Tightly wound

April 17, 2013

A friend was recently observing that we academics seem pretty high strung right now. Cranked up to the breaking point, I’d say.

Of course we are. This sequester and continuing resolution thing has really put the bite on. The lab closings that seemed only in the realm of a Friend of a Friend or a likely possibility are now becoming reality. I’m seeing PIs leave. Close down. Jump ship. In all of this there are technicians and postdocs losing their jobs. Grad students who cannot find a funded lab to join after the rotations are finished up. Institutional decision making that seems even closer than usual to hand-flapping panic rather than a plan.

Baby, it’s cold outside.

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52 Responses to “Tightly wound”

  1. AcademicLurker Says:

    It’s becoming a regular occurrence for postdocs from labs that have lost their funding to swing by my office shopping their CVs. I fell bad ever time I have to say that I have no openings. Can’t help thinking “that could have been me…”.

    Like

  2. The Other Dave Says:

    The worst stories I have heard involve people taking soft money jobs, burning through the startup, depleting personal savings, and then losing/leaving those jobs.

    But honestly, I don’t know whether to feel sorry for them or say “I told you so’.

    To all the postdocs out there: A soft money job is no job at all. It is simply an opportunity to basically start your own business …in a market already overstuffed with other businesses run by people with PhDs like yours (or better) and generally declining revenue sources. Don’t do it. Make sure you go to an institution that really wants to hire scientists instead of professional grant-writers, and is willing to back that up with a contract that actually pays you a decent guaranteed salary.

    But it’s a ‘prestigious’ soft-money institution, you say? Yea, no doubt. Why do you think people there are so productive? Is it because there is something magical in the water? Or is it maybe because everyone else has been brutally eliminated? Consider your odds. Then consider them again. Then read the statistics and ask yourself why you think you’re so special. Because you probably aren’t.

    If NIH and NSF really care about trainees and the future of U.S. science, they will quit providing incentives for the generation of cannon fodder. Unstuff the training pipeline, cut indirect cost support, require salary matching by institutions.

    Like

  3. Dave Says:

    I’ve seen all of the above in the space of a few months now. It’s definitely very real. One of my best friends just lost his job in a prestigious medical school in the north-east when his boss lost all funds and his R01 renewal was triaged twice. Another well-known lab in the same med school also closed last month. Here at my place, “tenured” but soft-money (we are all soft-money) folk on large salaries are being forced out if they have no funds and pushed into admin positions, sabbaticals etc. We are also seeing lots of grad students without labs now and we have turned away at least two or three in the last few weeks and have fielded lots of emails attempting to place students. Surprisingly the admin announced they will reduce grad student intake by at least 25%, but I suspect it will be more once the dust settles.

    I no longer expect to be doing this long-term either. I just don’t see how. But it doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. I don’t know, it’s more sad than anything. A fucking sad waste of time and a lot of effort on my part. But this shite is just not worth it anymore………

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  4. Joe Says:

    I recently advertised for and hired a tech. The applicants I got for the job were amazing – techs with years of experience and good pubs, former asst profs from other institutions, post-docs from my colleagues’ labs. It is sad that our country is so under-funding research that these talented scientists are, or are about to be, unemployed.

    Like

  5. Alex Says:

    If NIH and NSF really care about trainees and the future of U.S. science, they will quit providing incentives for the generation of cannon fodder. Unstuff the training pipeline, cut indirect cost support, require salary matching by institutions.

    We have found a heretic. May we burn him?

    Like

  6. A Says:

    If we only had a better organized economic system….. (like the wizard of oz song, and sing it along to see if it makes things better, it might help the people in charge of it to get useful ideas)

    How about something that takes into consideration the proportion of capital/currency to population number, and population status?

    If you look around you find products and produce everywhere, abundantly, but limited purchasing because lack of income and need to save, which anyway ends up devaluated, among other things. The same thing with degreed people. An oversupply is not even the correct analogy, because apparently the limit is in the core structure of the economic system. The philosophy, if you will.

    The economists are fixed in ideology, just like politics, but seem to forget the math to improve it.

    Anyway, if anything the solution cannot be to limit society – number and status – by capping the money jar.

    Like

  7. whimple Says:

    Joe It is sad that our country is so under-funding research that these talented scientists are, or are about to be, unemployed.

    No, what is sad is that these otherwise talented, creative, educated, motivated individuals should spend such little of that talent finding themselves a better gig than being a tech in someone’s lab.

    Like

  8. A Says:

    A society busy in productive things will quickly catch up in progress and will stop the needless argumenting. But it cannot be just a dream, but a reality.

