Publication bias. Grant bias.

All academics writing grants will tell you this: if you want to be successful when applying to a thematic research grant call, you must tick all of the boxes.

Now, imagine that you are a physicist, expert in quantum mechanics. A major funding opportunity arises, exactly matching your interest and track record. That is great news. Obviously you will apply. One difficulty however is that, amongst other things, the call specifies that your project should lead to the “development of highly sensitive approaches enabling the simultaneous determination of the exact position and momentum of a particle“.

At that point, you have three options. The first one is to write a super sexy proposal that somehow ignores the Heisenberg principle. The second option is to write a proposal that addresses the other priorities, but fudges around that particular specification, maybe even alluding to the Heisenberg principle. The third option is to renounce.

The first option is dishonest. The second option is more honest, but, in effect, is not so different from the third: your project is unlikely to get funded if you do not stick to the requirements of the call, as noted above. The third option demonstrates integrity but won’t help you with your career, nor, more importantly with doing any research at all.

And so, you have it. Thematic grant calls that ask for impossible achievements, nourished by publication bias and hype, further contribute to distortion of science.

OK, I’ll confess: I have had a major grant rejected. It was a beautiful EU project (whether BREXIT is partly to blame I do not know). It was not about quantum mechanics but about cell tracking. The call asked for simultaneous “detection of single cells and cell morphologies” and “non-invasive whole body monitoring (magnetic, optical) in large animals” which is just about as impossible as breaking the Heisenberg principle, albeit for less fundamental reasons. We went for option 2. We had a super strong team.


Come on England!

Fourteen years ago, we moved from France to England. My partner and I had both found postdoctoral research positions at the University of Liverpool. We arrived with our one and half year old daughter and immediately felt welcome. After our first Christmas holidays on the continent, coming back to what we were not yet calling “home” , we found presents for us from the next flat neighbour, whom we had barely met. The two years became five. We progressed in our respective academic careers and we made the choice to stay here. The five years became fourteen. Two more children, born in Liverpool. Until these last few weeks, I have always felt welcome.

But now things are different because there is a nationwide debate about getting rid of us, European immigrants. Some will object and say that Brexit is not really about that, but whatever their objections, this is most definitely how it feels. This is how it feels not just because of the xenophobia which is rife through most of the Brexit campaign, but also because for us, the 3M of EU nationals who live in the UK (and probably the 1.2M UK nationals living in the EU), Europe is not an undemocratic and distant abstraction, it is us: we are European. As EU nationals, we vote in local elections in the UK. As EU nationals, we have the right to work and live here. We are Europeans. Therefore, as Europe is under attack in the country where we live our happy lives and where we have made so many wonderful friends, we feel under attack.

On Friday, I received the following message from a German colleague at another University:

Hi Raphael
I wonder what you are doing in ‘preparation’ to the seemingly increasing likelihood that there will be a Brexit?
Have you or Violaine applied for permanent residency? What about UK citizenship?
I am getting a bit nervous…
Best wishes

In truth, we have done nothing, partly because if the worse comes to the worse, there will hopefully still be some time to get our affairs in order, and partly because we don’t want to believe that this will really happen. On Twitter, François Guesnet who is teaching Jewish history in London puts it this way, in an hommage to the British sense of humour,

but, humour apart,

Like him, I am very concerned but also, rightly, powerless. I do not have (and do not claim) the right to vote. This is a decision for you, my UK friends, to make. I – and many others – will be cheering from the tribunes, and, like the supporters of the EURO 2016, we will be waiting anxiously for the final score.