I wonder what happened to that lab?

April 29, 2013

Many years ago when I was a much younger scientist, reading through the literature was occasionally frustrating. I’d come across a lab working on some question of interest and wonder why they just…..stopped, almost before they got going. Often the authors in question never returned to the published literature and I would wonder what happened.

Later on, in a few cases I would run into them again…..maybe they went to Administration in their University, maybe became a NIH Program Officer, perhaps ended up in BigPharma or publishing. In other cases there was never much trace to explain what happened.

I think we can assume it was frequently grant money-related.

We’re facing another round of the phenomenon, I sense. The current economic climate for biomedical research scientists is very grim. You know this. News of 5%ile paylines posted by at least one NIH Institute is gripping. In the bad way.

The rumble of labs closed due to loss of grant support is swelling. No longer a FOAF, either, but someone you know. The degrees of separation will shrink. People will be lost from science.

This means that future bright eyed graduate students or postdocs will read and wonder.

“What happened to that lab”, they will ponder, “the papers were leading somewhere cool but they just stopped”.

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25 Responses to “I wonder what happened to that lab?”

  1. The Other Dave Says:

    I agree that funding gaps stop progress. I’ve watched loads of great projects die in my own lab for precisely that reason.

    But overall, I think the withered scientific fruit phenomenon is more an American cultural thing. Everyone in U.S. science is by default ‘in the pipeline’ leading from grad school to P.I. And everyone in that pipeline at least at some point needs to be seen as independent in order to continue and ultimately forge a successful career. Originality is valued over consistent progress. Every grad student needs his/her own project, every postdoc needs his/her own project, every new lab needs its own niche. And everyone is rewarded for hopping on the latest bandwagon. The scientific ‘failures’ (lab managers, journal editors, patent consultants, etc) are the people who were not original enough, although they are very likely just as smart and capable as anyone else. It’s weird. What other workforce do we train with the assumption that everyone trained should start his/her own business?

    Because serial scientific entrepreneurship is so American, I don’t see the withered scientific fruit phenomenon so much in other leading scientific countries. There, the funding tends to be lower but more stable, and institutions often have a permanent technical class helping everyone out — sort of like an army of great techs or postdocs, but who don’t need or want to quit in a few years to start their own lab. This all leads to stability, with rewards for following things through.

    Science is all about mining knowledge. Foreign scientists pick away steadily over decades, mastering their art and digging to the end of every vein. When a German scientist tells you a negative result, he’s probably right about the absence of something. U.S. scientists get bored if they don’t see gold glittering in the first shovelful. They cover a lot of territory, but rarely dig deep. When an American scientist tells you a negative result, it means he probably didn’t do the experiment.

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  2. bsci Says:

    Talking about people who leave academia as “lost from science” is not cool. There are a lot of people doing clear scientific work in companies and other places. Obviously, some people who leave academic research, leave science completely, but it’s hard to say how many, why they left, and who gets to decide which careers are or are not science. This also isn’t to deny the sadness of seeing an exciting research direction cut short due to lack of funding or other reasons, but that point could be made without denigrating the career paths of the people who did that work.

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  3. DrugMonkey Says:

    I’m not sure why you see that as denigrating. Certainly I meant this in the context of an interesting research direction cut off prematurely. Of course many of them continue to be highly productive and very influential in their subsequent roles, after all, they were independent scientists at one point. But their research threads are undoubtedly lost…..until some fool picks them up again, that is.

    I should also point out that for a very long time now I have understood that the expected value is that I join these people. As the paylines sneak ever downward, year after year, this reality looms ever greater. I am not one that assumes for one second that I am immune from grant-related squelching of my research threads.

    At best, I falsely comfort myself for a few minutes that I’ve made decisions that help to improve my odds slightly. That is, relative to a couple of highly pertinent examples of scientists I once followed and was dismayed to see throw in the towel.

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  4. Dave Says:

    Another postdoc firing at my place yesterday which was caused by funding issues. It’s sad to see friends of mine just being kicked out as if they were nothing. Not all of them are great, but some of them truly are and it’s a tragic waste. I’m 100% certain that many of them will now go on to other careers where their talents will be welcomed. Still, nice to know we have secretaries around when we need them, hey? Oh, and at least their flights out of town will be on time.