    Like

  9. Eli Rabett Says:

    China is hiring.

    Like

  10. Dave Says:

    No, what is sad is that these otherwise talented, creative, educated, motivated individuals should spend such little of that talent finding themselves a better gig than being a tech in someone’s lab.

    Absolutely.

    Like

  11. NIH Budget Cutter Says:

    This is what happens when the music stops in a system that is built on a pyramid scheme, Madoff style. The Budget Control Act of 2011 is now the law of the land, and unless repealed, you will have 5 years of budget ceilings that should insure nearly flat NIH budgets, as seen in this scenario (red, under sequestration) nicely depicted by AAAS:

    But as painful as this slow-moving destruction of the NIH is to you, it is proper and fitting so that a more stable and equitable tax-payer funded system can emerge. The members of the Old Guard should have work tirelessly to preserve the jewel they were given. Instead, however, their own selfish greed led to the demise of the most successful biomedical research system the world has seen.

    Good luck, and May God Bless the Tea Party!

    Like

  12. drugmonkey Says:

    Even at $29 or $27 or even $25Billion per year, the NIH enterprise can hardly be described as in “demise”. Painful changes ahead (and here) for many of us, yes. But the system is a long way from dying.

    Like

  13. mikka Says:

    I should know better than to come here after a bad day.

    Like

  14. GAATTC Says:

    It’s a correction. And a needed one no doubt. With all its flaws, however, science funding in the US is still the highest in the world.

    Like

  15. CD0 Says:

    What correction was needed?
    Spending in Science is a very profitable investment for the country. Every dollar invested in biomedical research returns 3.
    Or do you think that every big pharmaceutical company in the world has headquarters around prominent academic institutions because they like winter in Boston or summer in Philadelphia?
    We need to do a better job articulating the benefits biomedical research in terms of economical development, because it is obvious that budget cutters do not appreciate anything positive in improving or restoring the health of fellow humans. And those economical benefits require a structure that supports basic discoveries all the way through commercialization and clinical applications.
    Research results in innovation and that generates wealth
    Of course if everybody was educated enough to understand how Science works, who would vote for Tea Party activists?

    Like


  16. Yup I see this happening very close by too. How do you think this will affect the generation of scientists that are grad students and post-docs now? If/when the economical situation gets better will there be scientists left? Or is it even harder on other generations of scientists?

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  17. DrugMonkey Says:

    There will be survivors, iBAM. There will be scientists. Now and in the future. Flatlined budget, even a few percent *cut* to the NIH wouldn’t change that. Just the number of us, is all.

    Like

  18. AcademicLurker Says:

    How do you think this will affect the generation of scientists that are grad students and post-docs now?

    If some one is just starting grad school now, the Great Cull might be largely over by the time they finish. I think it’s the postdocs & untenured* assistant professors who are really screwed.

    *also many of the tenured ones at soft money places, at least based on what I’ve been seeing.

    Like

  19. Ola Says:

    Welcome to the party DM. This s*** has been going on at my institution for several years now, and shows no signs of slowing. We’re losing both good and not-so-good folks.

    The poorer ones are being forced out due to lack of funding, and the good ones are leaving because they’re not being retained when they get better offers from places with bigger endowments. There’s zero recruitment from outside happening, because the start-ups on offer are simply laughable. They’re offering 1 year rolling research-track appointments to kids with Kangaroo awards who would’ve easily snared a tenure track appointment a few years ago (and still can elsewhere).

    On top of the personnel issues, they’re shuttering core facilities, dropping service contracts on shared equipment, making it harder and harder to get tenure (a colleague who has 2 RO1s has had the tenure case in limbo for over a year). They’re cutting back on employee benefits (healthcare and tuition benefits have been particularly hard hit). They’re ramping up costs for things like parking, food in the canteen, and shared facility costs (necessities like liquid nitrogen, dry ice and ethanol are 2-3x what they were before the recession). Of course, the Dean’s financial modeling (if I hear the phrase “bending the cost curve” again I’m gonna flip out) includes the assumption that NIH will see a moderate cost-of-living budget increase by 2015. No mention of what happens if the congressional budget fairies don’t deliver.

    Among those of us remaining, the phrase “circling the drain” is frequently heard. The only survivors in this game will be the big endowment private schools, and the large state schools where the tax base is solid enough to continue supporting the institution.

    Like

  20. esteban Says:

    Make sure you go to an institution that really wants to hire scientists instead of professional grant-writers, and is willing to back that up with a contract that actually pays you a decent guaranteed salary.

    Such as the University of Oz in Fairyland, or the La-la-land Institute of Flying Unicorns?

