The pyramid scheme
September 17, 2007
A recent comment on the post that generated some heat bemoans the pyramid scheme that is modern bioscience. The more general critique boils down to the fact that the PI or lab head is generally given the lion’s share, if not all, of the credit for scientific papers, findings and the like. The assignment of credit takes a number of forms including the habit most of us have of referring to findings and /or bodies of work as the product of “Dr. Greybeard’s laboratory” or “Prof. Bluehair and her colleagues”. Yes, even the grad students and postdocs who are resentful of the lack of crediting of their efforts are guilty of using this shorthand with respect to other research groups! This is also despite the fact that many (most?) PIs end their scientific presentations with a recitation of all of the people who did the actual work including technicians, graduate students and postdoctoral trainees suggesting that they understand quite well who is really responsible. Remember your Marx/Engels Reader from the general distribution class you took in college?
I don’t remember it too well, I’ll admit. Nevertheless the general outlines remain and it is pretty clear that the modern bioscience laboratory fits into the capitalist mold pretty well. The techs and trainees are, of course, the proletariat with the PIs standing as the owners of the means of production. I don’t want to belabor this point too much. Not really my field. Those more steeped might want to chime in on the question of why this is a common human sociological pattern and the relative power of such an arrangement to succeed and to be productive. I only recognize that it is so. That the most productive and the most well-funded labs operate on certain principles. I think there are lessons here for the young investigator thinking about how to shape career.
One stereotype of the new Assistant Professor trying to make it is that they spend the day at the bench and the night hours until midnight writing grants and papers. You’ve heard it I imagine and may even have observed it. I think this is a fool’s game. My advice to newly independent Investigators is as follows:
Your job as a PI is not to generate primary data. Your job is to manage the lab, train new scientists, direct the research, make sure the results get published and above all, keep it funded.
The first thing you need to do is get / train an excellent technician who can be the essential hands to generate a data stream of your most bread-and-butter basic work. [I recognize that in some fields the roles of the tech can vary from support to essentially doing the experiments. If you have to be doing "bench work" or equivalent, there is always something a tech can be taught to make your work more efficient and easier.]
There are many motivations in science. From just liking to putter at the bench, run rats or whatever to a desire for winning the Nobel Prize. Many of us have motivations all along the scale. My advice is that as PI if you hew to closely to benchwork you are sunk. There are simply too many other things that require your attention.
For me, I conceptualize the career path as a continuing process of influencing the conduct of more and more science. From directing the efforts of one part-time tech, to an undergraduate intern, onward and upward to running your own lab, growing your research group and establishing collaborations, well one of the reasons for doing this is having an effect on a broader sweep of science. One might also view the peer review process in a similar way. Why DO you review papers? The grant review process should be even more obviously rewarded by this “benefit” to your ego.
This process has to be reinforcing to you or otherwise, what on earth would you want to be a PI for? I happen to have come to this early when I recognized as a graduate student that my chosen model was a slow generator of data and that I wasn’t “going to really get anywhere” on the labor of my own two hands. I don’t care how hard you work, there are only so many hours in the day, people. This was a fortunate thing in some ways because when I was appointed, I kept the idea of a technician-generated data stream leading to my most bread-and-butter type of publications as a front and center goal. Not to say that one can get there overnight and not that everything in the lab can be devolved down the line. But these considerations should help to shape how you launch your research program.
The next step is, of course, exploitation of trainees. Techs are paid to do a job; no problem. Scientific trainees, however, have ideas about their roles in your laboratory. Some feel quite strongly that they are independent guests with loyalty mostly to themselves and the expectation that you mentor them in an almost parental sense of sacrifice and obligation. They feel, in a word, exploited by a PI who in any way views the trainee as simply a quasi independent generator of data for the PI’s own purposes. When I was a trainee, I viewed this as a reciprocal relationship in which I was getting as good as I gave. As PI? I recognize the benefits of the arrangement for me, certainly, although I try my best to supply good mentoring. Do I exploit my trainees? Well in a certain capitalistic sense, yes.
Where’s the problem? I mean, if the capitalistic framework fits, then how does academic bioscience differ from all our other professions in the US? Why are the middle and upper manager equivalents so resentful that they aren’t CEOs? (To stretch the metaphor). Is it solely because we exist in a culture where everyone believes from the start (i.e., grad school) that they will/must become the CEO someday?
Or is it only about job security?