    At 5% paylines, everyone will be affected DM. There are no grantsmanship tricks, writing styles, referencing styles, preliminary data or publications that can save any of us from feeling the pinch of 5% paylines.

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  5. Ronald Auktepus Says:

    DM, I think the comment was directed at “The Other Dave” who wrote an extremely ill-informed and mean spirited post.

    1) “Everyone in U.S. science is by default ‘in the pipeline’ leading from grad school to P.I.”
    Wow, I had no idea you were omnipotent and knew the life and career plan of everyone in the US. How can you make such a claim? Right now there are hundreds of Ph.D. students who have no intention of becoming P.I’s. There are people who want careers in biotech startups, teaching at liberal arts colleges or working in science policy. What a sweeping generalization.

    2) “Originality is valued over consistent progress”
    This is absolutely not true. Have you ever sat on a study section of a funding organization? Originality is by no means the main factor that contributes to success of a grant. Productivity, feasibility and priority are the major deciding factors.

    3) “The scientific ‘failures’ (lab managers, journal editors, patent consultants, etc) are the people who were not original enough).”
    Scientific failures? Aren’t these your peers and co-workers? Nice of you to denigrate some of the people that help make research work.

    I’m not sure how you formed these opinions but they are quite absurd. Science is a vast enterprise that requires people in different roles working towards a common goal. I forgive your incredible naivety, it’s career stage dependent.

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  6. zb Says:

    “But their research threads are undoubtedly lost…..until some fool picks them up again, that is. ”

    This is the nature of the free enterprise system, a feature, I think, not a bug, in the way the theory behind the system of grants review and grant awards. The lament is not different from worrying about the number of small business that fail. In a free enterprise system, some are supposed to fail, and replacements step in.

    Career-wise, it’s a disaster, and makes it questionable to invest 14+ years in developing narrow and specific expertise. But, I’d argue that the backstop was supposed to be the tenure track position, with its stabilizing force.

    I was recently looking at the list of Howard Hughes Investigator alumni. An interesting list, and one that shows that Hughes churning (though not at the 5% payline).

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  7. Ola Says:

    Not that it matters in the current fiscal climate, but a relatively common form of attrition of names from the literature is female grad’ students or post-doc’s getting married and taking their husband’s last names. Some keep their maiden names to maintain consistency on PubMed, but not all.

    The scary thing for middle-rank schools, is on top of the attrition at the bottom, the funded folks are all jumping ship to the places that still have endowments (and can this afford startup packages). This attrition at the top is in some ways more damaging for those left in the middle, because the sugar daddies and mommas with all the nice equipment toys are leaving.

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  8. Mike Says:

    Ronald Auktepus, being condescending and insulting is not a good way to go about accusing other people of being condescending and insulting.

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  9. bsci Says:

    DM, I know you get the issues of non-academic careers, but, as an academic, that probably still seems like a normative path to you and saying “people will be lost from science” represents that career path assumption to me. My choice of “denigrating” was too extreme a word.

    @zb, I think the difference between what’s being discussed here and the ideal process of the best research winning grants and the others ending is that scientific institutional memory is important. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard someone say “X did something a while back that was great research, but applicable then. It is now highly relevant to what you’re doing now.” If X and the people who knew X all leave research, that connection is lost. Research is lost. Literature searches sometimes bring these papers up, but the most important connections don’t often come up with obvious search terms.

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  10. zb Says:

    “If X and the people who knew X all leave research, that connection is lost. Research is lost. Literature searches sometimes bring these papers up, but the most important connections don’t often come up with obvious search terms.”

    Yes, but that happens at a startup, too. When you start from the premise that resources are limited, the question is how much value do you get from the churning of new ideas, new entrants v stability of programs. It’s the same principle, and, science, at least, is supposed to have the publication record independent of the lab/person to archive that science (though I know you are right that a lot of research gets forgotten if there isn’t a person to remember it).