    No, what is sad is that these otherwise talented, creative, educated, motivated individuals should spend such little of that talent finding themselves a better gig

    Although I am neither of these things, I’d like to ask: Where do you suggest these individuals should look for these mythical “better gigs”?

    Like

  21. DrugMonkey Says:

    The idea that things would be awesome in the job market by the time entering trainees hit the streets was a famous scam they used on *my* generation!

    Like

  22. TheThirdReviewer Says:

    I think it’s the postdocs & untenured* assistant professors who are really screwed.

    If only I had gotten on that 50 sexiest scientists list…then I would have had it made.

    Like

  23. AcademicLurker Says:

    The idea that things would be awesome in the job market by the time entering trainees hit the streets was a famous scam they used on *my* generation!

    Would you be referring to the original “Oh noes! There’s a projected shortage of scientists!” study from back in the 80s? I remember that one…

    Like

  24. Dave Says:

    Those who can get funds from elsewhere will definitely survive and even flourish. Clinical research keeps our heads above water in my division and is our bread and butter. Pharma literally needs academic labs to do the research that they no longer want or desire to do. I think those who are in a clinically relevant fields will do pretty well in the next few years, that much is obvious. Traditional basic researchers are in big, big trouble (for me all biomedical research has a clinical end-point but, unfortunately, the GOP nutbags don’t see the long game)

    Like

  25. Dave Says:

    …also, worth pointing out that if the proposed CIR legislation stays intact (doubtful), there will be even more incentive for foreign STEM students to pursue scientific careers in the USA and I’m sure many institutions will lap it up. The mythical “STEM shortage” is now fact in Washington.

    Like

  26. anonymous postdoc Says:

    I salute each and every one of my friends who has jumped ship recently, because they are finally living real lives, and I tell them so. In some ways the least interesting thing I can think to be is a scientist right now, because I know all about this piece of shit career path. I like having friends that can expose me to other ways of living life.

    However, I am repelled by the thought of looking at “alternative” career paths for myself, but I’ve been stumped as to why until just now, since by all accounts refusing to consider these is pretty stupid and I know it. But I’m beginning to think there’s something appealing, possibly a little addicting, about survival itself. Isn’t that why zombie movies have gotten so popular? Anyway, I want to be a survivor – because the entire field makes doing anything else seem like a death.

    It seems quite likely that the people who will hang in there through the next few years are going to be some of the most cutthroat researchers from my cohort (just like in a zombie movie!). I think this bodes ill for every other problem in science today which would be best addressed by being reasonable and not paranoid – like the use of IF and associated metrics to measure worth, secrecy between labs instead of collaboration, and straight up cheating.

    Like

  27. Jekka Says:

    Hey thanks, this post makes me feel better about the fact that I am about to hit 6 years as a postdoc (for reasons often discussed here). At least I am getting paid to work on my own ideas.

    I had no idea as a n00b postdoc, how much lab funding comes from sponsored research agreements with industry. There should be a required mini course for students that covers industry contracts, intellectual property, SBIR awards, etc.

    Like

  28. Grumble Says:

    @Ola
    “They’re cutting back on employee benefits (healthcare and tuition benefits have been particularly hard hit)”

    Funny, my institution is dealing with this by raising the fringe benefit rate by a few percent. It now exceeds 35% of salary. This of course happened at exactly the same time that the sequester caused a 10% cut of all grants. Just where do the administrative brainiacs think this extra fringe money is going to come from??

    @anonymous post-doc
    ” I think this bodes ill for every other problem in science today…”
    Yup. The glitzy-glammy young scientists who made their reputations with factory-fresh gee-whiz techniques are the ones who are going to survive. The rest of us will struggle and go under. Then what will be left of science when all the real scientists are gone?

    Well, at least we might get some good beer out of it. I’m thinking that maybe opening a microbrewery would be a good alternative career.

    Like

  29. drugmonkey Says:

    Would you be referring to the original “Oh noes! There’s a projected shortage of scientists!” study from back in the 80s? I remember that one…
    That. and the “all the Profs will be retiring'” and the “BabyBoomer kids will hit college age”….

    It seems quite likely that the people who will hang in there through the next few years are going to be some of the most cutthroat researchers from my cohort (just like in a zombie movie!). I think this bodes ill for every other problem in science today which would be best addressed by being reasonable and not paranoid – like the use of IF and associated metrics to measure worth, secrecy between labs instead of collaboration, and straight up cheating.

    I do not agree that tenacity in the face of adversity is directly related to being cutthroat, paranoid and dishonest. Marathoners aren’t all Rosie Ruiz, right?

    At least I am getting paid to work on my own ideas.

