Libretto for “Il Destino di Grant Application”
An opera inspired by the National Institutes of Health
Cast (in order of vocal appearance)
Alfredo, a professor .......................................
Wu Li, a post-doc ..........................................
Kathy, another post-doc ................................
Nicolette, Alfredo’s secretary ........................
Adriana, Alfredo’s wife .................................
Bubba, Alfredo’s son ....................................
Julieta, Alfredo’s daughter .............................
Stephano, Scientific Review Administrator ...
Erminio, another professor ............................
Act I — In Alfredo’s Office
The curtain rises showing Alfredo sitting in his office with two post-docs, working on a manuscript which has been rejected by Nature. In a dramatic opening aria, they lament the fact that the reviewers found the manuscript unexciting (“I reviewers sono malto stupidi”). Nicolette, the secretary, arrives with a box of NIH grant applications for Alfredo to review. Alfredo opens it, and finding only 12 grant applications, rejoices. He is joined by the two post-docs and the secretary in a quartet in which they sing of the virtues of having to review only 12 applications (“Il lighto loado”). Their happiness soon turns to sorrow when Alfredo discovers a note indicating that he is primary reviewer on an additional 18 applications which will arrive at a later date (“Il grande boxo di granti”). The four lament the twist of fate, Murphy’s law, and the Peter Principle. Alfredo, realizing that he will have no time to spend with his lab group or family for the next 6 weeks, sadly departs for home carrying the box of applications.
Act II — Scene 1, In Alfredo’s Office
One month later, Alfredo is still hard at work on the applications, having
completed only four, and these were the short R15 applications. He sings
a sad aria, reflecting on the fact that the Scientific Review Administrator
wants the triage list the next day (“Il listo È crappo”).
Nicolette enters with an envelope from NIH that arrived in the morning mail.
Alfredo, thinking it contains yet another supplement from NIH, tosses it
onto a pile, and tries to find his place in the application he was reading.
Just then, Wu Li enters with some important results that need to be published
immediately, before the competitors beat them to it. They sing a duet (“La
publicazione o il scoopo”) in which Alfredo laments that he has no
time to help write the manuscript as he really must get through 26 more
applications before the meeting next week. Wu Li leaves, and Alfredo returns
to the grant application, only to be interrupted by Kathy. She is distraught
that she hasn’t gotten a raise in the two years since she has been
with Alfredo. He promises her a large raise if his own application is funded,
explaining that he is waiting for the summary statement (“Il sheeto
pinko”). After their duet, Kathy leaves and Alfredo returns once again
to the application. Within a minute, he jumps out of his seat and grabs
the envelope from NIH which he hastily tossed onto his desk, realizing that
it is the long-awaited summary statement (“La posta junko È
il sheeto pinko”). Trembling, Alfredo tears open the envelope and
lets out a cry upon seeing the score, which is clearly not in the fundable
range. He sings a moving aria lamenting the lack of sufficient funding for
basic science (“Mio granto È finito”). Unable to concentrate
anymore, Alfredo goes home.
Figure 1. Scene 2 of Act II of Il Destino from a 1983 production by the Metropolitan Opera. In this scene, Alfredo returns home still fuming about his terrible score on a grant application, and is greeted by his loving children.
Act II — Scene 2, In Alfredo’s Home
Later that night, Alfredo arrives home. His wife and children are ecstatic that Alfredo has come home before they have gone to sleep. However, their happiness is shortlived as they learn the reason for his surprise homecoming. His family is not sympathetic to the fact that only a small number of people actually get their grant applications funded, and are upset that Alfredo’s application was only considered ‘excellent’ (“Papa È un nincompoopo”). Disheartened, Alfredo sits down at his desk and begins to read an application. However, just as at work, he can’t read for more than a minute until his children or wife interrupt him for something. This continues for a couple of hours, at which point Alfredo has nearly finished reading an entire page of the application, but unfortunately falls asleep before getting to the next page.