    I think the problem isn’t the loss/renewal, but the realistic probability that at 5% paylines, the possibility that the churning is purely random, and basically unrelated to merit. If 20% of the labs are being eliminated/replaced over 10-20 year time scales (I didn’t look at the stats, but I’m guessing Hughes is somewhere in that range, and, of course, in their case, the renewal doesn’t result in the science being eliminated, merely no longer Hughes funded), there’s more rational for the better ideas having won out our less strong programs. If 95% of the labs (and that’s an overstatement) were being replaced, it’s hard to see how the new entries could be more important than the stability being lost.

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  11. anonymous postdoc Says:

    TOD: I would argue that the substantial downside to the funding model of several of these other countries you mention (UK and Netherlands, at least, I hear the situation in Germany is even weirder for the junior scientist) is the lack of independence available for someone who is essentially an assistant professor level PI. Funding is more stable because one BSD in charge of the “Research Programme in Bunny Hoppingge” actually has a much heavier hand in the scientific futures of people who would be independent PIs in their own right in the US, eg is on every publication by virtue of their position, without other contribution. This limits the international recognition of the junior scientist, and I guess my American soul chafes at that thought. But I know British and Dutch souls who also chafe at this a bit.

    The thing I can’t decide is whether this is better or worse than the under-the-table BSD influence on assistant professors I have seen in the US.

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  12. Dave Says:

    But at what price does this prized independence come AP? Do you really want to be an Assis Prof completely isolated and on your own with no real protection from a BSD and little hope of maintaining grant support sufficient to cover your salary? Or do you want to continue to be provided some level of stability/support, work on a few collaborative projects here and there, take salary from multiple sources, and dish out a few authorship credits? At the end of the day, if I can continue to do my own research, what fucking difference does it really make? If the BSDs do it properly, they can have a bunch of hungry junior faculty producing some pretty decent research that fits nicely into his/her program but still gives the scientist freedom/independence.

    Things are changing. The old way isn’t necessarily the only way to carve out an academic research career. Independence is not always as it seems on an author list. It is now much more complex than that.

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  13. gri Says:

    @ The other Dave
    What about German scientists in the US…?

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  14. The Other Dave Says:

    @Ronald; Sorry, I didn’t intend to come across as mean-spirited or denigrating. My point (apparently badly made) was that lack of funding might not be the only reason that research in some area ends. People might CHOOSE to go shallow rather than deep. In the U.S. I think this might even be encouraged.

    You might disagree with me on that last point. Fair enough. But remember that NIH review criteria explicitly includes ‘significance’ and ‘impact’. There is nothing, except maybe buried in ‘investigator’ for a record of progress. You are only as good as your last couple papers and idea. Even NSF is explicitly looking for ‘transformative’ stuff.

    I think that funding agencies and most graduate programs ARE premised on the assumption that ‘successful’ trainees will someday be PIs. i didn’t say I agreed with that. The happiest and smartest colleagues I know dropped out of the academic research pipeline to work in biotech or non-research jobs. I love my job, but I sometimes envy them.

    Is it better to work in Europe? I don’t know. I think it depends on the person.

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  15. iGrrrl Says:

    Other Dave said, “There is nothing, except maybe buried in ‘investigator’ for a record of progress.”

    Blogger Potnia Theron posted earlier this month on Feasibility and Credibility – undocumented criteria in grant reviews. You argue that “You are only as good as your last couple papers and idea.” That’s not enough. Why invest scarce grant dollars in someone who has a great idea, but no track record of being able to carry that idea to fruition? That’s more than just the last couple of papers.

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  16. Potnia Theron Says:

    Thanks for making a good (ie. mine) point. When you say:

    “But remember that NIH review criteria explicitly includes ‘significance’ and ‘impact’. There is nothing, except maybe buried in ‘investigator’ for a record of progress. You are only as good as your last couple papers and idea. ”

    This is just no true in my study section experience. First of all, the long argued point about “the Olde Boyz Netwerk” is that in fact what you did do, even if it was years ago, is still considered at study section may have some truth (am I really saying this??? – oh the betrayal of my generation). The investigator stuff is not buried. If you are young and new, there is inevitably discussion (if there is discussion) about whether this person can do what they say. Over and over I have heard the words “what is the promise of this person?”. It is NOT just the new & shiny ideas. Most of the mid-career proposals I read have citations (of theirs, in the Biosketch) that are not in the last 2-3 years – but dip back into the past to show 1) the roots of the idea 2) the skills and 3) where this work fits in a bigger context.