    It is not a small thing, IMO.

    I’m thinking that maybe opening a microbrewery would be a good alternative career.

    Science-focused coffeeshop? Instead of open-mic night, JournalClub-night? Who’s with me?

    Like

  30. Dave Says:

    However, I am repelled by the thought of looking at “alternative” career paths for myself…..

    My “check-out” plan has nothing to do with science at all, and I would never consider an “alt career”. I have enough respect for myself to avoid this. If I do leave science, I will leave for good and never look back.

    But I’m beginning to think there’s something appealing, possibly a little addicting, about survival itself

    Ha yeh I’m angry and trying to survive and there is something about that. Strangely I seem to be on a roll in terms of productivity. Correlation? Maybe?

    Like

  31. Ola Says:

    @anonymous post-doc

    The silver lining here (I’m guessing) is that you’re still young enough to move around and change careers. Granted this doesn’t apply to all post-doc’s, but being single and in your late 20s, able to pack all your belongings in a U-Haul and move wherever you want, is a fantastic opportunity. I did it at age 25 and would kill to do it again. The problem for the older ones such as myself, who are in-fact not very old (mid 40s), but just old enough to be considered obsolete, is we don’t have the career change options that freshly minted post-doc’s do. Encumbrances such as mortgages, kids in good schools, the whole married/double-career thing, and just not being as agile/fast as we used to be, are all major obstacles to change. The overt bias of employers against middle-aged staff is another problem – just go read ChemJobber for half an hour if you need any further proof that this exists.

    Like

  32. matrixule Says:

    Mikka – I should know better than to come here after a bad day.

    I know how you feel.

    I have too many years as an average postdoc, some money to take with me to find a position, but every time I read how bad it is out there I want to shoot myself in the face.

    Should I just spend the last two years of my hard-money postdoc finding something less stressful to do?

    Like

  33. Dave Says:

    ….but every time I read how bad it is out there I want to shoot myself in the face.

    This blog can be bad for your health sometimes, but I do think most of us tend to see the negatives everywhere first. Like DM says there will be survivors and many of them. But you should take a look at where you are at in terms of your career and try and evaluate as best you can whether you have a chance or not. It’s hard to do this, but it is probably the best way you can protect yourself.

    Like

  34. Grumble Says:

    “Like DM says there will be survivors and many of them.”

    What he didn’t say is that even survival might not be very fun for a long, long time. If survival means writing 10 grants to get 1, it’s going to be (no, it IS) hard to be very productive.

    Like

  35. Dave Says:

    Word.

    Like

  36. drugmonkey Says:

    If survival means writing 10 grants to get 1, it’s going to be (no, it IS) hard to be very productive.

    This is true and, IME, has been true for the past several years. I predict that at some point in the future, people will look back and do a broad-NIH-wide analysis of productivity and see what a hole we’ve fallen into because of the grant churning. As I’ve mentioned before, NIH is highly motivated to ignore this because, in theory, the time you spend writing grants should not affect your percent effort charged to their awards so….no problem!

    In the real world, there are many additive effects of this grant churning on research productivity. Time spent writing, yes, but also the way you put your lab on different projects trying to generate the stubs of preliminary data that will help bolster that next grant proposal. The disruption associated with gaps in funding. The disruption of leaping from project X (which went down on the A1 for the continuation) to only somewhat related project Y which you blessedly managed to get funded.

    Like

  37. Physician Scientist Says:

    Dave-
    I’m not getting why its just the “GOP nutbags.” Seems to me that Harry Reid’s senate colleagues didn’t exactly step up for science in the continuing resolution. They are all a problem – democrats, republicans and tea party nutbags.

    Like

  38. Jonathan Says:

    “includes the assumption that NIH will see a moderate cost-of-living budget increase by 2015.”

    Ahahahahahaha. Yeah, I really wouldn’t count on it.

    “The only survivors in this game will be the big endowment private schools, and the large state schools where the tax base is solid enough to continue supporting the institution.”

    Is this such a bad thing? Fewer places training fewer scientists is one of the solutions to the current problem. The days of constant growth are over, and even stable NIH budgets mean real-world declines because BRDPI isn’t factored in.

    “…also, worth pointing out that if the proposed CIR legislation stays intact (doubtful), there will be even more incentive for foreign STEM students to pursue scientific careers in the USA and I’m sure many institutions will lap it up. The mythical “STEM shortage” is now fact in Washington.”

    *sigh* No, if you actually paid attention to this you’d know that for once Congress has it’s head screwed on and are excluding biosciences from STEM in this case.

    Like

  39. Jonathan Says:

    Ugh it’s/its mistake.