Act III — At a Holiday Inn in Valhalla, Home of the Gods and Goddesses of NIH
The scene opens to reveal a large table surrounded by serious looking men and women. Alfredo is among the mortals, who have been invited to Valhalla to decide the fate of 137 grant applications. At the side of the room are the Gods and Goddesses of NIH, the program officers of the various agencies, dressed in white tunics. They are feeding from a large tray of grapes, and drinking decaf coffee. Stephano, the Scientific Review Administrator begins the meeting with a hour-long aria about the grant review process and the need for confidentiality (“Non asko, non tello”).
The first grant application to be reviewed is one with Alfredo as the primary reviewer. Alfredo likes this grant application since it describes an imaginative series of experiments that concern an important but not well-studied biological question (“Se succeede, È il Nobel Prizo”). Furthermore, this application described all of the key points in a single page; the limit of Alfredo’s attention span with all of the interruptions he gets. His enthusiasm is countered by the other reviewer in what is probably the most famous aria of the opera (“Non hypothesiso, non preliminary dato”). Other reviewers join in with other comments regarding the lack of independence of the applicant, the lack of feasibility studies, and the general observation that the area must not be very important or else others would be working on it.
Finally, the Grants Technical Assistant rises and joins in the singing (“Givmi il floppi disko”). Everybody in the room finally joins in except for the Gods and Goddesses, who have moved from the tray of grapes to a large table filled with melon balls, which they eat with toothpicks, and a man in a Holiday Inn uniform who is restocking the toothpicks.
As it is clear that no new comments have been made for at least 45 minutes, a vote is finally called for, and in a dramatic moment, Alfredo sings out “1.0,” while the other reviewers vote for a worse score (“Il granto È non-competitivo”), finally arriving at a consensus of 2.0. During the aria discussing the score, the man in a Holiday Inn uniform becomes noticeably distressed and begins consuming vast quantities of coffee, until he collapses just as the aria ends. One of the NIH Goddesses identifies the man as Erminio, the applicant of the grant that just went down the tubes. Even though Erminio is fatally poisoned, he is still able to sing a moving aria reflecting on the weaknesses of the current grant review system (“Il reviewers È screwed-upo”).
Figure 2. The finale of Il Destino from a 1971 production at La Scala. Erminio has overdosed on caffeine and is placed on top of the discarded grant applications by Alfredo and another reviewer while the Scientific Review Administrator (right) and assorted NIH program officials (background) sing the dying man instructions on how to prepare a revised application.The opera ends with the reviewers placing Erminio’s lifeless body, still twitching from all the caffeine, into the boxes that hold the discarded grant applications and covering him with glossy photos of his data. As the curtain is being slowly lowered, one of the reviewers comments that it’s a good thing the application wasn’t given a really bad score, or who knows what the applicant would have done.
Notes on the Opera
It is remarkable that Linguini, an 18th century Italian composer, could accurately predict the NIH grant review process in uncanny detail. Even more remarkably, Linguini’s other operas accurately describe the life of modern day scientists. For example, in La Boheme Graduate Students, two graduate students meet in lab and fall in love while hunting for her lab keys in the cell culture room, rather than in the dark hallway where she dropped them, since there’s more light in the cell culture room. In Die Zauber Pipette (English translation: The Magic Overpriced-Volume-Measuring-Device), a post-doc must go through trials by fire (working with high levels of radioactivity) and trials by ice (working in the cold room) before he can find truth, write a few manuscripts about it, and get a good job. In Carmen Incorporated, a professor is seduced into giving up his tenured position to join Carmen Inc., a start-up biotech company that initially seems very attractive, but the stock options don’t materialize and he loses all enthusiasm for the relationship. Of all the Linguini operas, Il Destino is the most famous because it so touchingly describes a basic human struggle that has been around since the dawn of history; i.e. the attempt to get others to give you vast sums of money so you can do what you really want (and avoid getting a real job).
Figure 3. The finale of the lesser-known Linguini opera, Die Zauber Pipette, in which Tom Ino has successfully completed his trials by ice and fire and is now blessing his magic pipette while his research advisor (left) and other lab members look on, from a performance by the Australian Opera Company in 1968.
This libretto previously appeared in the on-line journal HMS Beagle. The illustrations were created by Masetro Fricker for the Annals of Improbable Research.
© Copyright 2002 Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)
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