The most important reason to be a Professor in a University or being a Principal Investigator is to have the freedom of research.
Is that true?
If someone wanted to do research, one needed the money. One needs the money to acquire the stuff for testing the idea or hiring people to do the job. Make sense right?
So, how does a researcher get their funding? It is usually from the government or industry. So, for industry, they only fund on certain projects which they are interested in and usually they have a lot of restriction on whether one could publish the data or not. Therefore, working for the industry is usually not considered to be free (to certain extent). So, if one managed to get the funding from the government, one had more freedom in research. The question is, how could one get funded?
This is a very good question! Every researcher is asking this question and waits for the answer, probably only 10% of them know it. So the problem is, one cannot get funded and cannot do anything. The interesting fact about funding was, they LOVE to see some good preliminary data. How is it possible to get the preliminary data before you get funded? Get some fund before you get funded? Well, usually researchers “live” (leech?) in some well-funded professor as postdoc or research associate or even as assistant professor before they get their own funding, lab space, equipment, man power, etc. Some of the lucky ones could get funded by the department but this kind of chance is slim. One has to “collaborate” with the senior professor before being independent. The collaboration is usually like, helping to train the undergraduate student, graduate student or junior postdoc of senior professor, to prepare research grant applications, to draft research paper, etc.
If someone went through the process of working for the others and started to get one’s own research grant, does he have the freedom in research? Yes but very little. The reason behind this is because one needed to get the grant and the grant is usually given to those researches which might have an impact to practical questions. If someone wanted to do mechanistic research on biology, the chance of getting funded based on one’s own interest is highly unlikely, unless it is related to some important diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. It is always good to turn science into something useful right? The problem is (no matter how good it is) our interest as academic scientist may not always generate value in foreseeable future. There is a gap between funding system and the value of scientists. So, in order to get the money and do what the scientists wanted, the research proposal is usually grounded by the cloak of those diseases. Is it some kind of lie? Not exactly, in the name of science and in the name of better good…