    Like

  40. Dave Says:

    No, if you actually paid attention to this you’d know that for once Congress has it’s head screwed on and are excluding biosciences from STEM in this case.

    I knew that this was in the original STEM legislation when it was a standalone bill (which was never passed), but I haven’t seen that this is a part of the new broader CIR. If so, I stand corrected. I sincerely hope so.

    I’m not getting why its just the “GOP nutbags.”

    Yeh, yeh I know. I actually think that Obama is not doing an awful lot to promote basic biomedical research either. But at least he talks a good game and doesn’t overtly attack science, which I think is a uniquely Republican trait.

    Like

  41. me Says:

    @Grumble

    Well, at least we might get some good beer out of it. I’m thinking that maybe opening a microbrewery would be a good alternative career.

    All the Aussie’s I’ve met in the science game have consistently said that Australia is ripe for getting into the microbrewery industry since most of their beer is imported and priced absurdly high due to tariffs (~$15USD/6-pack). Granted these post-docs left Australia a while ago, but today, there’s still only 15 microbreweries in all of Australia!!….with all this talk, it’s definitely sounding more and more tempting: (step 1) a post-doc in Australia. (step 2) me’s microbrewery and a life of sunny beaches and new hot colors on the summer weather map (they needed to add purple to account for temps > 130F)!!

    Like

  42. Grumble Says:

    Great, me! Let’s quit the science racket and start a partnership.

    Like

  43. mikka Says:

    I don’t know how serious you are about the microbrewery thing, but several people in my tenure-track cohort have told me that they are exploring business opportunities to have a safety in case funding doesn’t come through or the whole concept of tenure is discarded.

    So there: run lab, teach, write grants AND make jewelry to sell on etsy.com.

    Like

  44. Geologist Says:

    As a geologist (and realist) I see an even worse future ahead of us. Climate change is here, and coming at us faster every decade. Our country and the rest of the world will be dumping money like crazy to try and mitigate all the damage it will bring (think Sandy, but more often). Money for basic science, in my opinion, will continue to dwindle as we stupid humans try to deal with the damage we are wrecking upon the planet and ourselves.

    Like

  45. NIH Budget Cutter Says:

    @Geologist

    Forget about Climate Change. The US first needs to deal with the huge expenditures that will arise from the Baby Boomers accessing their Medicare and Social Security entitlements. If one thinks the Federal Budget is unfavorable now, just wait a few more years until they retire en mass. And this will not be a short-lived issue; forecasts predict budget headwinds for the next 20-30 years. Good luck with that!!!

    Like

  46. physioprof Says:

    just not being as agile/fast as we used to be

    I, too, am in my mid-40s, and I am definitely more scientifically agile and fast than I have ever been in my career, and I am getting more agile and faster by the day.

    The disruption of leaping from project X (which went down on the A1 for the continuation) to only somewhat related project Y which you blessedly managed to get funded.

    Dude, I am shocked that you are fucken stupid enough to allow the vagaries of particular grant successes/failures to disrupt the overall efficiency and forward progress of your overall program. Feel free to reach out to me if you need some help figuring this shitte out.

    Like

  47. Geologist Says:

    NIH Budget Cutter – well hell! I guess we all ought to just go DRINK BEER then!

    Like

  48. Grumble Says:

    “I, too, am in my mid-40s, and I am definitely more scientifically agile and fast than I have ever been in my career, and I am getting more agile and faster by the day.”

    AAAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA! You are deluded. Just because you bulldoze pedestrians out of your way doesn’t mean you’re agile. Maybe you should lay off the crystal meth?

    Like

  49. DrugMonkey Says:

    I don’t know about “agile” but this stage of my career certainly exhibits a good deal more scientific flexibility than I enjoyed earlier. Comes along with more resources, mostly.

    Like

  50. coldhot3 Says:

    @Grumble

    Well, at least we might get some good beer out of it. I’m thinking that maybe opening a microbrewery would be a good alternative career.


    I remembered one Chinese bioengineering dept. decided to buy a beer production line in house to train PhDs for alt careers. And students are delaying graduation just to learn how to make beers before hitting job markets.

    Like

  51. Alex Says:

    Is this bioengineering department teaching them how too engineer special yeast strains or something? Or is it teaching them how to set up a microbrew? The first leads to a career in a lab, the second leads to a career in a storefront restaurant. (The second might actually lead to more money if it works out successfully. 9 out of 10 small businesses fail, but self-employment is pretty lucrative for the 10th.)

    Like


  52. Awesome! Tremendously high quality position. I’m storing your post without delay. Kudos!

    Like


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