suggesting either has done anything wrong.  I don’t know enough about either case to pass judgement.

Nor do I have a problem with institutions taking steps to remove people from their post who are not performing satisfactorily.  We are all paid to do a job, and we need to do it.  (Note I am not suggesting that there was a problem with either Stefan or Alison’s performance; I don’t know enough to pass judgement)

However, I do have an issue with judging an academics performance by only a single metric – how much money they have “won” in grants.  Firstly because the grants system can be hugely unfair; secondly, and more importantly, because winning grants is not something we do alone, it is a collaboration with other scientists, and also a collaboration with the institution where we work.

In this collaboration, the role of the PI is to come up with fundable ideas; and the role of the institution is to provide an environment conducive to getting those ideas funded.  I don’t think it is fair to sack someone for not winning grants if you have failed to provide an environment within which it is easy to do so.

I am very lucky, because the institution where I work, The Roslin Institute, is exceptional at this.  So I am going to pass on a few tips, simple things that academic institutions can implement, which will mean that no-one has to sack any more academics.

1. Provide funding

This will probably have the biggest impact, but comes at the highest cost.  In my experience, nothing makes a grant more fundable than some promising preliminary data.  Generating data costs money, but it takes data to generate money.  So fund up front.  Give every PI a budget to spend every year with the explicit intention that it should be spent to generate preliminary data for grant applications.  This single, simple step will likely have a greater impact on your grant success than any other.  And make sure it is a decent sum of money.  I recall speaking to a PI from a UK University who told me that each PI gets £150 per year, and out of that they need to pay for printing.  Printing.  3 pence a sheet.  That was over 10 years ago and I’m still shocked today.

2. Cut the admin

Every minute your PIs spend on compulsory training courses, filling in forms, filling in reports, dredging your awful intranet for information that should be easy to find, filling in spreadsheets, monitoring budgets, calculating costs, dealing with pointless emails and attending meetings is a minute they are not spending writing grants and papers.  Cut. The. Admin.  In fact, employ administrators to do the admin.  It’s what they’re good at.

3. Perform independent QC

So  one of your PIs grant proposals are repeatedly rejected.  Does that make them bad proposals?  Or bad ideas?  Perhaps they are excellent proposals, but they don’t hit the right priorities (which means they didn’t go to the right funder, and that might be your fault).  Read the grants yourself and form your own opinion.  Collect the review reports.  Collect the feedback from the funders.  Were they bad proposals?  Or were they good proposals that didn’t get funded?  I really don’t think it’s tenable to sack people if they repeatedly submit grant proposals that are rated as fundable by the committee concerned.  At that point the PI has done their job.

You might also think about putting in place an internal group of senior academics to survey proposals before they are submitted.  This will give you the opportunity to provide feedback on proposals and perhaps make them more fundable before they even reach the grant committee.  Proposals which are really not ready can be kept over until the next submission date, giving time for more improvements

4. Provide support

Do I even need to say this?  For the PIs who have their grants rejected, give them some support.  Give them a mentor, someone who gets a lot of proposals funded.  Provide training and workshops.  Share tips for success.  Sit with them and discuss their ideas, try and influence their future direction.  Do everything you possibly can to help them.

5. Pay it forwards

Every institution has their superstars, the guys who only need to wink at a committee and they’ll get funded.  But those guys, those professors with 10 post-docs and 15 students, they’re black holes that can suck in all the funding around them, making it difficult for others to get a fair share of the pot.  As an institution, you don’t want them to stop, because you want the funding, of course; but there is a compromise, where these superstars share their knowledge and expertise, where they co-author proposals with less successful (perhaps more junior) PIs, lending their name and their weight, their reputation and gravitas, to a proposal.  When the proposal is funded, it is the junior PI who runs the grant and gets the last author publications.  It doesn’t matter to the more senior PI as they probably already have tenure and an H index north of 50.  So pass it on.  Pay it forwards. Transfer that wonderful grantsmanship to the next generation, and coach your next round of superstars.

6. Be excellent

Yes, you.  The institution.  Be excellent at something.  I don’t care whether it’s medicine or ecology, worms or plants or cats or humans, evolution or botany, I couldn’t care less, but choose something and be excellent at it.  Invest in it.  Create a global reputation for that thing so that when reviewers see a proposal they immediately think “these guys know what they’re doing”.  Make sure you have the equipment and the facilities to do it (see 8).

7. Make it easy to work with industry

As PIs we are increasingly being pushed to generate “impact”, and one way of doing this is to collaborate with industry.  But this is a skill and some institutions are very good at it, others very bad.  Be one of the good ones.  Create strategic partnerships with industry, pump-prime some work (again to generate preliminary data), run workshops and industry days and have a legal team that are set up to make it work, rather than to make it difficult.  There are lots of funding streams available only to academic-industrial partnerships, and you’d be insane to ignore them.

8. Invest in infrastructure

Make sure you have the right equipment, the right type of lab, and the right computing to ensure PIs can actually do science.  It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many institutions are out there that simply don’t provide adequate facilities and infrastructure.

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So, there it is.  I’ve run out of suggestions.  As I said above, I am very lucky, I work at The Roslin Institute, which does as much as it possibly can to create an environment where PIs win grants.

Here’s the thing – if you think your staff are failing, for whatever reason, the very first thing you should do is ask yourself this question “Is it our fault?  Could we have done anything more to help them?”.  I’d argue that, in most cases, the answer to both would be “Yes”.  We all share in the success of published papers and grants won; so don’t forget that there is a shared responsibility in failure, and if some of your PIs are not winning grants, at least some of that is the institution’s fault.