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  17. dsks Says:

    “”But their research threads are undoubtedly lost…..until some fool picks them up again, that is. “”

    Something the NIH really needs to think about given the likelihood of a spate of lab closures is how to retain unpublished data. And by “retain” I don’t mean simply demanding the stored data be preserved. Due to the lack of any standardization in re data storage, it is usually necessary for the PI and team who produced the data to be present to explain the method of storage and how it is archived (the NSF is at least a bit better about this in terms of actually demanding a thorough explanation of data archival, even if it doesn’t set any common standards to follow). There also has to be a means by which other labs can access that data, or at the very least have access to the knowledge that it actually exists at all.

    Of course, embracing LPU culture would go some way towards nullifying such a concern. There could also be a clause introduced that allows the NIH to publish grant proposals, funded or otherwise, to a publicly-accessible database after a certain grace period (say 5-6 yrs or so).

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  18. Cashmoney Says:

    Fewer of them, more grant money for me. What’s the problem?

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  19. The Iron Chemist Says:

    The problem is that it’s likely that you’ll be one of “them” sooner rather than later. I do, however, admire your optimism Cashmonkey.

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  20. Cashmoney Says:

    Teach, forgo summer salary, wait five years and bingo- open field of play once the soft money folks are bankrupted out. Not like the Dean has anyone to take the empty lab space in the mean time..

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  21. Alex Says:

    Teaching as a survival strategy? I suspect we’re all about to be put out on the street by Coursera, Udacity, EdX, Pearson, etc. It will take them longer to colonize the upper-level classes than the freshman stuff, but they’ll colonize those classes too, eventually.

    Undergraduate education will eventually be something that kids do from the sofa with an iPad, except for the richest ones. Grad school will then shrink without TA positions to subsidize a portion of the grad programs. This is less relevant to biomedical science than other areas of STEM, but still.

    Will the last person to leave the academy remember to flip the light switch? The campus President cares deeply about Sustainability Initiatives.

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  22. The Iron Chemist Says:

    Cashmonkey, that’s certainly an interesting strategy in theory, but from what I’ve seen at multiple institutions, once you’re off the proverbial horse, you’re off the horse for good. When things get really lean over here, I suppose that I’ll write a review article or two to limit any gaps in my publication record.

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  23. Cashmoney Says:

    That seems a wise option The Feral Chemist

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  24. dsks Says:

    I agree with Alex, there’s going to be some major changes in teaching over the next 20 yrs and it is certainly going to involve a serious reduction in teacher positions in what is a bloated higher ed system.

    As it is, I work at a 50%-50% teaching-research institution, and one of the main reasons we attract students is by emphasizing the fact that the faculty are still all active in research and that undergrads get to play a significant role in that research. If that research dries up through slimming down of AREA grants and even greater competition for NSF, we’ll be just one more expensive teaching college in a very large pool of the same.

    As it is, I think the days of 4 yrs degrees are numbered. It’s unnecessarily long and requires increasingly cash-strapped student families to pony up thousands for classes that have little relevance to the student’s career goals (spare me the “broadening minds” bullshit; read a fucking newspaper and get an intellectual hobby). The current economic crisis is going to put severe pressure on reducing costs and streamlining education. You see the rumblings of this thinking in medicine, where the talk of cutting down med school time in addition to increasing the role of PAs with 2 yr masters degrees.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think there are many things that make a stint at university superior to any IPad-tastic academic lernin’ the students of the future is likely get. A lot of these kids are as dumb as a box of rocks when it comes to really basic shit like financial organisation and applying for jobs (A sophomore just asked me what a CV was). A lot of important soft skills are acquired on campus, in addition to work experience, that help outfit these kids for the workforce. It’s just that I can’t see universities surviving on providing this service alone. Unless, as Alex says, they happen to be the hangouts of the supremely wealthy. And if there’s a market for this sort of thing, you can bet your ass small, streamlined for-profit (and probably not-for-profit for that matter) elements will continue to encroach into this area, pushing costs and prices down to a point that simply will not be able to sustain the salaries and maintenance of full blown university campuses.

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  25. The Iron Chemist Says:

    Sorry about that Cashmoney! I guess I’ve just got monkeys on the brain.

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