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July 16, 2007


Well done and well said. Your take-home -- "It is foolish policy to pour resources into something for five years, and then starve it for five years." hits the nail on the head. The surge in funding helped create an awful lot of good work from the NIH. Many good labs, including some that have made major breakthroughs about the underpinnings of pain and conditions as serious and widespread as MS and depression, are now starved for funds and/or losing some of the best people. One lab I know that made great strides in fundamentals of myelination learned in June that it would receive no more funds for the year -- funds that had already been requested, budgeted, promised, and supposedly good as gold. Their plans are now in disarray and the research program severely compromised, with researchers looking for work elsewhere etc. Precisely the disastrous effect you allude to in your take-home sentence above.

It plays roller derby with researchers' lives. Securing federal grants has become the "gold standard" for scientists at research extensive universities--if they wish to recieve tenure.

But if the money dries up but the expectations for P&T don't (and the latter are notoriously slow to change), it's a disaster for junior faculty, and can be a career stall-er for senior faculty. To receive a string of federal grants and then to get nothing ... evaluators might read that professional history as "something went wrong" with the scholar in question.

To some extent, particularly at the junior level, academe is like the military: You're either UP the promotion ladder OR you're OUT. So, the funding games in DC have real impacts on science and the lives of science. Empty pockets is correct: slow and steady funding growth promotes both good science and helps to build and sustain our scientific research infrastructure.

I would imagine I am not alone in wondering what to do with a sophomore in college who has always been interested in business and science. Hmmm, which way to steer; our family is firm in making sure that the basics of mortgage, marriage and children are covered by his career choice.

Boston1775, trick answer but I say steer him towards business: If he allows himself to be steered, he'll do better in the private sector; if he insists on finding his own way, he'll make an outstanding scientist. :)

My impression is that science has changed over the past years from an enterprise that developed the young careers of individual scientists to a more businesslike team-oriented activity that primarily benefits the relatively few PIs and the bigger universities, the increased funding for NIH prior to Bush primarily went to the most selfish/successful hogs and was only peripherally meant for young scientists (your last graph pretty much confirms this).

It reminds me of why my father advised against goig into defense work: lack of security. He went through the boom/bust cycles of the 70s (fortunately toward the end of his career, but it was rough living through it).

kim, NIH has been fairly clear recently on this agenda, particularly under its current director: they want to move biomedical research toward Big Science, done with large per-project budgets highly collaboratively by large teams, more like the model of experimental physics. Biology is just getting to an age, imo, where this is possible, and it's a real policy decision that needs to be made. For example one of the big-budget proposals from recent years was to sequence the complete genomes of many cancers, to get a whole-genome unbiased picture of what mutations are associated with different types of cancer. It's a very expensive endeavour and experts can reasonably disagree on whether it's a good experiment and what we're likely to learn. To me personally, if it comes at the cost of many many Small Science projects, done independently in diverse areas on basic questions by small groups of students and post-docs, it's not worth it -- I prefer to put my eggs in more baskets, to fund experiments less likely to overlap with where industrial investment is going, and to fund work that also results in the best training for the next generation of young scientists.

But you're totally right that the last decade has seen the emergence of strong advocates for a shift toward Big Science done by large, collaborative publicly funded teams (like the human genome sequencing project). I think this is primarily the result not of political changes but of changes in the scale of what's technologically possible in biology.

emptypockets, clever answer, but we have scientists in the family. My youngest nephew is headed toward neuroscience and longs to be in a lab. I'm simply saying that being underpaid, burnt out and in a strained relationship is poor quality of life, that's all.

As a matter of fact my cousin was doing research at Harvard and nearly cracked under the pressure. He's a quiet, brilliant guy who could not handle the cut throat competition.

being underpaid, burnt out and in a strained relationship is poor quality of life

you mean, there's another choice? :)
I guess my second piece of advice would be, don't take advice from someone whose "quality of life" includes writing blog posts at 3 am...

there's a lot to be said against going into science. as you know, you shouldn't do it for the money (there isn't much) or the glory (even less). but you do get paid to play around and tinker creatively all day, and if you can scrape by financially and avoid competition enough to stay focused as much as possible on your own internal sense of success (something science has in common with blogging, imo), then it has its own eccentric rewards.

That was a very nice post, I’m proud of you!

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